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Twenty One (game show): Wikis


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Twenty One
Format Quiz Show
Created by Jack Barry
Dan Enright
Robert Noah
Presented by Jack Barry (1956-1958)
Monty Hall (Summer 1958)
Jim Lange (1982 Pilot)
Maury Povich (2000)
Country of origin  United States
Running time approx. 22-26 minutes (1956-1958, 1982 Pilot)
approx. 44 minutes (2000)
Production company(s) Jack Barry-Dan Enright Productions (1956-1958; 1982)
The Fred Silverman Company (2000)
The Gurin Company (2000)
Original channel NBC
Original run September 12, 1956 – October 16, 1958;
January 9 - May 28, 2000
Twenty One host Jack Barry (center), with contestants Vivienne Nearing and Charles Van Doren.

Twenty One is an American game show that aired in the late 1950s. While it included the most popular contestant of the quiz show era, it achieved notoriety for being a rigged quiz show which nearly caused the demise of the entire genre in the wake of United States Senate investigations. The 1994 movie Quiz Show is based on these events.

In 1982, a pilot for a new version of the game (titled 21) was taped with Jim Lange hosting, but was not picked up. A new version aired in 2000 with Maury Povich hosting, lasting about five months on NBC.


Game play

Two contestants, a champion and an opponent, were both placed in separate isolation booths, arranged so they could not see or hear each other. In addition, the players wore headphones; and because of the way the lights were designed and positioned in the television studio, neither contestant could see the audience. With the champion's booth and headphones turned off, the host revealed the category for that round of questions and asked the challenger to pick a point value to play for, from one point, which meant a relatively easy question, to eleven points, which meant the highest difficulty. A correct answer added those points to the player's score, while an incorrect one deducted them; though scores could not go lower than zero. After the question, the challenger's booth and headphones are turned off and the champion is given the same category and choice of questions.

The object of the game was to score a total of 21 points, or to come closer to that number than their opponent. After two categories were played both booths were opened up and both players were given the option to stop the game, without knowing what the opponent's score was. If one of the players wanted to stop the game, whoever was ahead was declared the winner. The champion always went last and if the challenger had reached 21 before they did, they were given one last chance to try and tie the game. The challenger's booth, in this case, would be left on so they could follow what the champion decided.

The difference in scores determined a champion's winnings: for each point separating the contestants, the champion won $500 (e.g., a champion who won 21-17 would win $2,000); the $500 figure increased by $500 each time the players went to a 21-21 tie. After each win, the champion was told a little bit about his or her next opponent and given the option to walk away. The decision whether or not to play on was crucial, as if the champion elected to play on and lost the new champion's total winnings would be taken out of their final total. (for instance, if a champion had $7,000 going into a game, was defeated, and the player who defeated him or her won $1,500, the defeated champion's final total would be reduced to $5,500). The highest possible prize was $10,500 which would increase by that amount for every tie game.


1982 pilot

Contestants played up to five rounds, choosing a point value from 1 to 9, with the option to stop the game after the second and fourth rounds. The questions were frequently short-answer in format; however, nine-point questions had two answers (similar to center-square questions on Tic-Tac-Dough). If neither player reached 21 before the end of the fifth round, the game was declared a draw.

Similar to the original Twenty One, a winning player received money multiplied by the difference between their score and their opponent's. The money started at $1,000 (double the original show's value, making the highest possible prize $21,000, increasing by that amount for every tie game) and increased by that much for each drawn game, and if a champion was defeated, the challenger's winnings would be taken out of their final total. Both players played each round to completion, with the champion going last. This could (and, in this pilot, did) affect how much a challenger could win from an outgoing champion, as a champion still played a final question if their opponent had reached 21 and could not be caught.

The winner was then given the opportunity to face a bonus game; like other B&E game shows, it was based largely on chance. The game was played between the champion and a "computer", and involved a large number generator controlled by a remote device. The object of the game was similar to blackjack, as the champion had to get as close to 21 without busting to win. The player elected before a number was selected (1 to 11) whether or not they wanted to keep the number or pass it to the computer, then hit a button on the remote to stop the number generator. The computer played according to Las Vegas blackjack rules, which required it to keep playing until it reached 17 or higher. A player either had to reach 21 or "bust" the computer to win, while all the computer was required to do to win was reach 17 or higher. Beating the computer won $2,000 and a prize package.

Contestants could stay on the show until defeated or they voluntarily left the game. This version never made it to air.


All questions were presented with multiple-choice responses which contained a varying number possible choices based on the point value of the question. Questions worth 1-6 points offered three choices; questions worth 7-10 points offered four choices and 11-point questions offered five. In addition, the 11-point questions always required the player to select two correct answers from the five possibilities.

Point values of incorrect answers were no longer deducted from a player's score. Instead, players earned a strike for each incorrect response and accumulating three strikes resulted in an automatic loss. This rule change meant that games could end without a winner, as the rounds again were played to completion and if one player had struck out on their turn and the second player had two strikes, they could also lose the game on an incorrect answer. A player, however, could not know how his/her opponent had done unless explicitly told by the host.[note 1].

Additionally, once per game a player could call for a "Second Chance", which would allow the player to receive help from a friend or family member prior to providing an answer to the question. The "Second Chance" involved more risk, as an incorrect answer accumulated two strikes.

Notes: If time ran out after at least two categories were played, the contestant with the most points won and advanced to the bonus round on the next episode. Also, in the first episode only, there was no option that either contestant could stop the game after two categories were played.


Losing challengers received $1,000 as a consolation prize. Rather than receiving a dollar value multiplied by the point difference after winning each game, champions received progressively larger amounts for each opponent defeated. Originally, the payoff structure was as follows:

Game number Prize
1 $100,000
2 $200,000
3 $300,000
4 $400,000

These amounts accumulated, so winning four games would be worth at least $1,000,000. After winning a fourth game, the player started the chain again at $100,000 for defeating a fifth opponent, $200,000 for defeating a sixth, and so on.

After a few early episodes, the background music and prize ladder changed to as follows:

Game number Prize
1 $25,000
2 $50,000
3 $100,000
4 $250,000
5 $500,000
6 $750,000
7 $1,000,000

These amounts accumulated, so winning seven games would be worth at least $2,675,000. As before, any player who defeated a seventh opponent started from the beginning of the chain.

When the rules changed, the returning champion had won one game and $100,000 in his appearance on the final show under the old prize structure. Instead of being "grandfathered" under the old prize structure, he played and won his second game for $250,000 (the next amount after $100,000), and played but lost his third game for $500,000.

Contestant selection

During the first six episodes, the audience chose the winner's next opponent. The audience would be presented with two potential challengers to face the current champion, and the audience would vote for an opponent using keypads. The person who received the higher vote played against the champion; the other person would be one of the two potential challengers to be voted on for the next game. In the first episode, there were three potential opponents to face the champion. After the sixth episode, the process was changed to a random selection. At the beginning of the show, six potential challengers would be introduced, and would be selected randomly from that group for each new game. People who had not been selected by the end of the show were not guaranteed to return on the following show, although some people did appear on the show multiple times before being selected to play.


Unlike the 1950s version, if the game ended in a tie, no new game was played. Instead, the contestants would be asked one question, and the first contestant to ring-in got to answer. If right, he or she won the game and would go on to play the bonus game (for more info, see below). If wrong, the opponent got a chance to answer, and if correct, he or she moved on, but if incorrect, a new tie-breaker question was played.

Perfect 21

This version also featured a new bonus round, "Perfect 21." The champion was given a category, and asked up to six true/false questions in that category, worth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 points consecutively. Each point was worth $10,000, for a total of $210,000. The player could stop and take any money won after each correct answer, as an incorrect answer ended the game and cost the player all money accumulated in the bonus round (main game winnings were never at stake).

Big winners

Under the first payoff schedule, Rahim Oberholtzer was the biggest winner, collecting $1,120,000 (at the time, the all-time game show winnings record) over four victories, three of which were due to the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule. David Legler won $1,765,000 over six wins with the new version. Tim Helms won $150,000 in one game of Perfect 21, the only person to answer five questions correctly.

Legler was the top winner of American game shows until Kevin Olmstead won a $2,180,000 jackpot on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in 2001, followed later by the record-setting effort of Ken Jennings, who won over $2.52 million on Jeopardy!, later eclipsed by Brad Rutter, with a total earnings of $3,255,102.

Broadcast history

Twenty One was originally conceived by host Jack Barry and producing partner Dan Enright as a weekly half-hour program for CBS' 1956-1957 schedule. The pilot produced for (and according to the credits, in association with) CBS can be viewed on YouTube. The show was ultimately picked up by NBC for the same season, and ran from September 10, 1956 to October 17, 1958, under the sponsorship of Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the makers of Geritol.

A pilot produced by Barry & Enright for five-a-week syndicated version was shot in 1982 but the show was not picked up. NBC revived the show in 2000 with Maury Povich as host, after ABC's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and FOX's Greed proved big-money game shows had once again become viable prime-time network fare. NBC aired first-run episodes for several months until the show was abruptly canceled. Several unaired episodes aired on PAX TV in the summer of 2000.



The initial broadcast of Twenty One was played honestly, with no manipulation of the game by the producers. Unfortunately, that broadcast was, in the words of producer Dan Enright, "a dismal failure"; the first two contestants succeeded only in making a mockery of the format by how little they really knew. Show sponsor Geritol, upon seeing this opening-night performance, reportedly became furious with the results, and threatened to pull their sponsorship of the show if it happened again.

The end result: Twenty One was not merely "fixed", it was almost totally choreographed. Contestants were cast almost as if they were actors, and in fact were active and (usually) willing partners in the deception. They were given instruction as to how to dress, what to say to the host, when to say it, what questions to answer, what questions to miss, even when to mop their brows in their isolation booths (which had air conditioning that could be cut off at will, to make them sweat more).

Charles Van Doren

Charles Van Doren, a college professor, was introduced as a contestant on Twenty One on November 28, 1956, as a challenger to the dominant, if somewhat unpopular with viewers, champion Herbert Stempel. Van Doren and Stempel ultimately played to a series of four 21-21 games, with audience interest building with each passing week and each new game, until finally the clean-cut, "All American Boy" newcomer was able to outlast his bookish, quasi-intellectual opponent, who at one point after the game was referred to backstage as a "freak with a sponge memory". The turning point came on a question directed to Stempel: "What film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955?" Stempel legitimately knew the answer to that question (Marty, one of Stempel's favorite movies), but had been specifically ordered by the producers to miss it. As Stempel later recalled, there was a moment in the booth when his conscience and sense of fair play warred with his sense of obligation; he almost answered it correctly, something that would have thrown the scripted outcome of the game into total disarray. In the event, however, he finally gave the incorrect answer (On the Waterfront) he had been ordered to give, which opened the door for Van Doren to win the game and begin one of the longest and most storied runs of any champion in the history of television game shows.

Van Doren's popularity took off as a result of his success on Twenty One, earning him a place on the cover of Time magazine and even a regular feature spot on NBC's Today show; at one point, the program even surpassed CBS' I Love Lucy in the ratings. He was finally unseated as champion on March 11, 1957, by a woman, Vivienne Nearing, after winning a total of $129,000.

Stempel, meanwhile, still somewhat upset over the fact he was ordered to "take a dive," attempted to blow the whistle on what exactly was going on behind the scenes at Twenty One, even going so far as to have a federal investigator look into the show. Nothing much came of these investigations until August 15, 1958, when a relatively minor CBS game show, Dotto, was abruptly canceled after a notebook containing the answers to every question on that show turned up in the possession of its champion. Suddenly, Stempel's allegations began to make more sense. Still, the public at large didn't seem to want to believe it was true until Van Doren, under oath before a House hearing, confessed to being given the answers to all of his questions before each show.

Twenty One was canceled without warning after its broadcast of October 17, 1958. A nighttime version of Concentration took over its time slot the following week. The scandal forced producers Barry and Enright into virtual exile. Barry would not host another national TV show for more than a decade, and Enright moved to Canada to continue his production career.


The scandal also caused the Federal Communications Commission to mandate the sale of Barry-Enright's radio station in Hollywood, Florida, WGMA. The station was purchased by its general manager, C. Edward Little, who promptly affiliated the station with the Mutual Broadcasting System. After serving for a time as the head of Mutual's affiliates association, Little became the president of Mutual from 1972-1979. During this time Little created the Mutual Black Network, the first U.S. broadcast network catering exclusively to African-Americans, in addition to the Mutual Spanish Network and the Mutual Southwest Network. Under Little's administration, Mutual became the first commercial broadcasting entity to use satellite technology for program delivery.

During his tenure as head of Mutual, Little hired Larry King to host an all-night phone-in talk show Little had created. King was a one-time announcer for Little at WGMA. King, who had previously hosted a similar morning show on Miami radio station WIOD, went on to national fame on both radio and television, winning a coveted Peabody Award along the way. King, therefore, indirectly owes a portion of his success to the quiz-show scandals.

Barry finally returned to game-show hosting in the early 1970s and became a success again as a producer-host with The Joker's Wild, which ran on CBS from 1972-1975 and in syndication from 1977-1986 (Barry died in June 1984 and was replaced by Bill Cullen for the final two years). Enright would work as Joker's executive producer in the final year on CBS, and the two revived their partnership full-time in 1976, reviving Tic-Tac-Dough which also ran until 1986.


A second attempt actually made it to air when NBC, in the wake of the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, revived the tainted quiz show on January 9, 2000. The new version was produced by Phil Gurin and Fred Silverman. The rules of this version, hosted by Maury Povich (and announced by John Cramer), were somewhat different from those of the 1950s version.

International versions

Twenty-One is one of only three Barry-Enright game shows known to have foreign adaptations, the others being Tic-Tac-Dough and Concentration.

United Kingdom

A version produced by Granada Television for ITV aired in 1958 with Chris Howland as host, but like the American version was pulled off the network due to the quiz show scandals. This was especially so when contestant Stanley Armstrong stated that he had been given "definite leads" to the answers.

It was notable for giving away bigger cash prizes than would have been allowed on British TV between the imposition of a prize limit by the Independent Television Authority (itself a direct response to the alleged corruption of the game show genre) and the lifting of the prize limit by the Independent Television Commission in the 1990s.


In 1968, the Nine Network aired their own version, called Big Nine. The show was hosted by Athol Guy.


Hätten Sie's gewusst? was aired by public broadcaster ARD from 1958-1969, hosted by Hans (Heinz) Maegerlein. This is the longest-running known version of Twenty One in the world.

Later, a version on RTL aired during the Summer from 2000-2002, hosted by Hans Meiser. This version, called Einundzwanzig (literally, "Twenty One"), had a format similar to the 2000 version.


Vingt-et-un (literally, "Twenty-One") aired from September 2004 to May 2005 on the TVA network (based in Quebec and available across Canada). The program was 30 minutes long, and each game consisted of three rounds of questions, as opposed to five on the recent NBC version. The questions were still worth from one to 11 points, but all point values consisted of four choices. The prize money builds: $250, $500, $1,500, $3,500, $5,500, $12,500, and $20,000 more for a seventh win, all in Canadian dollars. Perfect 21 was played for up to $2,100. The host was Guy Mongrain, a popular Quebec television personality.

The top winner on this version was Simon Dufour-Turbis with $49,700 in seven victories, while Pierre Diotte came close with $48,700 in his seven victories. Olivier Lamoureux won $47,200 in ten victories, the most on the Canadian version.


Vinte e Um began airing in 2007 as a local Sunday program on SBT with Silvio Santos as host. Although the music and set are virtually identical to those used on the US version in 2000, the game format is somewhat different.

Instead of the contestant choosing a point value for each question, the contestant instead spins a small roulette wheel in the booth to randomly determine the point value of the question, which contains point values from three to six (more than likely, if the contestant spun a point value that would potentially put them over 21, they would have to spin again until it hit a point value that put them at less than or equal to 21). Each question has four possible answers. The winner of the main game wins R$20,000. The player can win up to R$100,000 more in the bonus round, but the main game winnings are also at risk. The loser gets a R$100 consolation prize.

Episode status

At least six episodes of the 1956-1958 version exist among traders, including the pilot, with another 32 held by the Library of Congress. The episode on which Van Doren defeated Stempel was released as part of a retail home video compilation featuring other episodes of game shows.

The 2000 version is intact and has been rerun on Game Show Network.


  1. ^ A mistake occurred during an early episode wherein Povich informed the second player that his opponent had lost and that all he had to do now was answer a single question to win the game. The player promptly requested and successfully answered a 1-point question (the easiest question possible), accompanied by the applause of the audience and a clear expression of chagrin and horror on Povich's face as he realized the mistake he had made (as he was not supposed to say anything until after the question choice was made). Immediately after a commercial break, Povich acknowledged his mistake in revealing to the player that his opponent had already lost, but explained that the only effect had been essentially to give a "gift" to that player since his opponent had already lost the game and was not affected by the mistake.


External links


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