Monday, November 1, 2010

Chester Cheetah costs me $25,000 on the Game Show Network

By Barry Dutter

I love playing blackjack and I also enjoy appearing on TV game shows, so when GSN (formerly the Game Show network) introduced a new show in the summer of 2008 based on the popular casino game, it seemed like a natural idea for me to try out as a contestant. It was called Catch 21, and it was hosted by Alfonso Riberio, aka Carlton from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
I consider myself something of an expert in the game of blackjack (meaning I lose most of my money when I play, but not all of it!) so this seemed right up my alley.
The casting director for Catch 21 was a nice old Jewish lady named Beverly. She had previously cast me on a show called The Singing Bee when it was on NBC. She likes me and she always remembers who I am, but her memory of specific details is not very good. She always thinks I did well on the shows she casts me on even when I did poorly or didn‘t get to play at all.
When I tried out for Catch 21, she came over and gave me a hug and said, “I remember you. You did great on The Singing Bee!” Did great? If she called spending 14 hours sitting in the audience waiting to play, and going home at the end of that long day without having had the chance to play at all “doing great,” then I came through with flying colors.
The reality was, even though I made it into the contestant pool for The Singing Bee, I never got to be on the show. Some game shows book extra contestants, so that if one of the other contestants gets sick or has a family emergency, they have a back-up.
Problem is, a lot of those shows don’t tell you that you are a back-up contestant. So you spend the whole day waiting for your chance to compete for big money, and it never comes. This is a despicable practice that wastes a whole day of your life for no pay and no reward whatsoever.
I reminded Beverly that I had never gotten to play on The Singing Bee. She said that she would try to make up for it this time.
Beverly was true to her word: about a week after trying out for Catch 21, I was chosen as a contestant -- a real contestant this time, not one of those who hangs out in the Green Room waiting to be called.
On the day of the show, I met my competition: a middle-aged housewife named Carol and a young New York newlywed named Patricio.
Patricio had not tried out for the show in the traditional way -- he was actually in New York when he got picked. He won a raffle at the mall, and the grand prize was an all-expenses paid trip to L.A. for the chance to be on a TV game show and possibly win $25,000.
The way I figured it, Patricio had not really tried out for the show -- he did not have to pass the written test, the way Carol and I did -- so there was a chance he might not even be any good at trivia. In my mind, this meant he might not be any competition at all. Besides, winning the trip to L.A. was like winning a prize already for Patricio, so he didn’t really need to win on the show.
Carol, on the other hand, was another matter. She was a game show veteran who had won on another game show in the past. She would be a tough one to beat. I saw her as my main competition.
She was a very nice lady, but I wasn’t there to make friends. I hadn’t won any money on a game show for a long time, so I figured I was due. And I would have to dominate Carol and Patricio to do it.
The first round began, and it seemed like I had a good chance to make my long-awaited return to winning money. Things were going pretty much as I expected, with Carol and I trading off on correct answers and poor Patricio being left in the dust. He really did not seem like he was cut out to be a contestant on a game show. He barely even buzzed in. It was like he was a spectator, watching Carol and I play against each other. The poor guy really seemed out of his element. And he was up against a couple of pros!
Whoever won the first three rounds would get $5,000, with the chance to play for another $25,000 in the final round. Things were going so well in Round One, it felt like at the very least that $5,000 prize was a lock for me. It seemed like this would be my third $5,000 win, after Wheel of Fortune and Stump the Booey.
Toward the end of round one, we were asked a question about gardening. I don’t know anything about gardening, so Carol smoked me on that one. The next question was about cooking. I know even less about cooking than I do about gardening. I got blasted again.
This left Carol as the winner of Round One. Then it came down to me vs. Patricio. The winner Round two would go on to face Carol in Round Three, for the chance to go on to the Final Round and win the Big Money.
Before the round started, Beverly the Casting Lady came over to me for a private chat. Making sure nobody else could hear her, she said to me, “You’d better get your act together and start winning.” “I know,” I replied. For some reason, Beverly really did not want Carol to win. I got the impression she did not like Carol very much, which made me wonder why she had cast her in the first place.
I wasn’t too worried about Round Two. I would be playing Patricio, which seemed like it would be a walk in the park.
The round began, and I was in Master Blaster mode. I answered every question correctly, before poor Patricio even had a chance to open his mouth. The way Catch 21 worked was that you were playing blackjack at the same time you were answering trivia questions. A sexy card-turning girl named Micki would turn over a card. If you got the question right, you had the choice of keeping the card or forcing your opponent to take it.
The goal was to be the first player to reach 21 without going over. If you made your opponent bust, then he was out of the game and you would move on to the next round.
I was beating Patricio badly. My cards put me well on the way to 21, and I was also sticking him with bad cards so I could make him bust. I pretty much had total control over the game.
And then they asked me a question that I did not know the answer to. Before I tell you what the question was, I need to give you some back story. I don’t watch commercials on TV. I always fast-forward through them or change the channel.
Because I don’t watch commercials, I’m not really up on all the latest products being sold on TV.
So when Alfonso Riberio asked the name of a popular product that combined a blanket and a sweater, I could not come up with an answer right away. I had heard of the product -- you can’t watch TV and not have at least a vague awareness of it -- but I could not recall the exact name.
Alfonso gave us four multiple choice answers: A) Smuggies B) Snuggies C) Smuglies and D) Shuggies. For the first time, I hesitated. Even though he didn’t know the answer, Patricio buzzed in and gave the first answer that came into his head.
“A: Smuggies,” he said. “I’m sorry, but that’s wrong,” the host replied. Then it was my turn to answer. I still didn’t know what the answer was. My only concern at that point: I didn’t want to accidentally repeat the answer that my opponent had just given. But what did he say? Did he say “Smuggies” or “Snuggies?”
I wasn’t entirely sure. A thought occurred to me: maybe I could get them to stop tape and repeat the question. But how? I figured I would ask them what my opponent’s answer had been. “What did he say?” I asked.
No one answered. The clock was ticking. “We need an answer,” the host said.
I was so worried about looking stupid and possibly repeating my opponent’s answer, so I hesitated and said nothing. A buzzer sounded. My time was up.
“The answer was Snuggies,” the host said. At that point, the tide turned. My opponent had just found out that if he buzzed in fast enough, he had a chance to shout out any of the multiple choice answers and have a shot at beating me.
At this point, my cards totaled 15. Patricio’s cards, all of them given to him by me, totaled 16. The next card was turned over. It was a 10. Whoever got the next question right could pass that card on to his opponent and bust him out of the game.
Alfonso asked the next question: “Chester Cheetah is the spokesman for which snack? A) Fritos B) Tostitos C) Doritos D) Cheetos. This was an easy one. I may not watch a lot of commercials, but I am very familiar with the iconic characters like Chester Cheetah. If the truth be known, went through a hardcore Cheetos phase back in college.
My fingers were colored orange for most of the years 1997-2001.
So this was a piece of cake for me. All I had to do was read down the list of choices, starting at the top of the list and working my way down.
And so I read the first one -- Fritos -- I knew that wasn’t right. I read the second one: Tostitos. That was obviously wrong. Then I read the third one: Doritos. Again, that was obviously…
And then something happened that I never would have anticipated.
Before I could even finish reading all the choices, Patricio buzzed in.
“D: Cheetos,” he said.
That was the correct answer. He must have started at the bottom of the list and read his way up. He slapped that “10” card on top of my “15” and just like that, my game was over. It happened so fast, I couldn’t believe what had just happened.
Patricio, the game show novice, who hadn’t answered one question correctly the entire game, had just gone on to beat me, a veteran of at least a dozen game shows.
This was the biggest upset since Rocky Balboa came from out of nowhere and went toe-to-toe against Apollo Creed.
I couldn’t believe I lost because of Chester Cheetah. I mean, I knew the answer! That was an easy one! That was like asking who Ronald McDonald was. Everyone knows who Chester Cheetah is!
Patricio has gotten so many answers wrong during the show. There were so many categories he was weak in. Who would have guessed that his best category was “Snack Foods?”
I was led to a seat in the audience for a chance to watch the rest of the show. All I could think of was that the audience-members were being paid $8.00 an hour to sit there -- and I was going home with nothing.
Patricio went up against Carol in the Third Round, and he didn’t stand a chance. She took him out pretty quickly. They didn’t ask any more snack food questions, so he was dead in the water.
By winning Round Three, Carol was guaranteed a $5,000 prize, which is usually about as high as GSN is willing to go. She then had a shot to win $25,000 in the Final Round, but she did not succeed. Still, she did walk with a cool 5 G’s.
Carol, told me afterward that she genuinely felt bad that I had lost. She invited me out to lunch, but I politely declined. (She was a married lady, after all.)
My experience on Catch 21 was a valuable lesson in hubris for me. I felt like the hero of the Greek legend, Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and came crashing down to Earth. I learned not to be so cocky, and to remember that you have to win all three rounds before going on to the final one. I also learned not to count that prize money till you have it in your hand.
My friends always ask me why I act so cheesy on game shows. I tell them that all the contestants are encouraged to be high-energy, lose and goofy. I’ve been doing it so long, it comes naturally to me.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that, contrary to what Chester Cheetah says, it is easy being cheesy.
You know what’s not easy? Winning $25,000 on a TV game show.

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