The $100,000 Pyramid: how to play and win
It’s an open secret that my favorite game show is not Jeopardy! – it’s Pyramid. The format requires not only a wealth of knowledge and quick wits, but also the ability to anticipate and understand a total stranger’s thought processes. (Dick Clark’s presence certainly added a lot to the game, too.)
I was rather excited, therefore, at the prospect of playing in the forthcoming reboot, to be hosted by Michael Strahan. I submitted a time-consuming application: 40 personal questions and a two-minute video.
I have yet to hear back, and taping begins tomorrow. Wahn wahn.
As a journalist, I’m used to this behavior from editors. I’m sure the casting team was likely overwhelmed with applicants, and probably more than a handful of white male writers from Brooklyn. That doesn’t make the radio silence any less unprofessional, or make me any less disappointed.
Rather than send an expletive-filled rant to the generic Pyramid casting email address, I’m going to share some tips on how to play the game. Maybe by doing so, I’ll increase the chances this production will get bled dry. (Whatever – I’m pinning my future game-show hopes on Millionaire.)
Anyway, please enjoy this brain dump of nearly three decades of nerdy obsession.
A couple of notes before we begin:
Note 1: I’m going to skip over the basics, as this is intended for people who know the show fairly well. If you don’t, there are plenty of Dick Clark-era episodes available on YouTube.
Note 2: in this post I use the term “prompt” for the correct answer, and “clue” for whatever the clue-giver says to her partner. I will write example clues in underlined italics.
Here, “things seen at a nudist camp” is the prompt, and tent poles might be a clue.
Note 3: My understanding of the rules might be either outdated or totally incorrect (more likely the former). If you’re actually playing, feel free to ask the producers about any borderline cases, such as how much head movement is allowed in the Winner’s Circle.
Some concepts apply to both segments of the show.
Paint vivid imagery for your partner
Dick Clark often encouraged contestants to visualize the clues they received. As the clue-giver, you want your partner to “see” what you are going for. In the front game, sometimes it’s as easy as pointing or gesturing; you’ll have to rely more on your words in the Winner’s Circle, but even then there are ways to help your chances.
The golden rule with untested celebrities
Professional snapper Louis Virtel is also a huge fan of Pyramid, and I just learned he got to play a few rounds with the legendary Shelley Smith at a recent game-night party. “Jealous” does not begin to describe my feelings.
Now, unless Ms. Smith or one of the other all-time Pyramid greats shows up out of nowhere, you don’t know how good these celebrities are at playing the game. (A safe assumption: not very.) Whenever you have the option, always give the clues.
On to the different parts of your Pyramid experience.
The front game
Here you have a lot more leeway, because as the clue-giver, your hands aren’t chained to the chair. Use this to your advantage.
Try to deduce the category themes
Often, the names contain puns that indicate where the category might lead. What do you think this one’s about?
If you guessed this had to do with salad, you’re right on the money. There are a limited number of things that can be asked about a salad, so it’s a solid pick.
If the prompt is “KNEE”, don’t say the part of the leg where it bends. Just point to it and say this is my… and add the joint if your partner says “pants” or something similar.
Never get stuck on the category theme – if there’s an easier way to approach a prompt, then do it. If the theme is “things in a bathroom” and your prompt is “HOOK”, then just say Peter Pan’s enemy was Captain… and grab your hand or wrist to drive the point home.
On the show’s most recent incarnation, which had no shortage of cringe-worthy play, there was a category about the Kardashians. The very first prompt was “E!”. The celebrity started by saying, this is the network the show is on, then wasted a full ten seconds and ended up passing anyway!
The definitive answer here is A, B, C, D, … – the judges don’t care about the silent exclamation mark.
The rules are quite liberal, in fact: if you get the prompt [window] “PANE”, you could go for the homophone aches and…. And you should be able to clue for just the last name: e.g., with “STEPHEN KING” as your prompt, queen and… should work fine.
Make references most people will understand
Sometimes a flair for trivia can get in the way. Let’s say you’re given a Biblical category and the prompt is “ABRAHAM”. You might be tempted to describe him as the patriarch of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, who married Sarah and almost sacrificed his son Isaac.
Just go with President blank Lincoln and be done.
In a pinch, use shorter words to key the actual prompt
I recently saw a game with the difficult prompt “TOURNIQUET”. After giving a good clue defining it, the player then went with something like this is what you do to a doorknob and mimicked the motion. “Turn. Tourniquet!”
Pass if you can sense it’s taking too long
There comes a moment when you just know you’re just not clicking. It happens! Don’t hesitate to pass; even if you aren’t allowed to come back to that particular prompt, it’s worth it to go after points on easier ones. (The most recent GSN incarnation cycled back around if time permitted, while previous versions wouldn’t let the clue-giver have another go.)
Tiebreaker round strategy
If you go to a tiebreaker and have the first choice, pick the letter that has only one sound. “Words that start with ‘G'” can be difficult because that consonant can be either hard (“GIFT”) or soft (“GYMNASIUM”) and your mind might be primed for the wrong one on any given prompt.
The Winner’s Circle
Here’s the real money-maker – and where I’d spend most of my time preparing. Ask a friend who knows the game to give you a hard prompt and try to find the perfect clue in response. Do this over and over. Eventually you’ll get really good at doing it within 3-5 seconds.
The first three prompts are typically easy and can be rattled off with very little thinking. A list of common items should suffice here. Your goal here is to complete the set in 20 seconds, leaving 10-15 seconds each for the more difficult remaining three.
One thing to keep in mind: make sure one of your clues doesn’t include part of the prompt, or you’re going to end up hurting. Even the great Betty White was not immune: with the prompt
she said North Dakota and cost her partner a shot at the big money.
Free passes: “What ___ might say” and “Why you ___”
When these show up, you can say basically anything you want, as long as you don’t say a word in the prompt.
Don’t think too hard about these. The first thing that came to mind for me here was My name is Excalibur and King Arthur pulled me from the stone; I have sharp edges and swashbucklers get into fights with me.
Second- and third-row boxes
Take a few seconds to come up with the perfect single clue, or a set of three clues.
If you’re going to give a set of three, make the third one really hammer home the theme – and put some emphasis on it, too. With the prompt
I would go with Eve, Ruth, Mary Magdalene, putting particular stress on the last one to indicate it’s the keystone.
If you do use a list, don’t start speaking until you’re ready to say all three with little hesitation between. You don’t want your partner’s mind wandering in a wrong direction.
Use inflection – and your head (literally)
You can’t use your hands in the Winner’s Circle, but you can use other tricks. If your partner uses a synonym of the correct answer, for example, you can nod your head vigorously to encourage that same line of thought.
If “things in Scotland” comes up, and you’ve got a good brogue, dust it off as you say
the Highlands*, kilts, bagpipes.
*whoops – “land” would earn a ding. See how tough this is?
“Things that are calm”? Relax and drag out your clues (a still lake’s waters* would be my first), perhaps rolling your head around as if you’re having a soothing massage.
*originally, I had a serene lake’s waters which a few people pointed out would probably get The Whistle – you can’t use synonyms of the keyword. Tough!
Watch the way Martha Smith handles “elegant things”:
Use possessives and adjectives
You’ll get The Whistle if you use prepositions: in, on, under, for, after, etc. Exceptions are made when the preposition forms part of a well-known phrase, like hall of fame.
Instead of using prepositions, you can often rephrase your clue using a possessive. For example, the paws of a cat can become a cat’s paws.
Adjectives are a big part of the game, too. Let’s say the prompt is
You could go with a list of fruits: a banana, a tomato, an avocado. If you do this, your partner will probably go for something else (fruits, things that hang, etc.) and, most likely, you’ll be sunk.
Alternatively, you could put some stress on choice adjectives: a bright-yellow banana; a juicy red tomato; a brownish-green avocado. By pointing to a particular part of the clue in this way, you are indicating that part is the homing signal.
One of my favorite players in the Dick Clark version was Richard Kline, from Three’s Company. Watch how he handles some of the more difficult prompts in both halves of this game, particularly “things made by hand”:
I would have been leery of a block of ice as it contains a preposition, but I guess the judges thought it was enough of a stock phrase that they let it slide.
Stick with a single definition of a word
In the “ripe” example above, the clue-giver in the actual game (I can’t remember who it was) started with adjective-less fruits and then went to a man. A man can be a lot of things; a smelly man would have been better, but still problematic, in part because the different definitions of “ripe” have no obvious connection.
The one exception to this rule is if the prompt itself appears in a phrase with each of your clues: Powerpoint, playground, Alpine, and microscope strung together without much space between might help your partner get to “types of slides”, but that approach is still less than ideal. (Got any better suggestions?)
To put all of these points together, I give you the magnificent Shelley Smith, who gives the single best clue in Pyramid history to seal a $100,000 win for her partner. (The brilliant Midwestern accent on “herring” more than makes up for her lack of basketball knowledge.)
Advice for the receiver in the Winner’s Circle
If your partner gives you one clue and you make two or three incorrect obvious guesses, shut up and let him or her think! (If you’re giving the clues, your main job is to avoid this issue.)
That’s what I’ve got – if you’re going to be on the show, I hope this is helpful!
Did I miss anything? Leave your thoughts in the comments.