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April 15, 2016

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.

The Final Pyramid

In any event, I’m going to share some tips on how to play the game. 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Note 3: My understanding of the rules might be either outdated or totally incorrect (more likely the former).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.

Overarching themes

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

pyramid main
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.

Use gestures

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.

Think laterally

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 [not applicable to this version]

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

pyramid winner

Watching Dick Clark lean over and give his own clues was one of the highlights of his show.

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.

First-row boxes

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 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*, kiltsbagpipes.

*whoops – “land” would earn The Double Buzz. 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 Double Buzz – you can’t use synonyms of the keyword. Tough!

Edited to add: when I played Pyramid at Game Show Marathon West 3, “calm things” actually showed up in the top box! We got hung up on “things that hang”, unfortunately.

Watch the way Martha Smith handles “elegant things”:

Use possessives and adjectives

You’ll get The Double Buzz 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, playgroundAlpine, 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.

  1. Chinese, not Japanese.

  2. John permalink

    You can’t say highlands for things in Scotland, you said land. Buzz

    You can’t roll your head, anything besides a head nod to indicate on the right track and your voice Are gestures and illegal. Buzzzz

    But what do I know.

    • Wow, great catch on Highlands – I didn’t see that when I changed the prompt from “Scottish things”. And I’ll add a disclaimer about my understanding of the rules. Thanks!

    • Does it convey the essence of the answer, though? That’s really the determining factor in whether or not a shared syllable is deemed illegal – at least, when judged properly. There was even an instance in one of the “What NOT to do” videos (which have apparently been taken down, and it’s a shame if they were) where the subject was “Things that are clean” and the Ed Begley Jr. gave the clue “a Kleenex”. The judge even let it slide the first time it was said because he didn’t notice the homophonic nature of the clue. But then Ed repeated the clue, and that’s when the buzzer came. Of course, we have no idea how nuanced the judging is going to be this time around – judging has been inconsistent at times both in the GSN revival and the Donny Osmond version – so you probably want to give the man at the buzzer an excuse to use it.

      • John permalink

        If you mean land, it’s part of the answer. Doesn’t matter if it conveys the essence of the answer. It’s illegal, hands down.

    • Ruthie permalink

      There was an old Dick Clark episode where the prompt was: “Things in a Crossword Puzzle.” The first clue given was “34 across…,” which got a buzz. On the commercial break, however, the judges reconsidered and decided to give the player the $10,000 because they said the overlap wasn’t critical to the prompt. But, I wouldn’t test it.

  3. Ben Wiles permalink

    Pyramid (and, for that matter, Password) is made or broken by the celebrity players.

    Donnie Osmond Pyramid failed because the celebrities were stupid. Games were being won 13-11, and all 6 in the Winners Circle was nigh impossible.

    I’d want to wait and see what kind of celebrities they get before I took a shot at this one.

  4. joseph cammarano permalink

    why is it that the contestant is the one giving the clues in the winners circle game only?

    • Joshua K. permalink

      It’s the contestants’ choice. This way, the contestant isn’t at risk of failing because the celebrity gives an illegal clue. If a contestant had a more experienced Pyramid player as their partner, they might have chosen to receive in the Winner’s Circle instead.

  5. ARCHITH SESHADRI permalink

    Absolutely great points! I really enjoyed reading this and glad I had this to study before my Pyramid taping experience! I played with Snoop Dogg and Questlove and studied old board games, reviewed old episodes and tried to be as good of a clue giver! It certainly helped. I think the categories are still hard but there were some really tough ones with the Dick Clark version like “Things that are enshrined”

  6. hablals permalink

    I started watching the Michael Strahan version and once a contestant got buzzed in the Winner’s Circle – I could have sworn Michael said because you can’t use an adjective. Then I noticed them totally using adjectives, so I just looked up the rules and came to your page. It’s SYNONYMS of the prompt you can’t use. I was also wondering about gestures -so you explained that well. Thanks for the info. I’m getting into this game now!

  7. morbeedo permalink

    What about “finger painting” for “things made by hand?” Since sfinger are part of the hand, I’m thinking they might buzz it

What do you think?