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Twenty One was one of the most infamous American game shows on record a popular, yet thoroughly rigged, quiz show that spawned the single most popular contestant of the quiz show era, and which nearly caused the demise of the entire genre in the wake of Senate investigations.

Broadcast History

Twenty One was produced as a weekly live broadcast on NBC from September 12, 1956 to October 16, 1958. Jack Barry was the host.


Two contestants, a champion and a challenger, were placed in separate isolation booths, arranged so they could not see or hear each other. With the champion's booth 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 to eleven points. The more points a question was worth, the more difficult that question was. A correct answer added those points to the player's score, while an incorrect one deducted them (though it could never drop into negative numbers). After the question, the challenger's booth is turned off and the champion is given the same category and choice of questions.

Neither player is made aware of his or her opponent's score. The object was to score a total of 21 points, or come closer to that number than your opponent. After two categories were played, both booths were opened up and both players given the option to stop the game right then and there. If either player elected to end the game, no matter which one it was, the player in the lead at that point would win. If the challenger reached 21 points before the champion, the champion was given one last chance to catch up and send the game to a 21-21 tie; in this case, the challenger's booth was left open so he or she could know what was going on.

Champions received money based on how large the difference in the scores was. Payoffs started at $500 for each point difference (for instance, a champion who won a game by a score of 21-17 would win $2,000), but that 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 risk to a champion's winnings was that if he or she was defeated, the new champion's first-game winnings were paid out of the outgoing champion's total.

The Scandal

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 disaster"; 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 angrily ordered the rigging of Twenty One so as to prevent a repeat of this incident.

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 appear to sweat more).

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 21-21 tie games, with audience interest building with each passing week and each new game, until finally the clean-cut, "All American Boy" challenger was able to outlast his bookish, quasi-intellectual opponent. 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), 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. He was finally unseated as champion on March 11, 1957, by a woman named Vivian 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 cancelled 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 a lot more sense. Still, the public at large didn't seem to want to believe it was true until Van Doren, under oath before a Senate hearing, confessed to being given the answers to all of his questions before each show.

Twenty One was cancelled without warning after its broadcast of October 16, 1958. A nighttime version of Concentration took over its time slot the following week.

The Revival

There have been two attempts to revive this series under honest terms. The first was as an unsold 1982 pilot starring Jim Lange (this version of the show was called 21, using Arabic numerals instead of words).

1982 Pilot

With Barry and Enright's Bullseye on the way out, the pair was looking for another game to put into the five-a-week syndication market. They decided to try '21' again. The rules were very similar to those of the original show. 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-answers, and not the complicated multi-part variety that the old show used.

The winner of the game would win $1,000 cash times the difference between the scores of the players; if the challenger won, this amount was deducted from the outgoing champion's bank.

The winner also got the chance to win a prize package in a bonus game (just like on Joker's Wild and Tic Tac Dough.) The object of the game was to get closer to 21 points than the 'computer' (who played according to Las Vegas 21 rules. The contestant would decide whether to take a number, or give it to the computer, then stop a number generator. This continued until either side busted, or the computer had to stay. Beating the computer won a $5,000 prize packaged.

Contestants could stay on the show until defeated or they voluntarily left the game.


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 in 2000. The rules of this version, hosted by Maury Povich, were greatly simplified from the 1950s: Incorrect answers no longer deducted from a player's score, but instead earned a strike; three strikes, and that player automatically lost. As well, all questions were of a multiple-choice variety, making it easier for the player. Finally, once per game, a player could call for a "Second Chance," and have a friend or family member (sequestered offstage until needed) brought on for help. Payoffs on this version were originally $100,000 for the first win, $200,000 for the second, $300,000 for the third, and so on up to $400,000 for a fourth victory. At that point, the fifth victory would be worth $100,000.

The second payoff structure, instituted in February 2000:

One win : $ 25,000
Two wins : $ 50,000
Three wins: $100,000
Four wins : $250,000
Five wins : $500,000
Six wins : $750,000
Seven wins: $1 million

After the seventh win, the eighth game would be played for $25,000, and so on until the champ was defeated. These amounts accumulated, so winning seven games would be worth at least $2,675,000.

Perfect 21

There was also an endgame, "Perfect 21." The champion was given a category and asked up to six true/false questions in that category, worth progressively from one to six points. Payoffs here were $10,000 for each point, but an incorrect answer at any time ended the game and cost the player all money won in this game; he or she could stop after every correct answer. A possible total of $210,000 could be won in this game.

Big Winners

Under the first payoff schedule, Rahim Oberholtzer was the biggest winner, collecting $1,120,000 over four victories. 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. David was the top winner of American game shows until Kevin Olmstead won the jackpot on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Foreign versions

In the United Kingdom, there was a version on ITV during the 1950s. As stated below (see the external link), this version also was pulled off due to quiz show scandals.

A version on RTL in Germany aired from 2000 to 2001, hosted by Hans Meiser.

Starting in September 2004, a French-language version has been airing on the TVA network based in Quebec and available across Canada. It is called Vingt-et-un, the French translation of twenty-one. The program is 30 minutes long, and each game consists of three rounds of questions, as opposed to five on the recent NBC version. The questions are still worth from one to 11 points. The prize money builds: $250, $500, $1,500, $3,500, $5,500, $12,500, and $20,000 more for a seventh win, all in CDN. Perfect 21 is played for up to $2,100. The host is Guy Mongrain, a popular Quebec television personality.

The top winner on the Canadian version is Simon Dufour-Turbis, with $49,700 in seven victories, and is the reigning champion. Olivier Lameroux won $47,200 in ten victories, the most on the Canadian version.

Show Description Credit: Wikipedia
> Airing History & Information 
Last Airing Oct 16, 1958
Premiere September 12, 1956
Network NBC
Format/Time Black & White / 30 Minutes
Country United States
Upcoming Airs Not currently airing
> Cast 
Herb Stempel....   Himself/Contestant (1956-1957)
Charles Van Doren....   Himself/Contestant (1957-1958)
Jack Barry....   Host

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