Friday, February 3, 2012


In the UK Countdown is a TV game show where contestants display their lexical and numerical skills. It has run for almost thirty years, racking up more than 5000 episodes. I enjoyed it when I lived in the UK, not that I got to watch it that often due to its daytime slot (and we didn't have a video recorder when I was growing up). In each episode, two contestants battle it out over a series of letters games (where the goal is to make the longest word from nine randomly-selected letters), numbers games (where you have the reach a three-digit target using six smaller numbers) and finally a conundrum (a nine-letter anagram which you have to unscramble as quickly as possible). Click here to see an impressively swift conundrum solve from a contestant who has Asperger's syndrome. Unsurprisingly perhaps, a number of Aspies have appeared on Countdown over the years - here is some interesting opinion on the subject from 2008 and '09 (unlike most of the stuff on that forum, the thread I linked to is actually worth reading).

At its most popular (the nineties?), viewing figures reached an incredible (for the time of day) four million. The low-tech nature of the programme and the lack of valuable prizes only served to add to the show's appeal. The avuncular Richard Whiteley presented the show, along with maths whiz Carol Vorderman. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Tim Rice made regular appearances. In 2001 the show was extended from 30 minutes to 45 (I wasn't a big fan of that) and for some reason it no longer seemed quite as friendly. Then in 2005 (when my dad was having major heart surgery in the UK), Whiteley died suddenly. Due to his huge part in the programme's success I imagined Countdown would die with him, but it has survived to this day and is now on its fifth presenter.

Despite (or maybe because of) the lack of financial rewards, there has always been a certain cachet to doing well on the show. The winner of an episode comes back next time (up to a maximum of eight appearances), with the best eight performers of the series competing in a knockout competition to decide the series champion.

Countdown is (or at least was) more inclusive than most game shows - being short or fat or ugly was no barrier. Neither was age - plenty of kids have appeared, some of them making the finals. I gather health and safety requirements have unfortunately made child prodigies a thing of the past. There is a rule preventing people who lose in the first round from reappearing even decades later, except in rare circumstances. This I find rather unfair - whether you win on your first appearance is hugely dependent on who your opponent happens to be; many a contestant would have gone a long way if they hadn't bumped into a walking dictionary on day one. Plus you'd probably be less nervous, and perform better as a result, the second time.

I'm on the wrong side of the planet to ever go on myself (although Australia now have their own version) and I'd don't know if I'd be good enough anyway. Frankly my two-second TV appearance in November was plenty. But, I wondered, can you play Countdown online? The answer is yes, on a site called Apterous. You can play 30 games for free, after which they charge you £15. Most of the players on the site are pretty good, as you'd expect when they've paid to play. A fair few have appeared on screen or are using the site to prepare for their 45 minutes of fame.

I plan to play my 30 free games and quit. It could become addictive, and paying to feed an addiction isn't really that sensible. I've so far played five games, winning just one. My first game ended in a draw after the scheduled 15 rounds. I'd have been happy with that, but an extra conundrum was used to break the tie. Only it didn't because neither of us got it. On to a third conundrum then, and I got SUCCESSOR in five seconds to win the game. That was my only win, although a couple of my losses were very close. I realised one thing: I'm terrible at the numbers! Or maybe my opponents were just really good from hours of practice. My main problem was that I didn't quite figure out how to type in the numbers solutions, but even taking that into account I still wasn't that flash. My mental arithmetic is good - I don't have any problems working out 6 × 78 = 468, but with the Countdown numbers games you start with 468 and have to recognise that it's 6 × 78. That's a slightly different skill I think.

It would be nice to show one of my games here (the one I lost by two points was interesting I thought) but doing so seems to be in the too-hard basket for me.

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