How many shots do you need to play to win a set of tennis?

When Who Wants to be a Millionaire? got it wrong

You never know who to trust when it comes to trivia. A theme of this blog is the uncertainty surrounding many of the ‘facts' you hear. Wimbledon - and in particular Rosol's incredible serves as he beat Nadal last night - have reminded me of the time even a respected TV quiz show got it wrong.

How many shots do you need to play to win a set of tennis?

It was 1999, back in the days when Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was still required viewing (no one had yet won the top prize). A contestant, Tony Kennedy, was asked - for his £64,000 question - ‘what is the minimum number of strokes a tennis player needs to win a set?' The options were 12, 24, 36 and 48.

I'll give you a moment to work out what you'd have said.


Kennedy said 24, reasoning that you need four points to win a game, and six games to win a set. 24 points. One stroke to win each point - therefore 24 strokes.

And I'm sitting there thinking: ‘Uh-uh. He's forgotten that on your opponent's serve you don't need to play any strokes at all. Your opponent could double-fault four times. That means you only need to play strokes on your own three service games. Four aces each time makes 12 shots.'

‘Final answer?' asks Chris Tarrant.

‘Final answer,' replies Kennedy.

Box lights up, music stops, Tarrant strings it out for the usual few moments of tension - then says ‘congratulations, you've won sixty-four thousand pounds.'

Eh? But he said 24. It's 12. He got it wrong.

Kennedy goes on to answer the next question correctly, then decides to walk away with his £125,000.

Not being the sort of chap to contact the authorities about this kind of thing, I promptly forgot about it. Until the next day, when the press reported the incident. The programme makers immediately put their hands up, and said yes, they'd got it wrong - but had decided Kennedy could keep his dosh. Lucky old him.

So perhaps the moral of the story is: when you're on a quiz show, don't try and work out the correct answer - work out what you think the researcher thinks is the correct answer.


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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.