Sun Tzu and The Art of Winning Game Shows

I recently got around to reading the ancient Chinese military treatise The Art of War by Sun Tzu. art-of-warThis handbook on military strategy was written in the 5th century BC, but its influence continues to this day, as its lessons can be applied to many fields of endeavour; business, politics, education, sport and even education.

As I absorbed the lessons of its 13 chapters, I couldn’t help but apply some of its principles to competitive game shows. Just as the successful game show contestant must possess an extensive general knowledge and an ability to recall that knowledge quickly and efficiently, they should also have a solid working knowledge of competitive strategy. They need a firm grasp of the tactics of competition – those elements of the mental game – the tricks and habits that will put them one step ahead of the opposition, before the game has even begun.

On a personal level, I remembered four particular moments from my time on Temptation, as I won my way through the various nights, where some of Sun Tzu’s principles definitely came into play. So this week, I’m taking you through those moments, how they relate to Sun Tzu’s teachings, and how they just might help you in your quest for game show Fortune and Glory….

1) “Oh, you’ve put me up against him, have you? Thanks a lot – I’ve waited all this time to get on the show, and now I’m gonna lose.”

I overheard one of my competitors saying this to the contestant co-ordinator, when she programmed him on an episode up against me. By that stage, I’d convincingly won three or four games in a row, while the potential contestants sat in the audience watching. As soon as I heard this comment, I knew my new opponent wouldn’t provide any serious competition for me. In his mind, he had already lost, and his poor mental attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s more, he made a tactical error in advertising his self-doubt so loudly; to know that he thought he’d lose was very valuable information to me, his opponent.

“Rouse your enemy, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

No rousing or forcing needed in this case.

2) “Come on, mate – you’ve gotta let me get at least one of the Fame Games… it’s starting to look embarrassing for me up here.”

During a commercial break, this plea was whispered to me by one of my competitors (in fact, it may have been the same bloke from the example above). This ham-fisted appeal to my sense of empathy and macho pride was clumsy and short-sighted. Did he really, honestly think that I – the opposition – would deliberately not answer questions that I knew, so that he wouldn’t look embarrassed? All his plea did was advertise his weakness and insecurity. And so when I didn’t alter my gameplay, he grew increasingly frustrated, messing up his concentration – and therefore his game – even further. It was a downward spiral for him, all of his own making. His loss was guaranteed.

“To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy’s numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

3) “How far ahead am I, Ed?”

I made it my habit to ask the show’s host this question every time he offered me the chance to buy something in the ‘Gift Shop’. (The ‘Gift Shop’ happens three times an episode: it’s a segment where the leading player is offered a chance to “buy” a prize, using their game points.) It’s a reasonable question; since the 3 contestants can’t see the running total of their scores, it’s essential for the leader to know if ‘buying’ in the gift shop will lose them their lead. I usually knew roughly how far ahead I was, and it was usually a lot. But I wanted Ed to repeat it, for my competitors’ benefit; to remind them how far behind me they were. Then, when I didn’t buy in the Gift Shop (thereby retaining my large lead), and the game began again, the gap between my score and theirs would be fresh in their minds.

“Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

4) ‘Quickest on the buzzer’? Yes, but….

In the final show, I was up against a bloke called Drew Devlin. Drew was young, fast, aggressive and had an amazing general knowledge. Drew came to win. And in the final round of the game, Drew’s strategy seemed to be to buzz in quickly, prevent me from answering, and then answer the question himself. The first part of this strategy worked just fine; Drew was definitely buzzing in too quickly for me. But he was buzzing in too quickly for himself, too. This lightning-fast, block-the-opposition approach didn’t give him the time he needed to come up with the correct answers, and in Temptation, every incorrect answer subtracts $5 from your score. Drew began to get flustered too. You can see what I mean here, starting at the 15:41 mark.

“Bravery without forethought causes a man to fight blindly and desperately like a mad bull.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War


“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Well, that last one might have been a tad dramatic there, Sun, but I take your point.

I’ve never been much of a sportsman, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… a large part of the game – any game – is played in the mind. If your opponent thinks you’re going to beat them, you’re already half way home.

Can you add to these? Do you have any tips or strategies that you use in competitive situations? Any little tricks that give you an edge over the opposition?

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