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Areas of Expertise
February 3

Perhaps to create some excitement and buzz going into the 2008-2009 season, several changes were made to the rules of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Players who reach the $1,000 level receive a new fourth lifeline, Ask the Expert. (Switch the Question is gone, 50/50 becomes Double Dip) The player can call upon the Expert at any time over a Skype connection, where they can discuss the question.

Experts have come from all over the map. Former Millionaire winners Nancy Christy, Ogi Ogas, Lyn Payne and Jeff Gross have all taken a turn. Even Ken Jennings has had a week as the Expert. And anyone who got one of those big winners on the other end of the line should count their lucky stars that they got a game show champion and not a contributing editor to Style Magazine.

The Ask the Expert lifeline has two main problems. First is the range of experts. Besides the previous game show champions, some TV personalities have been the helper: Bill Nye and Pat Kiernan helped hot seat sitters win bundles of cash. On the other hand Rene Syler bumbled through her week of episodes. I realize that it's a random draw as to who plays when, and which Experts are there, but the difference in assistance is staggering. During a Family Week episode, the Lawler family won $250,000 by asking Ken Jennings about which foodstuff was brought back from the New World. Becky Johnson-Sabin was playing for $25,000 when she asked Style editor in chief Lucy Danziger about which of four Canadian cities was farther North than Seattle. Lucy's only help was to compare those cities to her various skiing vacations. Becky left with $16,000.

Given the fact that you have to dance with who brought you, the other problem is knowing when to use that particular lifeline. Just like there are particular times when you should Ask the Audience, there are times when you should Ask the Expert, and times you shouldn't. The Expert can be as valuable as a Phone a Friend when the right kind of question comes up, but if you don't, it's a wasted chance. And that means paying attention. Pat Kiernan was an Expert for a week, but was of little help when asked a US History question. Why? He's from Calgary, Alberta, and went to school in Canada. No joy.

Given my choice, I think I'd rather have Switch the Question as opposed to the Expert. Switch at least allowed you to jettison a question that troubled you, and you might get something else that you know. It allowed Ogi and Lyn to win $500,000, and it helped all kinds of other people. And even if you switch at $50,000, it's still something nice to have in your hip pocket. Ask the Expert is a crapshoot in who you get, and whether you get a question where the Expert can lend expertise.

Travis Eberle will be your phone-a-friend...for a price. Negotiate with him at traviseberle@gmail.com.