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with Chris Wolvie
Are You KIDDING Me?!
March 9
I'm John McEnroe and I've got a small fortune for anyone who can beat...

AIR DATES: January 15, 2002 to March 19, 2002
CREATOR: Julie Christie, Touchdown Television, Trailpolis Entertainment Group
HOST: John McEnroe


We all know that coming up with a fresh new idea for a game show is a daunting task. Especially a game show on prime-time network television where even ABC, still riding a high on "Millionaire", wasn't just resting on its laurels. But what happens when two different companies go to two different networks and, essentially, pitch the SAME GAME?! This is what happened in January 2002 when ABC and FOX respectively aired "The Chair" and "The Chamber", two shows with very similar premises: people are strapped in and forced to answer questions under duress and, if they fail to stay calm, they lose the money they worked so hard to earn. This lead to both production companies suing the other for infringement (nothing came of it, by the way). I'll deal with FOX's poor excuse for a show next time. For now, let's focus on ABC's SLIGHTLY more popular version where a person is strapped into a chair and forced to look at John McEnroe's ugly mug for money.

Potential contestants are given a battery of tests. And these tests not only show how smart they are but how they perform under pressure. And by "pressure", that usually means performing mental tasks during jump scares. Only those declared fit to handle this kind of pressure could play the game. After all, we can't have someone having a heart attack on national television, can we?


The contestant is strapped into The Chair and is raised into an arena-like studio, the host looking down on them. They have heart monitors checking their heart rate, which is the most important part of this game. They are given a starting stake of $5000 but they can only hold on to the money if they kept their heart rate below a certain threshold. Before the show, their resting heart rate is measured. The threshold., or "redline" is set to 60% (later 70%) above the resting rate. In other words, if a contestant's resting rate is 80 beats per minute, the threshold. starts at 128 (later 136) beats per minute.

The host asks the contestant seven questions, each one of increasing difficulty and which can earn the contestant more money. The trick is that the contestant can ONLY answer if their heart rate is not above the "redline". If it IS, as soon as the host finishes the question, the contestant LOSES money from their stake. If they run out of money at any time, the game ends and the contestant leaves with nothing. When the contestant's heart rate goes below the "redline", the host says they can answer the question. They can take as long as they want to answer but they must answer before their heart rate "redline"s, losing them more money. If a contestant gets the question right, they earn money and the monitoring is paused until the next question...except in the case of "Heartstoppers" (explained later). For each consecutive question, the "redline" drops by 5% of the resting rate (4 bpm in the above example).

Contestants earn $5000 for getting the first question right, $10,000 for the second, then $15,000, $25,000, $40,000, $50,000 and finally $100,000 for the final question. Upon going above the "redline", the contestant loses $100 for each second during the first two questions, then $100 more for each question through the sixth and finally $1000 per second for the final question. The maximum someone can win is $250,000. If a question is answered wrong, the game ends. If this happens in the first three questions, the contestant leaves with nothing. After the third question, though, the contestant is given a chance to "stabilize" the money won to that point. This means that, should the contestant miss a question, they still leave with the amount at which they "stabilized". However, this does NOT count for "redlining"; the "stabilized" amount drops if the total earned drops below said amount. The contestant may "stabilize" at any point after a right answer is given, but can only do it once.

Twice during the game, a "Heartstopper" occurs. This is something SPECIFICALLY designed to scare the contestant, raise their heart rate and make them lose more money. This could be anything from explosions going off to a live snake or alligator lowered within inches of the the host serving tennis balls at their head (a plastic shield protects the contestant). During these "Heartstoppers", the contestant loses money if they "redline" at the rate of the previous question's "redline" rate and continue until they get below the "redline". If the contestant DOESN'T "redline" within the 15-second duration, their money does not diminish until the start of the next question.

One major rule is that the contestant MUST stay alert. They can do whatever it takes to lower their heart rate EXCEPT close their eyes or cover them for a long period of time. The host gives a warning if they do so and, if they get three warnings, the game stops and the contestant forfeits their winnings.

The game only ends when a) a question is answered wrong, b) all the money has been "redlined" away, c) the host gives a third warning or d) all seven questions are answered correctly. In the case of a), the contestant leaves with any "stabilized" money. In the case of d), the contestant leaves with a minimum of $100,100 and a maximum of $250,000 (which happened once).


Basing a game on how calm you are under pressure is QUITE unique, to say the least. Show my ONE person who ain't excited about playing for thousands of dollars on national television and I'll show you someone who wouldn't qualify for this show 'cause they DON'T HAVE A PULSE! The clip I have posted has someone who's heart rate didn't drop below the initial "redline" for his ENTIRE run. How he got past the screening process is beyond me.

I guess that, if you already have a show where answering 15 questions gets you a million, having a show where you only answer SEVEN deserves a lower payout. This was more about keeping your cool than getting the right answer.

And though the "Heartstoppers" were a bit corny, they did their job for the most part: they scared the crap outta the contestants in the hopes of making them "redline". Didn't ALWAYS work, but it did most of the time.


I can understand why they chose John McEnroe. There wasn't a more loud, intimidating tennis player in the late-70s and 80s. And yet, though this is a show about getting the heart racing, he showed that he was really a puppy when it comes to hosting. He wasn't his loud, intimidating self, not even when he was the "Heartstopper". He wasn't even that exciting. He was just...meh.

The main problem with the "Heartstoppers" was that the contestants were given a bit of a warning before they happened. Oh, sure, they still didn't know WHAT it was, but having that second or two of warning can get someone mentally prepared for whatever it is. Also, as long as they knew their lives weren't in danger and that they wouldn't get hurt, they handled all the jump scares during the initiation. Why bother warning?

Changing up the questions was not the best thing ABC could've done. I mean, yeah, it makes it stand out from every other prime time show but...switching gears like that is not the best of strategies. It's like they WANTED the contestants to lose before they "stabilized".


Many, MANY versions of this game played around the world (hell, McEnroe hosted the UK version in LATE-2002)...but the longest lasting versions were in Russia and France (with France's lasting just over two years). It was an interesting concept, no doubt...but the only thing that can be said in the that it lasted MUCH longer than Fox's so-called "rip-off". But that's a GGB for another in...

NEXT TIME: The Great Game Show Rivalry of 2002, part 2

Chris Wolvie knows tennis is where love means nothing. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWolvie and e-mail him at