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Can Math Help Contestants Beat The Odds On 'The Price Is Right'?


Finally, this hour, "The Price is Right" and how to get it.


CORNISH: We're talking about the popular daytime game show, of course. Sure, you could study up on the cost of canned goods, living room sets and big screen TVs to win or you could tip the odds in your favor and apply game theory. That's what Ben Blatt did for a recent article in Slate. He joins us now. Hey there, Ben.

BEN BLATT: Hey, it's great to be here.

CORNISH: So first you come from the world of math and game theory and sports analytics. Why did you want to apply all that here?

BLATT: Well, I spent a lot of time studying math in college and applying math to different fields, but I am a huge fan of "The Price is Right" and if you ever sit down and watch "The Price is Right" or really any game show, you realize it's all about choices and options and you want to maximize the number of options that will hopefully make you come home with some cash or some prizes.

CORNISH: All right. We've got an example here, right? Because you've actually made a complete chart of all the games on "The Price is Right" and how to game the system. And first up, contestants' row. Here's former host Bob Barker.

BOB BARKER: Here is the first item up for bids today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a cool drum set.

BARKER: And it all goes to the one of you four who bids nearest to the actual retail price without going over. Julie, what do you bid?

CORNISH: All right. So guessing the price without going over, Ben Blatt, what's the trick here?

BLATT: Well, the trick here is really that most people are really hung up on the without-going-over part and there aren't as many over bids as you think there were. So there's four people making bids, one after another, and if player four were to bid $1 more than the highest guess, they would win 53 percent of the time, which is much, much higher than the win in reality.

What a lot of contestants do is that the final guess, they say $1. They think the actual price is much lower than what everyone has guessed.

CORNISH: All right. Let's move on to the game called Cliffhanger. The contestant has to guess the price of an item and if they go over or under by too much, a little mountain climber moves by each dollar that they're off. And, of course, if he goes over the cliff, they lose the game.


DREW CAREY: Thirty-five dollars for a toaster. Is she right? No. Yodeler, you're on your way.

CORNISH: So Ben Blatt, help us figure out how we guess those prices.

BLATT: On Cliffhanger, you're bidding on three separate items and you're told each one of them is a two-digit price and just based on history, you can see that usually the lowest price is about $20 and the highest is about $50. And the trick here is that not only are they contained within their range, but the second prize is always more valuable than the first and the third prize is more valuable than the second.

So if you go through and you say, oh, I'm going to guess $19 on the first prize and then on the second and third, you guess 11 more than the actual price of the previous item, it turns out that this minimizes your risk enough that over the sample I looked at for Cliffhangers, which I believe was 100 games, this strategy would have won 100 percent of the time.

CORNISH: Now, I understand you actually studied transcripts from the show, right? Collected by super-fans to help figure this out.

BLATT: I'm very fortunate because there are many people on the Internet who have gone around and collected many, many stats for the show and there was one site that had the transcript of every single show and using some basic computer skills, just kind of went through, downloaded all that and organized into a format where it would collect the stats for every single game.

CORNISH: Ben, are you killing "The Price is Right" for me? I mean, are you, like, sucking the fun out this game?

BLATT: I'm trying not to. I'm trying to make it, hopefully, as fun to watch as possible with a little bit of math intersected now when you see it. But there are some games that, unfortunately, game theory will not help you. One that comes to mind is Plinko, perhaps one of the game's favorites. You see a falling chip going all the way down and you can win up to $50,000 on the show.

But unfortunately, through my many, many hours of research into Plinko and endeavors in "The Price is Right" game theory, I could not find a way to do better than the contestants currently do.

CORNISH: Now, Ben Blatt, any chance you're actually trying to get on the show and are we spoiling those chances?

BLATT: I would love to get on the show. I think I would be happy to serve as statistician on "The Price is Right" if they needed in-house council on how to make these games perhaps more challenging for contestants.

CORNISH: All right. So a plug for a gig, it sounds like that's where you're going with this. That's Ben Blatt. He's a staff writer at Slate. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BLATT: Thank you. Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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