How to Beat Your Friends at Countdown
Originally published on my personal blog on the 22nd of June 2013.
The de-facto Channel 4 game show Countdown is right back in fashion – and unsurprisingly, I'm delighted. I have countless fond memories of the show which taught me the alphabet, entertained me through the nineties, and provided my TV quiz début.
Though the (more or less) original presenting team of Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman will always hold a special place in my heart, it's exciting to see how the latest line-up has revitalised the timeless format. Combining dry old bugger Nick Hewer, thinking man's crumpet Rachel Riley and enlightening lexicographer Susie Dent has opened the show up to a whole new audience. What's more, the popularity of spin-off 8 Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown has made the show quite, well, cool. I've spoken to several people offline recently who had caught themselves and their colleague playing along with Countdown over a late liquid lunch. So how do you beat your buddies?
I'll start by talking about the numbers rounds and conundrum, because they're the parts of the game where you're unlikely to stumble across an impressive answer. For the numbers rounds, in which you're given six smaller numbers to reach a three-digit target number, it's all the usual stuff:
- Practice your mental arithmetic. You should be fast enough to try several different methods to reach the target in 30 seconds, in case your first ones aren't successful.
- Try split multiplication. This involves adding or subtracting smaller numbers from a given large number to get closer to the target when you multiply up. Or in English: imagine a numbers game where you have to reach 368 with the numbers 100, 8 and 4. We know 100 × 4 = 400 and 8 × 4 = 32, and 100 − 32 = 368, so… (100 − 8) × 4 = 368.
- Learn the 75 times table. It's quite straightforward when you realise that every four lots of 75 take you to 300, so for instance 13 × 75 is the same as 3 × 300 + 75, which equals 975. See below for a handy revision sheet – or cheat sheet, but don't get caught!
For the conundrum, it's blind luck. Look for common prefixes and suffixes (e.g., RE-, UN-, -ING, -ED) and hope for the best! This is something which true Countdown legends put hours into mastering, so there's no quick fix for your casual pub games. Sorry.
But the letters rounds? You might get lucky!
Some letters occur more commonly in the English language than others, and the Countdown letters pile is weighted to reflect this. For instance, there are many more Es and Ss than Zs. This means that words made up purely from very common letters – ASTEROID, NOTARISE, PAINTERS, RATIONED, and hundreds of others – are more likely to pop up on a regular basis. Learn a few, and you'll probably get the chance to look very clever without needing to be an anagramming guru. Better still, learn which letters you can combine with these words to make a longer word, and you could look very clever indeed when you beat your mates with an obscure nine-letter word!
To get you started, here's a Sporcle quiz I made to help my recall of these tricky words that stem from a much more common word – e.g., STRAINED + C = DICENTRAS. And once you start to get somewhere, subscribe to Apterous – the online interactive Countdown game where every recent series champion has refined their linguistic and numerical skills before playing the game for real in the studio. Speaking of which, if you really enjoy playing Countdown, you should 100% apply to take part in the programme! It's a brilliant experience.
I hope this post sets you on the path to possessing that fabled Countdown teapot… or, at the very least, earns you a cheeky pint!
Numbers round times tables