Divergent Strategies in “Sale of the Century”

One of the best sources of background televised noise for me is a game show, and it’s fortunate that I actually like game shows as well.  So I have two game show networks in my cable package, and one of them runs retro game shows every afternoon, and they recently revamped the shows they show then to include “Sale of the Century” (if you’re looking it up, it’s the later version with Jim Perry).  And in watching it, I noticed two differing strategies that are interesting to compare to each other.

Let me outline how the game show works first.  In the first round, three contestants compete against each other to answer questions that are worthy five dollars — and note that that is indeed dollars, not points — each to see who can get the highest amount of dollars by the end of the game.  At the end of the game, that player will get a chance to buy a progression of prizes for specific (and increasing) dollar amounts.  Now, since gaining five dollars a question over a single game is not likely to leave you with a lot of money — the higher amounts tend to be about a hundred dollars or so — you would think that they wouldn’t be able to buy very much, but the show is called “Sale of the Century” for a reason:  the prices the players pay is incredibly marked down from their real value.  So, for example, you could end up buying a new car for maybe four hundred dollars or so … but there’s no way you can do that in one attempt.  So the player will have the option of buying the most expensive prize that they can afford with what they have won up to that point, or putting that money “in the bank” to carry over to the next game, and if they win again they can combine their winnings to buy a better prize.  If they manage to win enough days and accumulate enough in the bank, they can buy all the prizes and take a cash bonus that starts at about seventy thousand dollars and has one thousand dollars added every time someone doesn’t leave/doesn’t win it, so it can get up into the hundred thousand dollar mark.  But wait, there’s more!  During the game, the host will offer smaller deals, where for a portion of their current winnings they can purchase a prize.  This is only offered to the person in the lead, and the host loves to find ways to encourage them to buy the prize, offering them a few hundred extra dollars.  In one of them there’s also a secret cash bonus that the player can get if they buy it.  The prizes themselves are sometimes pretty nice, and so something that the players might want.

So, the first strategic consideration here is when those extra prizes are offered do you want to take it and risk your position in the game.  The host loves to arrange it so that the game stays close and so won’t impede the player in the lead too much, but does have to increase the cost of the prizes for the later and better prizes.  So the first prize is usually priced at about the price of one question, and it goes up from there.  While it may only be the cost of one question, if a player lost by one question it might not be worth it to take the deal.  On the other hand, if the prize is something you like you might want to take it, especially since if you end up losing the game regardless you’d walk away with nothing.

Which then leads to the second strategic consideration, which is that any money you spend during the game is that much less money you have to buy things at the end of the game if you happen to win.  What this means is that even if you win if you don’t want to take one of the lesser prizes you are extending the number of games you have to win to get the top prize.  The more games you have to play, the more likely it is that you’ll either have a bad game or hit a really tough competitor and lose.  And since the amount of money you can win in one game is rather limited, that means that you could play several games and walk away with a couple of hundred dollars in winnings (there are some other prizes on a Fame Game board as well that you’d probably pick up as well in that many games).  So you don’t want to extend the number of games you play out that far at the risk of putting in a lot of effort for a limited gain.  However, buying the in-game deals can mitigate that, by giving you cash and prizes that value in the thousands so that you’d be guaranteed to walk away with a decent haul, even as it puts you more at risk for not winning the big prize.

I’ve seen two main approaches to this.  Some people — and, admittedly, generally the ones that win the bigger prizes, even though they are still rare — pretty much refuse to buy any of the smaller deals, hoarding their money to reduce the number of games they need to win to get the bigger prizes.  This is much to the chagrin of Jim Perry, who constantly implores them to take one of the deals and offers extra money to get them to take it.  Some people, on the other hand, take a fair amount of those deals and so don’t get too far in winning the biggest prizes, but usually walk away with a decent haul even if they only win one or two games.

The upside to not taking any deals, even if you like the prize, is that you increase your chances of winning and of not being beaten before you can buy one of the big end game prizes.  The downside is that if you happen to get beaten in any of the games you will walk away with very little compared to what you could have had if you buy the deals, and you have to pass on things that you would have liked to hope to get something that you really like.  Being obsessed with getting the big prize can stop you from getting the things you would like right now, but since you aren’t guaranteed getting any of those prizes you may end up passing up the bird in the hand for the two in the bush.

The ironic thing is that the better players would have a better chance of winning the game they are in and winning enough games to get the bigger prizes, but from what I’ve seen so far tend to be the ones who are laser-focused on the big prize.  Thus, the players who end up with enormous victories and so who had plenty of room to buy some things and seem unbeatable are the ones who end up limiting the risk of losing out, while the weaker players tend to buy more things earlier and so walk away with something even if they lose.  Perhaps that only makes sense, as the stronger players are confident that they will get far enough in the game to get something good while the weaker players want to ensure that they walk away with something if they encounter a stronger player.

Still, it’s an interesting dynamic, and an interesting dilemma:  do you want to maximize your chances at the big prizes at the risk of giving up things that you wanted and not winning the big prize, or take the small prizes at the risk of not getting a big prize?  What choice you make may say a lot about what you value.

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