Twenty questions

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Twenty questions is a spoken parlor game, which encourages deductive reasoning and creativity. It originated in the United States and was played widely in the 19th century.[1] It escalated in popularity during the late 1940s, when it became the format for a successful weekly radio quiz program.

In the traditional game, the "answerer" chooses something that the other players, the "questioners", must guess. They take turns asking a question which the answerer must answer with "yes" or "no". In variants of the game, answers such as "maybe" are allowed. Sample questions could be: "Is it bigger than a breadbox?", "Is it alive?", and finally "Is it this pen?" Lying is not allowed. If a questioner guesses the correct answer, they win and become the answerer for the next round. If 20 questions are asked without a correct guess, then the answerer has stumped the questioners and gets to be the answerer for another round.

Careful selection of questions can greatly improve the odds of the questioner winning the game. For example, a question such as "Does it involve technology for communications, entertainment or work?" can allow the questioner to cover a broad range of areas using a single question that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no", significantly narrowing down the possibilities.

Popular variants[edit]

The most popular variant[according to whom?] is called "animal, vegetable, or mineral". This is taken from the Linnaean taxonomy of the natural world. In this version, the answerer tells the questioners at the start of the game whether the subject belongs to the animal, vegetable or mineral kingdom. These categories can produce odd technicalities,[clarification needed] such as a wooden table being classified as a vegetable (since wood comes from trees), or a belt being both animal (if leather) or vegetable (if cloth), and mineral (if it has a metal or plastic buckle).

Other versions specify that the item to be guessed should be in a given category, such as actions, occupations, famous people, etc. In Hungary a similar game is named after Simon bar Kokhba. A version of twenty questions called yes and no is played as a parlour game by characters in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Computers, scientific method and situation puzzles[edit]

The abstract mathematical version of the game where some answers may be wrong is sometimes called Ulam's game or the Rényi–Ulam game. The game suggests that the information (as measured by Shannon's entropy statistic) required to identify an arbitrary object is at most 20 bits. The game is often used as an example when teaching people about information theory. Mathematically, if each question is structured to eliminate half the objects, 20 questions allow the questioner to distinguish between 220 = 1048576 objects. Accordingly, the most effective strategy for twenty questions is to ask questions that will split the field of remaining possibilities roughly in half each time. The process is analogous to a binary search algorithm in computer science or successive-approximation ADC in analog-to-digital signal conversion.

In 1901 Charles Sanders Peirce discussed factors in the economy of research that govern the selection of a hypothesis for trial: (1) cheapness, (2) intrinsic value (instinctive naturalness and reasoned likelihood), and (3) relation (caution, breadth, and incomplexity) to other projects (other hypotheses and inquiries). He discussed the potential of twenty questions to single one subject out from among 220 and, pointing to skilful caution, said:

Thus twenty skilful hypotheses will ascertain what two hundred thousand stupid ones might fail to do. The secret of the business lies in the caution which breaks a hypothesis up into its smallest logical components, and only risks one of them at a time.

He elaborated on how, if that principle had been followed in the investigation of light, its investigators would have saved themselves half a century of work.[2] Testing the smallest logical components of a hypothesis one at a time does not mean asking about, say, 1048576 subjects one at a time, but extracting aspects of a guess or hypothesis, and asking, for example, "Did an animal do this?" before asking "Did a horse do this?".

That aspect of scientific method resembles also a situation puzzle in facing (unlike twenty questions) a puzzling scenario at the start. Both games involve asking yes/no questions, but Twenty Questions places a greater premium on efficiency of questioning. A limit on their likeness to the scientific process of trying hypotheses is that a hypothesis, because of its scope, can be harder to test for truth (test for a "yes") than to test for falsity (test for a "no") or vice versa.

In developing the participatory anthropic principle (PAP), which is an interpretation of quantum mechanics, theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler used a variant on twenty questions, called surprise twenty questions,[3] to show how the questions we choose to ask about the universe may dictate the answers we get. In this variant, the respondent does not choose or decide upon any particular or definite object beforehand, but only on a pattern of "yes" or "no" answers. This variant requires the respondent to provide a consistent set of answers to successive questions, so that each answer can be viewed as logically compatible with all the previous answers. In this way, successive questions narrow the options until the questioner settles upon a definite object. Wheeler's theory was that, in an analogous manner, consciousness may play some role in bringing the universe into existence.[4]

Radio and TV quiz[edit]

United States[edit]

In the 1940s, the game became a popular radio panel quiz show, Twenty Questions, first broadcast at 8 pm, Saturday, February 2, 1946, on the Mutual Broadcasting System from New York's Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street. Radio listeners sent in subjects for the panelists to guess in twenty questions; Winston Churchill's cigar was the subject most frequently submitted. On the early shows, listeners who stumped the panel won a lifetime subscription to Pageant. From 1946 to 1951, the program was sponsored by Ronson lighters. In 1952–1953, Wildroot Cream-Oil was the sponsor.[5]

The show was the creation of Fred Van Deventer (1903–1971), a WOR Radio newscaster with New York's highest-rated news show Van Deventer and the News. Van Deventer was on the program's panel with his wife, Florence Rinard. Their 14-year-old son, Robert Van Deventer (known on the show as Bobby McGuire), and the program's producer, Herb Polesie, completed the regular panel, with daughter Nancy Van Deventer joining the group on occasions. Celebrity guests sometimes questioned.

The Van Deventer family had played the game for years at their home, long before they brought the game to radio, and they were so expert at it that they could often nail the answer after only six or seven questions. On one show, Maguire succeeded in giving the correct answer (the Brooklyn Dodgers) without asking a single question. The studio audience was shown the answer in advance and Maguire based his answer on the audience's reaction; during the 1940s, New York radio studio audiences included many Brooklynites, and they cheered wildly whenever Brooklyn was mentioned in any context.

The moderator was sportscaster Bill Slater, who opened each session by giving the clue as animal, vegetable, or mineral. He then answered each query from panel members. This cast remained largely intact throughout the decade-long run of the show. Slater was succeeded at the beginning of 1953 by Jay Jackson, who remained through the final broadcast, and there were two changes in the panel's juvenile chair. When McGuire graduated from high school, his decision to attend the North Carolina-based Duke University meant he could no longer remain on the program, so he asked his high-school friend Johnny McPhee to replace him.[6] Since McPhee was attending Princeton University, near New York. When McPhee graduated he was succeeded by Dick Harrison (real name John Beebe) in September 1953, replaced in early 1954 by 22-year-old Bobby McGuire, appearing as the "oldest living teenager" until the end of the run.

20 Questions
Created byFred van de Venter (1949-1955)
Ron Greenberg by arrangement with Dick Rubin Ltd (1975 pilot)
Directed byRoger Bower (1949–1955)
Dick Sandwick (1949–1955)
Harry Coyle (1949–1955)
Bill McCarthy (1949–1955)
Arthur Forrest (1975 pilot)
Presented byBill Slater (1949–1952)
Jay Jackson (1952–1955)
Jack Clark (1975 pilot)
Dick Wilson (1989 pilot)
Narrated byFrank Waldecker (1949–1955)
John Gregson (1949–1955)
Bob Shepard (1949–1955)
Wayne Gossman (1975 pilot)
Burton Richardson (1989 pilot)
ComposerScore Productions (1975 pilot)
Country of originUnited States
No. of seasons6
Executive producersFred van de Venter (1949–1955)
Ron Greenberg (1975 pilot)
ProducersNorman Livingston (1949–1955)
Jack Wyatt (1949–1955)
Duane McKinney (1949–1955)
George Elber (1949-1955)
Gary Stevens (1949–1955)
Production locationsNew Amsterdam Theatre, New York (1949–1955)
ABC Television Center, New York (1975 pilot)
KTLA Studios, Hollywood (1989 pilot)
Running time25 min
Production companiesFred van de Venter Productions (1949–1955)
Mutual Broadcasting System (1949–1955)
Ron Greenberg Productions (1975 pilot)
MCA-TV Ltd (1975 pilot)
DistributorBuena Vista Television (1989 pilot)
Original networkWOR (1949)
NBC (1949)
ABC (1950–1951, 1954–1955)
DuMont (1951–1954)
Picture formatBlack-and-white (1949–1955)
Color (1975 pilot, 1989 pilot)
Audio formatMonaural
Original releaseNovember 2, 1949 (1949-11-02) –
May 3, 1955 (1955-05-03)
Related shows20Q (2009)
Photo from DuMont advertising the show, with 14-year-old Dick Harrison, Herb Polesie, Fred Van Deventer, Florence Rinard, and actor Aldo Ray as guest panelist (February 1, 1954)

As a television series, Twenty Questions debuted as a local show in New York on WOR-TV Channel 9 on November 2, 1949. Beginning on November 26, the series went nationwide on NBC until December 24, after which it remained dormant until March 17, 1950, when it was picked up by ABC until June 29, 1951.

Its longest and best-known run, however, is the one on the DuMont Television Network from July 6, 1951, to May 30, 1954. During this time, original host Bill Slater was replaced by Jay Jackson. After this run ended, ABC picked up the series once again from July 6, 1954, to May 3, 1955. The last radio show had been broadcast on March 27, 1954.

In 1975, producer Ron Greenberg made a pilot for a revival on ABC with host Jack Clark, which did not sell. The pilot featured four celebrities: actress Kelly Garrett, movie critic Gene Shalit, comedian Anne Meara, and actor Tony Roberts, along with two contestants who competed against each other.

In 1989, another revival pilot was made for syndication by Buena Vista Television. This version, hosted by Dick Wilson and featuring Markie Post and Fred Willard, also did not sell.

Recordings of episodes[edit]

Like many game shows of the era, Twenty Questions was a victim of wiping; most recordings of it were destroyed. Two DuMont episodes from January 18, 1952, and November 16, 1953, as well as the 1975 pilot, circulate among collectors. It is unknown how many radio episodes survive.


Twenty Questions aired locally on CJAY-TV in Winnipeg, Canada from March to June, 1961 and then on the new CTV network beginning in September, 1961; its host, Stewart Macpherson, went on to become the original host of the UK version.


In Hungary, the game is known as Barkochba, named after Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the second-century Jewish uprising against the Romans. The story goes that the Romans cut out a spy's tongue, so when he reached bar Kokhba's camp, he was only able to nod or shake his head to answer bar Kokhba's questions. The number of questions is not limited to twenty.

Barkochba was staged as a television game show Kicsoda-Micsoda? (later renamed Van Benne Valami) on the Hungarian national television Magyar Televízió from 1975 to 1991. It was the first show presented by István Vágó, who would later host the Hungarian versions of Jeopardy! (Mindent vagy semmit!) and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (Legyen Ön is milliomos!).


A bi-lingual (Irish/English) version of Twenty Questions aired on RTE Radio 1 in the 1960s and 1970s. It was hosted by Gearóid Ó Tighearnaigh, written by Dick O'Donovan and produced by Bill O'Donovan (occasional panelist) and included Dominic O’Riordan, Tony Ó Dálaigh, Seán Ó Murchú and Máire Noone on the panel. It proved enormously popular, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, hosted in local clubs and community halls.


NRK aired its own version continuously from 1947 to the early 1980s. In 2004, the radio series was revived and regained its popularity, leading to a 2006 TV version. The Norwegian 20 spørsmål continues on NRK radio and TV, and a web-based game is available at the official NRK website. A 2006 board game based on the series is currently the prize sent to listeners who beat the panel.[7]


Polish version, 20 pytań was shown in TVP1 in 1960s, hosts were Ryszard Serafinowicz and Joanna Rostocka. In Polish version there were three 3-player teams: mathematicians, journalists and mixed team from Łódź. Show was cancelled due to scandal, when it turned out that mathematicians used binary search algorithm to answer the questions, using to it Wielka Encyklopedia Powszechna PWN.

United Kingdom[edit]

The BBC aired a version on radio from 28 February 1947 to 1976 with TV specials airing in 1947 and 1948 plus a series from 1956 to 1957. On radio, the subject to be guessed was revealed to the audience by a "mystery voice" (originally Norman Hackforth from 1947 to 1962; he was later a regular panelist).[8] Hackforth became well known amongst the British public as much for his aloofness as his apparent knowledgeability.

The series was originally presented by Stewart MacPherson. The panel comprised Richard Dimbleby, Jack Train, Anona Winn and Joy Adamson, in later years comedian Peter Glaze also. A later presenter, Gilbert Harding, was ousted in 1960 by producer Ian Messiter when, after having drunk a triple gin-and-tonic he had originally offered to Messiter, proceeded to completely ruin the night's game – he insulted two panelists, failed to recognise a correct identification after seven questions (after revealing the answer upon the 20th question, he yelled at the panel and audience), and ended the show three minutes early by saying "I'm fed up with this idiotic game ... I'm going home".[9] He was replaced by Kenneth Horne until 1967, followed by David Franklin from 1970 to 1972.

A revival ran for one season in the 1990s on BBC Radio 4, hosted by Jeremy Beadle. A version with a rival line-up,[10] produced by commercial station Radio Luxembourg, is not acknowledged by the BBC.[8] Another revival, under the title Guess What?, was hosted by Barry Took for a single series in 1998.[11]

A televised version ran from 1960 to 1961, produced by Associated-Rediffusion for ITV and hosted by Peter Jones (who later hosted in 1974). The "mystery voice" later became a running gag on the radio series I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.

The BBC World Service also broadcast a version called Animal, Vegetable and Mineral, chaired by Terry Wogan with a panel including Rachael Heyhoe Flint and Michael Flanders.[citation needed]

In the movie The 20 Questions Murder Mystery (1950) then members of the team, including Richard Dimbleby and Norman Hackforth, appear. Together with two newspaper reporters, they work to find the identity of a serial killer who sends in questions for the panel that prefigure his next victim.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Walsorth, Mansfield Tracy. Twenty Questions: A Short Treatise on the Game, Holt, 1882.
  2. ^ Peirce, C. S. (1901 MS), "On The Logic of Drawing History from Ancient Documents, Especially from Testimonies", manuscript corresponding to an abstract delivered at the National Academy of Sciences meeting of November 1901. Published in 1958 in Collected Papers v. 7, paragraphs 162–231; see 220. Reprinted (first half) in 1998 in The Essential Peirce v. 2, pp. 75–114; see 107–110.
  3. ^ Wheeler, John Archibald; Zurek, Wojciech Hubert (1983). Quantum theory and measurement. Princeton, New Jersey. p. 202. ISBN 978-1-4008-5455-4. OCLC 888216845.
  4. ^ Gribbin, John; Gribbin, Mary; Gribbin, Jonathan (2000-02-22). Q is for Quantum: An Encyclopedia of Particle Physics. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780684863153.
  5. ^ Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. pp. 685–686. ISBN 978-0195076783. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  6. ^ "A Letter From The Publisher: Nov. 23, 1962". Time. 1962-11-23. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on March 2, 2009. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
  7. ^ "NRK". 2009-06-20. Retrieved 2009-07-25.
  8. ^ a b "Obituary: Norman Hackforth". The Independent. 1996-12-18. Retrieved 2009-08-26.
  9. ^ UK Game Shows: "20 Questions"
  10. ^ David Kynaston (2008). Austerity Britain 1945–51. Bloomsbury. p. 583. ISBN 978-0-7475-9923-4.
  11. ^ "Guess What?". RadioListings. Retrieved 2013-07-23.


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