This puzzle is part of the Monthly Topic Challenge #9: Game/Quiz Shows.

On my recent appearance on the UK version of Pointless* I found myself in Round 1 standing on the first podium with my cousin, Sam. The other contestant pairs were Toni & Tom, Ursula & Ulric, and Victor & Victoria. The first question category was announced, and it seemed to be a nice easy one: US states.

As per the format of the programme, before the show 100 members of the public had been given 100 seconds and asked to name as many of the 50 US states as they could. Contestants in the studio then each needed to name a single US state themselves and would be awarded a number points equivalent to the number of people who had managed to name that state in their 100 seconds, in the hope of scoring as low as possible - i.e. seeking out answers that few people managed to name (so the more 'obscure' ones).

Sam stepped up first and gave his answer:

Sam: Rhode Island

Score 27

The scoring column moved down to 27 - not an especially low score. Silently, I thought the 100 people must have been a pretty informed bunch to do so well there.

Next, it was Toni's turn:

Toni: Alabama

Score 13

Hold on - 13 for Alabama?? I immediately revised my feelings about the 100 - surely more people would have remembered (Sweet Home) Alabama than tiny Rhode Island?! Very weird.

Ursula stepped up:

Ursula: Colorado

Score 27

I breathed a small sigh of relief as Ursula and Ulric drew level with us on score. This put us in a better position. As long as I could outscore (i.e. score less than) Ulric on the second pass, we would be through...

Victor's turn:

Victor: Wisconsin

Score 28

Even better! We were no longer the highest scoring pair at all! The host recapped the scores then the second contestant in each pair moved to the front to give their answers, each aware that the highest scoring pair (once their scores had been added together) would be eliminated at the end of the round. The second pass began (as always) in reverse order...

Victoria: Maryland

Score 1

Ulric: Kansas

Score 2

Tom: North Carolina

Score 16

Incredibly, these answers had put all three of the other teams tied on 29 points each, just 2 points ahead of us! And then it was my turn, and all kinds of thoughts were running through my mind as I sought to find an answer worth just 1 point, or even a 0-pointer - the much-desired 'pointless answer'. One particularly pressing thought was an element of cynicism on my count - had the production team rigged the scores so as to ensure all pairs tied on the same points total, making for 'good television'? Was I doomed to receive 2 points for whatever answer I gave?

But then something else struck me. There had been a discernible pattern in the scores awarded so far! The production team hadn't been rigging the quiz at all - rather it seemed to me that they'd got lazy and not bothered to ask 100 people for answers, instead assigning scores to each state based on a specific metric. I quickly performed some mental gymnastics and worked out that there was only one answer I could give to score low enough to ensure safe passage to the next round...

TASK: Identify the rule behind the scoring system in the round, and help me give the one remaining answer that will see me and Sam safely through to Round 2...


During the application process for Pointless, for each team of two there's a form to fill out, a short quiz, a play-through of the game with other potential competitors, and a screen-test - much of this is to help the producers make sure they've got a right pair of characters on their hands...

* In case it needs stating, the premise for this question is almost entirely fictitious - I have actually been a contestant on Pointless in the past, but this was many years ago and I did not face this question. This puzzle is my own original creation...

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "I have actually been a contestant on Pointless in the past" Cool! How did you do? Did you win the deceptively/disappointingly small trophy? $\endgroup$ Apr 14 at 9:22
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Nice red herring for the first two :) $\endgroup$ Apr 14 at 9:22
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @JaapScherphuis Ha, yes I am the proud owner of a surprisingly-small-but-also-surprisingly-heavy trophy :) Missed out on the money though, by a single point! A fun day out and a very friendly show, with a really nice supportive atmosphere among the contestants. $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Apr 14 at 9:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Nice variant on the good old spaghetti party template ;-) $\endgroup$ Apr 14 at 15:16
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Might we know which episode of Pointless? $\endgroup$ Apr 16 at 10:44

1 Answer 1


The rule can be found by realizing that

the right pair of characters is the pair of characters to the right of the characters in the postal abbreviation. (For states with multiple copies of letters in the postal abbreviation, take the letter to the right of the first one. If a letter in the postal abbreviation is only found at the end of the state name, there is no letter to the right of it so only a single character is used.)

These characters can be converted into numbers using A1Z26 and then summed to get the points for each state.

Here is how that lazy production team assigned scores:

Rhode Island (RI): H + S = 8 + 19 = 27
Alabama (AL): L + A = 12 + 1 = 13
Colorado (CO): O + L = 15 + 12 = 27
Wisconsin (WI): I + S = 9 + 19 = 28
Maryland (MD): A = 1
Kansas (KS): A + A = 1 + 1 = 2
North Carolina (NC): O + A = 15 + 1 = 16

So the best remaining state is


Maine (ME): A = 1

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent work, and exactly right :) My next hint (if needed) was going to be to focus on why Maryland=1, which I thought could be a useful breakthrough. I used RI and AL first because (as others pointed out in comments) their state abbreviations also sum to the total given in A1Z26, and there's also a Periodic Table decoy in that Al and Co are atomic numbers 13 and 27, respectively. But I'm glad somebody managed to see past the decoys and find the answer - well done! $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Apr 28 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Stiv Maryland was actually a red herring for me, because I saw a nice way to score 1 using the last two letters. I missed the Periodic Table connection (I tried to check a non-elemental state), but I did notice the pattern with RI and AL. In the end it was AL and the hint that got me to the solution. Thanks for a fun puzzle! $\endgroup$
    – Tobbs
    Apr 28 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it and got there in the end! $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Apr 28 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, well done! I didn't see the encoding and tried too long to get two letters by taking the tens and ones of each score as indices either into the state's name or the state capital's name or a QWERTY keyboard layout. Never mind. When exploring some dead end or other, I learned that Annapolis, the capital of MD, was formely called Providence, like the capital of RI. No-one can take that away from me. :) $\endgroup$
    – M Oehm
    Apr 29 at 8:21

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