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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 9 (4 December 2002)

Grindelwald (Switzerland) - Kandersteg (Switzerland) - Goppenstein (Switzerland) - Niouc (Switzerland) - Montreux (Switzerland) - Lake Geneva (Switzerland) - Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) - Singapore (Singapore)

Winning the race by staying in the pack

The Amazing Race is a reality-TV show, and a race, about travel around the world. Last week’s column focused more on travel and reality. This week I’ll talk more about strategy and tactics in the race.

If there’s any lesson for real travellers in what we saw in “The Amazing Race” this week, it’s how much stress even modest time pressure can place on otherwise friendly relationships. Impatience (obviously inherent in the concept of racing) and sleep deprivation (the theme of host Phil Keoghan’s current sidebar on the CBS Web site), can cost you friendships as well as money. Jet-lagged from the flights from Europe to Asia (one of the largest time differences of their trip around the world), and forced to rush, even Gerard and Ken, seemingly the most good-humored of the teams, were screaming at each other for the first time this week.

The sad thing was that, while sacrificing their enjoyment of this part of the trip around the world to their desire to win the race, none of the teams really followed a winning strategy.

Other than minor product-placement prizes from the advertisers (this week’s broadcast also featured placements within the racers’ tasks of sponsors’ cell phones and. once again, digital cameras), there’s no real advantage to finishing first in any of the intermediate legs of “The Amazing Race”. Stage prizes like a seven-day cruise, much less a pair of digital cameras, are petty compared with a million US dollars or a trip around the world.

Waits for flights that only operate once a day, and for tasks that can only be completed during certain hours of the day, routinely wipe out leads of half a day, and bunch the teams up again — to the satisfaction of the TV producers who design it that way to keep viewers watching by keeping them in suspense about the finish.

Only if a team got a full 24-hour lead on the other teams would there be any significant advantage to an intermediate lead: in that case, having effectively “lapped” the pack, they could expect to maintain that day’s lead for the remainder of the race. But only twice in three seasons of “The Amazing Race” has a team gotten separated from the rest by a full 24 hours. And both times it was a trailing team falling a day behind the pack (and being eliminated that episode or the next), never a lead team getting a full day ahead of the others.

“The Amazing Race” is like a bicycle race: it’s counterproductive to take the lead, until the final sprint, unless you are confident of breaking away. The winning strategy is to be in the lead pack, as rested as possible, when that final sprint begins, having conserved your strength by drafting behind the leaders. Each team’s goal from the start of “The Amazing Race” should be to stay with the “peloton”, avoid elimination, and make the final cut of three teams, without using their one “Fast Forward” pass until the finale.

The “Fast Forward” is a single task which, once completed, allows the first team to do so to skip all the rest of the tasks for that leg, and go as directly as they can manage to the next “Pit Stop”. (On a real trip, you might liken it to spending all of your emergency reserve of cash to get you out of a difficult or uncomfortable situation.) Only one team can use the “Fast Forward” pass in each episode, and each team can use a “Fast Forward” only once in the entire race.

Because of how long it typically takes all the other teams to complete their assigned tasks, the “Fast Forward” has taken teams from last place to first in one leg. No team has made it to the finale, in any of the first three seasons, without using having already used the “Fast Forward”. But a team that could do so would be the overwhelming favorite to win the million US dollar prize.

At the start last week’s episode of “The Amazing Race 3”, Jill and John Vito were the sole remaining team that had not yet used a “Fast Forward”. With only five teams left, that was becoming more and more the dominant factor in the race. The longer they stayed in the race without using a “Fast Forward”, the more likely they would become to use it to win the final sprint. The logical tactic for the other four teams would have been to form a temporary alliance against John Vito and Jill, and try either to eliminate them or to level the playing field by forcing them, as soon as possible, to use their “Fast Forward” to avoid being eliminated.

There were two non-elimination legs (last week’s broadcast and the first half of this week’s) before the next team was eliminated at the end of this week’s two-hour episode. All the teams had plenty of time to figure out what to do. But none of the them did, including Jill and John Vito themselves. Both the winning teams (i.e those who weren’t eliminated), and the losers (this week, Jill and John Vito), blundered badly in their strategy and tactics.

Some of the other pairs of teams cooperated on particular tasks, especially navigation. (This mirrors the way real travellers find their way around: Some people are better than others at reading maps, using compasses, and asking directions. Some travel tasks are typically shared, or traded back and forth. But most travelling couples or larger parties quickly figure out who’s the best map reader and navigator, and have them do most of the critical direction and route finding.) But there was no sustained or multi-team alliance, and no apparent recognition of the extent of the threat posed by a team that had made it this far without using a “Fast Forward”.

Nor did John Vito and Jill seem to have any realization of what a favored position they were in as long as they were anywhere in the pack. Last week they finished last, but it turned out not to matter because it was a non-elimination leg, and all the teams were within 13 minutes of each other (the narrowest spread of any episode to date). Yet near the start of tonight’s first leg they chose to go after the “Fast Forward”. By that point they had already made up essentially all the time, and were right behind the other teams driving to the train that would carry their cars through the Lötschberg tunnel from Kandersteg to Goppenstein. The difference was trivial, and would have been erased, as they should have realized, when they all had to wait for the same train.

As a result of the “Fast Forward”, Jill and John Vito did “win” the first of this week’s two legs. Zach and Flo finished last, having taken the longest time to assemble two bicycles from components well enough to satisfy a Swiss inspector that they were safe to ride in city traffic. (Remember my mention a few weeks ago of the importance of knowing how to check a rental bicycle for loose nuts, bolts, brakes, cables, and other safety hazards?) But once again, it was a non-elimination leg, and John Vito and Jill were spared.

John Vito and Jill, however, had wasted their one “Fast Forward” at a moment when they were essentially in a five-way dead heat, and would have had a good chance of beating one of the other teams in a sprint to avoid elimination. In the second of this week’s legs, when they had difficulty finding their way by car back and forth through Singapore and fell well behind, they no longer had the “Fast Forward” available, and were eliminated at the end of this week’s show.

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