In the know: Itai Hermann is the smartest man on TV

The real secret to gaining a wide knowledge base: actively deciding that no topic is too hard or too boring and striving to taste them all.

Itai Hermann (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Itai Hermann
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Itai Hermann is one of those rare people who seem to have something interesting and thought-out to say about virtually any topic. In the course of our interview he talked about his life and his many years of work in trivia game shows, sure, but also about Menachem Begin, Feldenkrais exercises, how economics is taught, theories about why we experience déjà vu and more.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has ever seen him in his current role as the Chaser in Kan 11’s hit game show Hamirdaf (The Chase), based on a successful British format and hosted by Ido Rosenblum. Unlike other trivia formats such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? or Jeopardy, in this show the contestants are not fighting each other or alone, but instead team up to go against a permanent opponent, the show’s Chaser, who is often introduced as the smartest man on TV (a title that Hermann himself rejects). They go against him separately and then, for the final round, together. If they as a team do better than he does, they split the money; if he does better, they lose and get nothing.
Smartest or not, he has an impressive ability to answer a whole lot of questions accurately and very quickly – to a point where a curious viewer has to wonder: what is going on inside his brain?
In the zone
The answer is, for the most part, ordered chaos. Just enough stress to keep him sharp, not too much stress that might throw him off his game. Looking at the experience in hindsight (most of the season was filmed before it began airing), Hermann is able to analyze it in detail.
“With every question that appears, the first thing you feel is horror. You have to tell yourself, ‘you know this one,’ and then the answer comes out – or it doesn’t, in which case you either have to give an educated guess or start working at finding the answer.”
“Working” in this context means trusting that the answer to the trivia question is stored somewhere in his memory, and figuring out how to get there – and fast, because the most crucial part of the show is his final round against the clock.
“Very early in the game I understood that I just have to get into this ‘zone’ for the quick round. I realized this is a sport and I’m a high-level athlete, because it’s all about concentrated mental work. I know the answers, but retrieving them from memory means rising above my day-to-day self.”
Preparing for filming, then, included some information learning and refreshing his knowledge, but mostly mental work to make sure that when those quick rounds arrive he can get in the zone – and stay there. It doesn’t always work, though.
“After the first episode aired we still had a few last days of filming,” says Hermann. He made a point of not watching the show yet so it wouldn’t affect him, and trusted his colleagues and viewer responses, which were very positive.
Knowing this gave him confidence, which was helpful at first, but only until he became too confident. During the first day of filming after the show began airing, he lost his first episode of the day. This was still OK; then, after a break, came the next episode to film.
That one he describes as nothing short of a crash, caused by over-thinking.
“Now that I’ve watched that episode and seen my own body language, I can say exactly what happened. I knew that I was too complacent and I told myself not to be complacent, which made me too nervous and threw me out of the ‘zone.’ I forgot things I knew well.”
In the final round of each episode, the contestants (usually three or four) get two minutes to answer as many questions as they can as a team. Then the Chaser gets his own two minutes, during which he has to answer as many questions as they did (plus a few extra ones, depending on how many contestants are left in the game). If he gets one wrong, the clock is paused and the team gets a chance to give their own answer to that same question; if they get it right, he is set back by one step, adding one more question he has to get right within the time left in order to win. Amazingly, he usually does – the team only wins in about 25-30% of the episodes. But this time was different.
Watching the episode (No. 23), you can actually see his disintegration as it progresses. His final round starts off well – a couple of mistakes, but nothing he hasn’t recovered from before – but for his 21st question out of 24 he is asked which war the Battle of Jutland took place in. Unable to retrieve the answer, he guesses World War II. His answer is close, but not close enough. The clock is paused, and the team, making an educated guess assuming Hermann confused the two wars, correctly answers World War I.
What follows in those last few moments is uncharacteristic in the extreme: he gets three answers wrong one after another, the clock is paused time and again, and by the fourth one it doesn’t even matter whether he knows the answer or not, because his time is up and the team has won. It’s one of the most suspenseful, riveting episodes of the season so far.
This story has a happy ending for the Chaser: by the time the third and final episode of the day began filming, he not only regained his focus but used the earlier frustration to fuel his performance.
“I said to myself, man, the magic is over. How do you go on after that?! I was so angry with myself,” says Hermann. So angry that he got all of his answers right. “The contestants of the next few [episodes filmed] suffered the consequences,” he jokes.
Moments like that dramatic final round provide an intriguing glimpse into just how delicate our mind can be under stress. Minor shifts can make for major results.
“This whole analysis, we wouldn’t even be talking about it if I had just guessed World War I instead of II,” Hermann points out. “Because it was a guess. We’re talking about a neuron that decided to go this way and not that way, and that led to a real chain reaction.”
Looking back at the season, he has become very interested in the cognitive psychology systems in play when we’re under stress. Hermann is not at all new to game shows; he’s been in the business of creating games, writing and editing trivia questions for TV shows and developing game show formats for 25 years. He’s just never been in front of the camera before.
“One thing I found out was that having a lot of experience in making TV does nothing to help you estimate how well you would come off on TV,” he says.
But the real revelation was finding out what happens to the mind under pressure. What he calls “the zone” turns out to be extreme stress, which pushes his brain to maximum performance. Of course, for the brain to do that, it really needs to believe that something huge is at stake.
“In that third episode [following the crash] I was fighting for my life. Really! That’s an insight I came to later,” says Hermann. “If I had heard myself say that three months ago, I would be like, calm down, man. On game shows you see people who are about to win a lot of money. Twenty thousand, sometimes NIS 90,000 are on the line. And then there’s me – nobody is going to fire me if I get something wrong, why should I care so much?”
Contestants seemingly have much more at stake – but only seemingly.
“Even before I became a familiar face, I was well known within the industry. If I’m the top trivia questions editor in Israel, not to mention the Chaser on the show, I have no choice – if I don’t prove myself each and every second, then I stop being that important thing and I stop being me. So I really am fighting for my life! And that’s much more important than NIS 100,000 or NIS 1 million.”
Psychologists have long known what the brain does when it believes life is on the line: whatever it takes to survive, whether you’re up against an actual tiger or a metaphorical life threat. Hermann noticed in his own experience two interesting effects of being under such stress. The first is that time suddenly moves slowly; the second is that the mind searches everywhere it can for an a solution to the problem at hand.
He had read articles comparing human memory to a library, but it didn’t quite ring true; instead he found a metaphor that works better for him, and is very much the product of our social media age: tags.
“I thought, what if I got a trivia question about Caesar then I went to the history shelf, and then to the Rome section, and then find the parts about Julius Caesar? Not really.”
Rather, he believes his ability to retrieve a piece of information depends on how many different ‘tags’ that information has in his brain.
“Julius Caesar is connected to a river, and to victory, and to July, and to ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Anyone who works with social media or databases knows you should always use as many tags as you can.”
More tags, in this metaphor, means more associations your brain can stumble upon when looking for an answer – and the faster it can retrieve it. (This idea does fit in well with contemporary theories in cognitive psychology, which specify that some ways to improve memory and learning include expanding on the learned material, organizing different facts together and associating new information with things you already know.) Hermann felt these two effects – time moving slowly and the brain’s use of any cue it can find – again and again, surprised at how fast he managed to remember facts he hadn’t thought of for decades.
Another incident illustrates the variety of cues with which the brain can work. Before filming, he made sure to go over current events and gossip, in case such questions appear. One thing that came up a lot at the time was the marriage of model Shir Elmaliach and football player Elroy Cohen. He made a note of it.
“We’re filming a final round and Ido gives me my question: ‘Which football player married the model Ilana Berkovitz?’ By the time my brain got to her name, it was already saying, ‘Hey, you’ve waited for this moment for months!’ and preparing the answer Elroy Cohen. Then it realized the question is about Ilana Berkovitz, not Shir Elmaliach, and I go, “It’s not Elroy Cohen. It’s not Elroy Cohen. Elroy, please vacate your spot in my consciousness. It’s time to work.’”
Hermann began doing what he’s there for: looking for the answer.
“So I know Ilana Berkovitz, and I know it’s a football player. But I’m drawing a blank. And time is running out, you have to give an answer! Then an amazing thing happens: I see the man’s image in my mind. And he’s super famous, a very well-known face. I can visualize him, but what’s his name?! Suddenly a phrase comes to my mind: ‘Most capped player in the Israeli national team.’ Which today is actually Yossi Benayoun, but that changed recently, and before it changed the title belonged to… Arik Benado.”
And there it is. He’s found the answer.
This whole elaborate train of thought might have taken five or six seconds, or maybe even less, says Hermann, but it felt much longer, as if it was happening in slow motion.
Learning how to learn
The trick to being good in this game may be to be able to retrieve information quickly – but that doesn’t solve the problem most people struggle with: you have to have all that information stored in your memory to begin with.
“Learning has to come from a place of… I’ll use the most bombastic word for it: passion,” says Hermann. “The more passion you have for something, the more you’ll dive into it. I learned geography and math by loving football. Statistical mathematics runs in my blood because growing up, Maccabi Netanya FC was so important to me, and I had to know their chances: so they’re leading by six points, what does that mean? Will a tie be enough? I used to build charts for all possible outcomes.”
Learning, furthermore, is not at all about memorizing, but about everything around it: understanding, connecting, associating. He was diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder when he was 28, and though as a child he didn’t yet have a diagnosis to help explain things, he discovered the right way for him to learn was not the one that was expected from him.
“When I started first grade I felt I had an advantage over other kids, but I also had a lot of disadvantages, like motor skill problems and illegible handwriting. I knew a lot of things, but didn’t do so well in tests. I never felt bad getting an 80 or 90 grade, but given that I was always the one with my hand up in class, I was supposed to be a straight-A student. I wasn’t.”
He gave up on trying to copy down everything from the blackboard and instead adopted another way, which in hindsight is actually very popular advice today: sit down in class, listen and try to understand. If something in particular is important to remember, write it down as an outline, but that’s it.
Another factor that pushed Hermann in his learning is his rebellion against the false dichotomy between being a science type or a humanities type of person, as if you couldn’t be curious about both. Though the system has changed a bit since then, back when he was in school it was customary to choose between focusing on science and math or on arts and humanities. It annoyed him a lot.
“I don’t like the assumption that you have to decide between the two. And of course once you’re tagged as one or the other you will also act accordingly. Some people really are drawn only to one side, and if it fits them that’s fine, but you can’t shape your life according to a decision you made in ninth grade.”
He vividly remembers his indignation and his commitment to beat the system ever since. Every choice he made, says Hermann, was in shifting the pendulum back and forth. For instance, he decided to study music in high school, since he had been learning piano since second grade.
“I thought it would be fun and I had enough knowledge in music theory so they couldn’t scare me with that. So I said, since this was going to be easy, my second subject should be a hard one. Let’s see, what would be the most difficult… five-point physics. Looking back, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in school. From a 80 to 90 student I went to scoring 15 to 40, which was a huge crisis, because how could this happen to me? Getting 80 to 90 was so easy!”
Eventually a tutor came along and the 80 was had, but not before the crisis left its mark.
He applied a similar thought process in choosing subjects to study at Tel Aviv University.
“I was sure I was going to have an academic career because I love learning and teaching. So I thought, ‘If I’m going to be a professor, it’s probably going to be in political science,’ which was my favorite. Again I asked myself, ‘What is my weakest area?’ I didn’t know anything about economics, so this was a chance to learn how to read the economics section.”
That, perhaps, is the real secret to gaining a wide knowledge base: actively deciding that no topic is too hard or too boring and striving to taste them all.
In his career in writing and editing trivia questions – which includes some of the biggest shows in Israel such as Wheel of Fortune, King of Trivia and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – and in developing games and “escape room” adventures, Hermann demands from the contestants the same thing he demands from himself: rise to the challenge.
“I call it ‘sweating,’” he explains. “When I’m writing a question, I don’t want them to say ‘Oh, it was too easy’ and I don’t want them to say ‘That was too hard, what do you want from me?’ either. In between those two is what is called sweating for it. I’m OK with you knowing the answer to my question, but you have to make an effort to get there.”
And if they don’t know the answer, that’s just a wonderful opportunity to use some more of their nonmemorizing skills like analytical thinking and logic to try and give an educated guess.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see contestants do that,” says Hermann, “and good contestants can do very well without knowing the answer.”
“The ability to learn, analytical skills, resourcefulness, these are so important. People often say those became important in today’s world of Google and apps. But it was probably important before that, too. We just didn’t notice.”