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The quiz star versus the nobody Popular Russian game show is rocked by cheating allegations

Meduza
Alexander Drouz
Alexander Drouz
Interpress / PhotoXPress

Ilya Ber, the chief editor behind the television game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” has accused “What? Where? When?” veteran contestant Alexander Drouz of trying to cheat his way to a large cash prize. In his show’s LiveJournal community, Ber wrote that Drouz contacted him ahead of taping in November 2018 and asked him for an advance copy of the questions and correct answers in exchange for a share of the 3-million-ruble ($45,630) winnings.

“It pains me to say this, but I'm forced to write about it,” Ilya Ber said on LiveJournal, explaining that his game show honors a principle approved by Pervyi Kanal CEO Konstantin Ernst: “The players — no matter how famous, important, or tough they are — should not know the answers in advance.” In his decade with the program, Ber says this rule has never been violated, adding that no one had ever even suggested leaking the questions in exchange for money. “Until last November, when Alexander Drouz came to me and proposed that I help him win 3 million rubles,” Ber revealed.

On November 23, 2018, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” taped an episode where Alexander Drouz teamed up with Viktor Sidnev (another “What? Where? When?” veteran). According to Ilya Ber, Drouz called before the show was taped and offered what was essentially a bribe: “Let’s share the money if we win the show’s grand prize: 3 million rubles.”

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” December 22, 2018, episode
Pervyi Kanal

Ber recorded himself on November 23 explaining how Drouz offered the bribe during a phone call three days before “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” recorded. Drouz ostensibly wanted to discuss matters related to the “What? Where? When?” Association.

“At the end of the call about association matters, Drouz said that we’d see each other soon. I asked him where, and he said at the taping of the next ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ episode. Then he hinted that it was his time to win the 3 million and he could somehow share some of it win me. He didn’t use those exact words, but the hint was clear enough,” Ber said in his recording.

Ber says he was caught completely off guard and ended the conversation, pretending that he “hadn’t noticed” Drouz’s suggestion. “And then, a couple of days later, I thought, ‘What the hell was that?’ This man once again wants to pull off an absolutely disgusting scam, effectively stealing money, playing with questions that he knows in advance,” Ber says. To be sure that Drouz was serious about trying to cheat, Ber says he decided to call him back and “clarify this point” while recording the conversation.

Ilya Ber recorded the following call on Skype:

Hello. Hello. Hello.

Yes, Ilyusha. I’m all ears.

Mr. Drouz, greetings.

Yes.

There’s something I’d like to ask.

Ask away.

In our last conversation, you said something about a million and a half [rubles]. I didn’t give you any answer. Was that some kind of joke?

Well, come on now. Maybe it’s a joke. Maybe not. We could see where it gets us.

Well, the thing is, times are a bit tough right now...

I understand. Well, you know, it’s just a mil and a half. That’s my share, yes? And from there we could see.

Alright, but you’re playing with Sidnev. How will you do it?

Yes, I’m playing with Sidnev. Look, if we make it to the three [million], then that’s one and a half per man [for Drouz and Sidnev]. I can talk with him so that, you know, also, well you know, whatever you call it.

But Sidnev will never go for it.

We’ll sort it out. We will sort. It. Out.

Well okay. In that case…

Listen. What do we want? It’s like that. Divide it up between the three of us?

Well, in that case, I guess. You and Sidnev are both heavy enough hitters to be entitled to win three million on the show.

Yes, I think so, too. I think so, too. Well okay, in that case, well, you understand that it’s minus 13 [percent in taxes].

According to the recording, Drouz ultimately offered Ber about 800,000 rubles ($12,170) of his expected winnings to supply him with the questions and answers ahead of the show. Ber says he decided to share some of the real questions and answers (six thru nine in the episode), in order to get proof that Drouz was cheating. Starting with the 10th question, however, Ber subsequently replaced the questions with new ones. (To win the show’s entire 3-million-ruble prize, contestants need to answer 15 questions correctly.)

In a call recorded on November 23, Ber reads off the show’s questions, lets Drouz respond, and then gives him the correct answer. When Drouz misses the sixth question (“What color are the eyes of the title character in the song ‘King Orange Summer’ by the band Bravo?”), Ber suggests that he solicit a hint from the audience for this question, “just for effect,” when recording the show. In the end, Drouz did exactly that.

By the end of the show, Drouz and Sidnev had become the first “What? Where? When?” veterans to come within one correct answer of winning the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” grand prize. They failed to answer the last question correctly, however, and went home with just 200,000 rubles ($3,040).

“At the recording, everything went more or less as I expected, except for the fact that they almost won the three million, thanks mainly to Sidnev’s efforts,” Ber wrote online. “But between questions six and nine, they were playing with questions Drouz knew in advance. That is a fact. On the one hand, it worked out that I’d provided a contestant with real, albeit not decisive, questions and he played them. That’s bad. On the other hand, he could have stopped the recording at any moment (it’s not a live broadcast, after all), and announced that the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” editor is a cheat who gave him the questions for the game. Theoretically, I couldn’t rule out that Drouz had recorded our calls, too, to try to catch me for some reason. But, no, nothing like that happened. When the 10th question was asked, however, Drouz noticeably went pale, and Sidnev basically took over.”

Ber accuses Alexander Drouz of “immoral” and unethical behavior, and recommends that the leadership of the “What? Where? When?” International Club Association disqualify him from further competition and bar him from acting as a tournament organizer and association official. “I ask that this blog post be regarded as an official appeal to the International Club Association’s Ethics Commission and the association’s leadership. Copies [of this text] will be sent to the official addresses of both these bodies. Admittedly, it is strange to address this statement against Drouz to a commission that he chairs, but I’m not the one who put him there, and he’s not the only commission member,” Ber explained.

Ber says the last time he spoke to Drouz was during the break before filming the final question. “I let him know that I’d caught him. My goal was to convince him to answer the last question incorrectly,” Ber told Meduza. “Because losing 3 million in that kind of situation was like death. I told him that I’d caught him and I called him a crook. He told me that I’d framed him, and he didn’t promise anything. In the end, he didn’t stop Sidnev from answering for them. I think Drouz thought they were answering correctly.”

Ber says he’s “99.99 percent sure” that Viktor Sidnev knew nothing about Drouz’s scheme. Sidnev did not respond to phone calls or online messages from Meduza.

What took Ber so long to come forward? “First, I needed to wait for the show to air,” he explained. “Then it was the New Year’s holidays. Then I talked it over with some people I trust, and tried to resolve the issue without a public scandal, discussing it with the management of the Igra television studio [which produces ‘What? Where? When?’]. And only after I hit a dead end here (there was a conversation, but there were no results) was I left with one option: going public.”

Ber says he’s certain that Drouz will never step down on his own. “Or it would already have come out after my conversation with [‘What? Where? When?’ International Club Association President Natalia] Stetsenko,” Ber says. “[Drouz] is probably counting on the strength of his brand. Compared to him, I’m a nobody — a ‘no name’ to the general public. I realize some people won’t believe me, and I could be ruining my whole life with this. But what happens is what happens.”

Ber told Meduza that he doesn’t think Pervyi Kanal CEO Konstantin Ernst was aware of the situation. He says he waited to inform Ilya Krivitsky, the CEO of Krasnyi Kvadrat (which produces “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”) until just before the show taped. “With Krivitsky, I wasn’t at my best, I must admit. I only told him when it was technically too late to cancel the recording, or it would have caused serious material losses for the company.”

Additionally, Ber says he talked before the show recorded to Nikolai Krapil, a “What? Where? When?” veteran contestant, and Sergey Pekhletsky, a producer at “Svoya Igra,” about his dealings with Drouz. Pekhletsky confirmed this to Meduza. “[What he says] corresponds to what he wrote,” the producer said, adding that he gave Ber no advice about how to handle the situation. “He’s an intelligent person. What kind of advice could I offer? This is his personal decision. The only thing I can say is that I’ve known Ber for a very long time. Like almost all the editors at ‘Svoya Igra,’ this is an extremely principled man. Even if I’d decided to tell Ber, hey, you know Drouz and I are on good terms, and you don’t need to do this, then I think Ber would have lost all respect for me, and I would have lost my self-respect. This is a grown man with his own views and his own principles that aren’t half bad. To have reproached him and said, buddy, goody two shoes, look around at the world we live in — that would have been wrong, in my opinion.” Nikolai Krapil was unable to answer Meduza’s questions, citing the terms of his contract with Igra TV.

Ber insists that he has no past quarrels with Drouz and no personal motive to go after the television celebrity. At the same time, Ber says he’s known for roughly 15 years already that “Alexander Drouz is a shady, dishonest person and frankly speaking an outright cheat.” “Among quiz show players, rumors have circulated since what feels like the mid-90s, but I only know about the one case for sure, so for now we can regard the rest to be rumors,” Ber says. Speaking to Meduza, Ber refused to go into any details about the other allegations against Drouz.

“The biggest problem” in all this is that Drouz is the face of “What? Where? When?” and Ber says he knew a public scandal could cast a shadow on both the television show and the entire community, “which would be even worse.” “But I couldn’t just leave it alone. In the end, a man must pay for cheating and fraud,” Ber wrote online.

Alexander Drouz didn’t answer Meduza’s phone calls. His agent promised to arrange an interview, but then stopped answering the telephone.

Victoria Selivanova, the spokeswoman for “What? Where? When?” ignored Meduza’s calls. Mikhail Barshchevsky, a former show participant and the federal government’s longstanding envoy to the nation’s highest courts, refused to discuss the allegations against Drouz. Maxim Potashev, another “magister” on the show, also would not comment on the scandal. “I have no opinion on the matter. Any misdeed should be punished, but I have no evidence for either side,” game show veteran Rovshan Askerov told Meduza.

“[Ilya] Ber is a rather honest man, it seems to me. He worked for us back when he was a very young guy. Sometimes he stops by and plays. The man gets into it. He’s a bold player, and he loses thanks to his own daring,” the host of “Svoya Igra,” Pyotr Kuleshov, told Meduza, adding that he can say nothing about Alexander Drouz’s reputation.

Pervyi Kanal spokeswoman Larisa Krymova told Meduza that the network has many questions about the allegations. She says the station’s executives only learned about the story from news reports. “We need to verify the authenticity of the recorded telephone calls and find out if the man on the other end of Ilya Ber’s phone was Alexander Drouz, and we need to ask Ilya Berg a number of questions, such as why is he making these facts public only now, when the show was recorded last November? Once we have answers to these questions, the network and the producers of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ and ‘What? Where? When?’ will reach a decision and inform you,” Krymova explained.

On February 13, Drouz finally responded to Ber’s allegations, telling the magazine RBC that Ber is trying to frame him for cheating. Drouz says he decided to see “how far this person would go,” playing along with Ber’s supposed bribery solicitation. Drouz says he informed his teammate Viktor Sidnev about Ber’s actions (Sidnev confirms this), and the two players claim to have missed the final question deliberately, after which they planned to report Ber to the show’s executives.

Pervyi Kanal CEO Konstantin Ernst told reporters on Wednesday that he believes a personal conflict fuels the accusations and recriminations between Ber and Drouz, lamenting that a private matter has compromised a popular television program.

Taisia Bekbulatova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock