Charles Van Doren Admits to Cheating on the Game Show Twenty-One

I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. The fact that I, too, was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol. There may be a kind of justice in that. I don’t know. I do know, and I can say it proudly to this committee, that since Friday, October 16, when I finally came to a full understanding of what I had done and of what I must do, I have taken a number of steps toward trying to make up for it. I have a long way to go. I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”

— Charles Van Doren

Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926) is a noted American intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. He confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.

The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and literary critic/teacher Mark Van Doren and novelist and writer Dorothy Van Doren, Charles Van Doren was a committed academic with an unusually broad range of interests. He graduated from The High School of Music & Art and then earned a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as a master's degree in astrophysics and a doctorate in English (1955), both at Columbia University. He was also a student at Cambridge University in England.

Twenty One was not Van Doren's first interest. He originally approached producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman to appear on Tic-Tac-Dough, another game they produced. However, Enright and Freedman were impressed by Van Doren's polite style and telegenic appearance, thinking the youthful Columbia teacher would be the man to defeat their incumbent Twenty One champion, Herb Stempel, and boost the show's slowing ratings as Stempel's reign continued.

In January 1957, Van Doren entered a winning streak that ultimately earned him more than $129,000 and made him famous, including an appearance on the cover of TIME on February 11, 1957. His Twenty One run ended on March 11, when he lost to Vivienne Nearing, a lawyer whose husband Van Doren had previously beaten. After his defeat he was offered a three-year contract as a special "cultural correspondent" for Today, as well as guest appearances on other NBC programs, even serving as Today's substitute host when regular host Dave Garroway took a brief vacation.

When allegations of cheating were first raised, by Stempel and others, Van Doren denied any wrongdoing, saying "It's silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows." But on November 2, 1959, he admitted to the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, a United States Congress subcommittee, chaired by Arkansas Democrat Oren Harris, that he had been given questions and answers in advance of the show.

"I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. The fact that I, too, was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol. There may be a kind of justice in that. I don’t know. I do know, and I can say it proudly to this committee, that since Friday, October 16, when I finally came to a full understanding of what I had done and of what I must do, I have taken a number of steps toward trying to make up for it. I have a long way to go. I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them. Whatever their feeling for me now, my affection for them is stronger today than ever before. I am making this statement because of them. I hope my being here will serve them well and lastingly.

I asked (co-producer Albert Freedman) to let me go on (Twenty One) honestly, without receiving help. He said that was impossible. He told me that I would not have a chance to defeat Stempel because he was too knowledgeable. He also told me that the show was merely entertainment and that giving help to quiz contests was a common practice and merely a part of show business. This of course was not true, but perhaps I wanted to believe him. He also stressed the fact that by appearing on a nationally televised program I would be doing a great service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general, by increasing public respect for the work of the mind through my performances. In fact, I think I have done a disservice to all of them. I deeply regret this, since I believe nothing is of more vital importance to our civilization than education."