Has the Netflix hit Squid Game have you pining for more Korean shows where people play games for money? Don’t worry, there has been quite a number of Korean game shows that have been produced that had contestants compete for money, just like in Squid Game. The good thing is, the contestants in these shows don’t have to resort to violence and death. 

The show we’re going to explore is The Genius, a game show that ran for four seasons, from 2013 to 2015. When it was aired, it became a huge fad in Korea.

The Genius was a reality game show with 13 contestants from different backgrounds. There are some celebrities known for their social skills, professionals known for their particular skills in their work, and finally some “regular folk” known for their exceptional intelligence. These participants compete to be on top in every episode, which provides them with immunity from elimination. On every episode, one contestant is eliminated after two rounds of games – a Main Match and a Death Match.

During the Main Match, all players who have survived the previous episode’s elimination will play to win and to be immune from elimination via a token of life. There have been some Main Matches where more than one contestant receives the token of life and therefore, is exempted from elimination. In Main Matches, the winner receives an additional token of life which they can give to a fellow contestant, sparing the recipient from elimination as well. 

The contestant who performed the worst in the Main Match will face off with an opponent of his or her own choosing from among the contestants without a token of life in the Death Match. There have been episodes where there are joint losers, in which case the winner(s) of the Main Match will have to nominate the Death Match player from among the losers. Obviously, the Death Match loser is the eliminated contestant of that episode. 

Aside from the token of life, the winner(s) of the Main Match also win a number of red garnets. A red garnet is equivalent to 1,000,000 won (approximately US$1,000). In the final episode, only the total garnets of the winning contestant are exchanged for his or her prize money. Throughout the show, garnets can be given to other contestants as a form of leverage when negotiating some aspects of the game. Some Main Matches also allow the use of garnets for clues or implements that may win a game for a contestant. 

As the show’s title denotes, it would take a genius to win – but not just a genius in the conventional definition of being someone who has superior academic intelligence. As the start of the third season’s first episode showed, there are different kinds of intelligence, according to Harvard psychologist Howard Garner. To win this game show, it is believed that the contestant needs to employ the kind of intelligence that would benefit him or her the most, at least for a particular Main Match or Death Match. It can be interpersonal intelligence, verbal-linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, etc. 

The key is for the contestant to realize what skills are important for a victory. Thus, having a high IQ may not be assurance of success in the show, as understanding and grasping concepts quickly also aren’t – other contestants may notice this skill and may consider you a threat, prompting them to ally with other contestants to plot your downfall.  Some watches may require more of quick scheming, others may require superior logic, yet others may demand alliances and betrayal.

What are the games played in the Main and Death Matches? 

Most, if not all games are made to look like contestants need to be astute in using logic and mathematical skills, but that might only get them so far. A good deal of one’s success in the games also involves strategy and negotiations and building cooperative relationships and alliances with co-players to ensure favorable outcomes. Outthinking and amazing strategic mindsets can also help a lot in giving a contestant a win.

For example, in Season 2, Episode 11,  TV personality and politician Yoo Junghyun faced comedian Noh Hongchul in the Death Match that required them to play Same Picture Hunt, a game that was also Season 1’s final Death Match. The game involves 16 picture tiles hidden behind 16 letter panels and arranged in a 4 by 4 board for the contestants’ reference. Tiles corresponding to the pictures are then dealt out on a conveyor belt with 20 spaces on it. The candidates then try to locate the picture on the board that matches the next tile on their belt. If correct, they move to the next tile, their conveyor belt not moving. But if they’re wrong, the belt is sent one space backward and the erring contestant loses their turn.  This continues until either the winning candidate reaches the end of their conveyor belt or until the losing candidate loses all his or her tiles because they have fallen off the belt. 

Seems to be your usual memory game, right? In Season 1, former idol and TV personality Lee Sangmin and former newscaster and TV personality Kim Kyungran played the game in a straight laced-fashion – a battle of memory. That did not happen in Season 2 as politician Jonghyun used his advantage of going second in the game to block out Hongchul. How?

For example, Hongchul wanted to know the picture behind the letter S. As Hongchul’s picture and the picture behind S do not match, it becomes Jonghyun’s turn. Jonghyun does not use his turn to discover what’s behind another letter and instead just repeats Honghul’s chosen letter, S, for his round. Thus, Hongchul is not given new information. Since he comes first in the game, he used up all his tiles before Jonghyun lost his. Smart, eh? 

Another popular Death Match that was frequently used in Season 1 was Winning Streak, or simply put, rock paper scissors with politics. The point of the game is to make sure you have more allies with your fellow contestants compared to your opponent, so that you will have a longer winning streak, as you will play rock paper scissors with the contestants who aren’t in the elimination block. If the contestants you have allied with are few and far from each other, then the chances of you getting a long winning streak is slim.  

A lot of games were like this, proving that while you can get ahead in the contest with just a thorough understanding of the game’s rules, being strategic on how to use this understanding to win the game is also important. 

Who were the players in The Genius?

The Genius ran for four seasons and had popular personalities as contestants. In Season 1, aside from Sangmin and Kyungran who were mentioned earlier, other contestants include former member of the short-lived girl group Tinus Choi Jungmoon (who also happens to be a MENSA member, eliminated in Episode 5), controversial MC and DJ Kim Gura (as in the grouchy panelist in Radio Star and King of Masked Singer, eliminated in Episode 6), INFINITE leader Sunggyu (who was actually quite successful, reaching Episode 10 before getting eliminated), webtoon artist Kim Poong (eliminated in Episode 7), and weather reporter Park Eunji (eliminated in Episode 9). The season was won by former professional Starcraft player and TV personality Hong Jinho, who faced off with Kyungran in the final episode.

Season 1 champ Jinho (who was unfortunately eliminated in Episode 7) and Sangmin returned in Season 2. Aside from Hongchul and Jonghyun mentioned earlier, they were joined by Jaekyung (leader of girl group RAINBOW, 2nd to be eliminated). Jiwon (as in the leader of 1st gen mega group Sechs Kies, who like Season 1’s Sunggyu was also eliminated in Episode 10), magician Lee Eungyeol (who was always in coattails and sunglasses throughout the show, 4th to be eliminated), and former Starcraft professional player Lim Yohwan (as in Jinho’s mortal adversary in the gaming world), who faced Sangmin in the finals. 

Season 3 included academy math teacher and KAIST lecturer Nam Hweejung (who rose to fame after becoming the first contestant eliminated in Season 2 as many disliked his arrogance, though he fared better in Season 3, where he got eliminated in Episode 4), former singer and actor Kim Jeonghoon (as in Prince Lee Yul in Princess Hours, eliminated in Episode 6), and eventual winner, comedian Jang Dongmin, who beat then 19-year-old KAIST student Oh Hyunmin. Hyunmin, who then was the youngest contestant to ever appear in the show’s four seasons, went on to become a TV personality. 

Season 4 is sort of the show’s “greatest hits” season, where the most popular players of all three seasons reunited. 

What was the best season? 

The answer to this question really depends on the viewer’s personal preference. I personally prefer Season 1 the most, since the contestants were pretty much left to their open devices on how to play the games and strategize, while the two other seasons already have references from previous seasons and thus, came more prepared. 

Season 1 set the bar with the brilliance of the eventual winner, Jinho, whom showed amazing performances in the three Death Matches he participated in and won, as well as winning three Main Matches as well. How he played the games and avoided betrayal as much as possible was also remarkable. The season also showed fantastic runs from Sunggyu, who led on other players by pretending he was mostly clueless of the games to hide his brilliance in tactical thinking and Kyungran, who managed to always be in the right place and the right time and thus, avoiding Death Matches (she only played one Death Match – the last one before the final episode). 

Season 2 was a bit of a damper in the sense that most of the season was spent on something that wasn’t really a part of the games – the immunity token. This was introduced only in Season 2 and was not used in the following seasons, which allowed the owner to skip a Death Match. A good amount of play time during Episodes 3 to 5 were spent on players who have clues on the whereabouts of the immunity token looking for it, so they weren’t able to focus on the Main Matches. 

Moreover, thing went awry in Episode 6 when Jiwon took the ID of contestant Dohee (known for hacking Seoul National University’s website), which was an important element of playing the Main Match of that episode. As a result of  looking for it until the last round, Dohee wasn’t able to properly participate in the game and was automatically sent to the Death Match. Things became more uncomfortable to watch when Sangmin gave him a fake immunity token, which he used, only to find out that he was duped for the second time in one episode. For a show that stated right from the start of Season 1 that  “violence or theft is not allowed,” it was very disappointing how the producers did not step in and forced Jiwon to surrender Dohee’s ID. 

Season 3 had a very different player dynamic from the past two seasons because of the backlash the show received with the Episode 6 mess and the alliance among celebrities and non-celebrities. Thus, the third season had more “normal” and “regular” people as contestants. The alliance between Hyunmin and Dongmin pretty much ruled the entire season, but what was great about it was the two did not make their relationship too obvious and still allowed the other players to display brilliant gameplay, especially Yeonseung who considered himself an outsider the entire season, yet managed to be part of the final 3. The games themselves were not as dynamic as the first two seasons, but we were allowed to see the vulnerabilities in all the players.  

Sadly, The Genius is not streaming on any platform, although subtitled episodes have been available on YouTube and Dailymotion. International diehard fans have also made it something of a cult classic, with reddit and Discord forums still alive six years after the last episode was aired. It can be said that the show’s popularity can be narrowed down to three factors: The novel but interesting concept, the genius-level editing of the show’s episode (the fast forward and flashback scenes get people to anticipate what’s happening and why things turn out they way they eventually did), and finally, the relatability of the contestants who really made sure they played the games to the best of their abilities, which made the show all the more watchable. Hopefully, we can get tVN to release the show’s four seasons in a streaming platform for more audiences to experience it. 

Featured Image: Screengrab from Tvn Youtube Channel “The Genius Game” trailer