The Family Feud- Is It Better To Play Or Better To Pass?

Note: I’m placing this in ‘General Questions’ because I believe it has a factual answer.

I’ve been watching the game show ‘The Family Feud’ for a number of years now, and am always amazed that the contestants invariably choose to ‘play’ rather than ‘pass’ whenever they are given the opportunity to do so.

But I’ve also noticed that when contestants choose ‘play’, their opponents appear to have a distinct advantage. The families that ‘play’ seldom get every single answer on the board. Often, there are numerous answers left for the opponent family to ‘steal’ the round, and you only need to get one to ‘steal’. Furthermore, the family that doesn’t ‘play’ is allowed to talk amongst themselves, so any potential answers can be run by the other family members beforehand.

Has anyone done a study to determine if a family that decides to ‘play’ has, on average, any advantage in terms of winning the round? And why doesn’t anyone on The Family Feud ever ‘pass’, even when no one has any good answers??


I can’t answer the main part of your question, but I can address this: I have seen teams “pass” on several occassions, however, opting to play does seem to occur the majority of the time.

I’ll go Google around after I’ve had my coffee, to see if anyone’s done the math. My gut feeling is that on questions with more than, say, three answers it would pay off to pass, but that’s basically a WAG.

I have wondered the same thing. There is at least one factor you haven’t considered. The contestant earns the right to that choice by getting one answer correct. So they already have something invested in the question. If they pass, they are giving away one answer already, whereas if they play, they already have that to their credit, and haven’t had to risk a strike to get it.

FWIW, my guess is that is has to do with the producers influencing it by choosing certain kinds of families and other pressures. And that, frankly, most contestants don’t seem that smart. (stumbles into GD) When I was growing up, I hardly ever saw anyone on The Price is Right bid $1 or $1 above the last contestant, a couple decades later they contenstants seem to have finally caught on to that obvious tactic.

Once the scores are doubled or tripled and the number of items is 4 or less, you’d be quite foolish to pass. The extreme is when there are 3 items, two get revealed in the faceoff and the choice is: do we want to take 3 swings at this one remaining answer or let the other guys? I’ve never seen a pass in that situation.

In the first two rounds the number of items is generally high enough where you aren’t going to sweep the category. I’d pass for these unless the category was so simple that sweeping was a strong possibility. In the pressure of the moment, the players often don’t think clearly and sometimes opted to play and failed to come up with a single correct response.

I think the Feud’s best rules were in the Ray Combs era, where you did not choose, you just played. Also, when trying for the steal each team member would give one response instead of screaming like maniacs as they did in the Richard Dawson days.

Definitely makes more sense to play. It gives your team the chance to come up with the most popular answers - the ones that are easiest to get. Except in cases of extreme ignorance of the subject, the playing team is likely to make it considerably harder for their opponents to steal merely by getting the top two or three answers.

My favorite FF ever came in the Dawson era. Triple point round, top four answers on the board: Name a continent. I wish I had the answers on tape but it went something like “Asia” [#3]; “United States” [strike]; “We’ll play”; “North America” [#1]; “England” [strike]; “Australia” [strike]; “Europe” [#2]; “I can’t think of one” [third strike]; chance to steal: “Canada” [strike]; answer: South America.

It’s been a while since I watched, but isn’t there only one strike in the last round, which also has triple score, making the previous rounds a complete waste of time? I would think in that case, it would make sense to pass, because if the other family misses one, you only need to come up with one answer to get all the points and win the game.

I agree with the first part of boblibdem, try to sweep in the early rounds, only if the subject is easy. In the latter rounds, no matter what the category, especially on triple, passing would be very foolish. My fourth favorite game show all-time (in order: Jeopardy, Press Your Luck, and Sale of the Century), I have had many discussions regarding the strategy of FF. However, I sincerely doubt you’ll find a factual answer (unless you’re counting percentages and probability)

Survey says:


Unless you have no choice but to


Well, first and foremost, playing allows you to be on TV.

Also, don’t forget if you play, don’t finish, and the other team misses, you win it.

That said, here’s my analysis.

Definition: Call it a “steal” when team A plays, fails, and team B converts. Call it a “sweep” when you run the category.

Key assumption: The teams are of equal strength.

Imagine 3 cases for instructive purposes.

Case 1 : the probability of a steal is zero. Here, you should always play. Even if you don’t sweep, you’ll still get the pot.

Case 2 : the probability of a steal is 1. Here, since the other team will steal if you don’t sweep, clearly you should only play if you think the probability of your sweep is greater than .5.

Case 3: the prob. of a steal is .5. Now, you should play. If you play, you have a 50-50 shot if you don’t sweep, plus the chance of sweeping.

So, build your model from there.

If the probability of a steal is .5 or less, you should ALWAYS play regardless of the sweep probability. If the probability of a sweep is greater than .5, you should always play regardless of the steal probability.

In reality, you’re in a tough zone. The probability of a sweep is not quite .5, but the probability of a steal is probably greater than .5 (they have time to think about it).

So, any factors you and your family can consider that indicate your sweep prob is high or their steal prob. is low means you should play. Anything that indicates that a sweep prob is low and a steal prob is high indicates you should pass.

BUT, what kind of question lends itself to a high (low) sweep probability and a low (high) steal probability? Not many. Those two things are comewhat contradictory.

If the other team was a bunch of dumb individuals, but worked well as a team, you’d want to pass them an easy one so you could steal after they failed to sweep. If they were a bunch of good individuals but dumb as a team, you’d want to play so they wouldn’t sweep but you knew they couldn’t steal as a team.

I realize this might sound like a repeat of my previous post, but given the posts written since then, I think it bears repeating:


All the probabilities you guys are calculating require an assumption that in the absence of a sweep, a steal is equally easy for the opposing team regardless of how many answers have already been given.

But that’s not true. On a typical six-answer question, only the top three - often only the top two - have an answer given by more than 10% of the survey participants. By playing, you give your own team the chance to get the more obvious answers, and even if some on the bottom remain, you’re forcing your opponents to guess an answer that came quickly to the minds of less than 10% of people surveyed on the question. And presumably, your team thinks more in tune with majorities of people rather than with small minorities thereof. By passing, you place that burden on your own team, and forcing yourselves to do this out-of-the-box thinking.

Only if you’re so ignorant of the subject matter that you feel you’re likely to leave even top answers unguessed should you pass. Then, if they don’t sweep, you can still get lucky - but if you were that ignorant, then even getting the top answers is luck.


No, every round allows 3 strikes, at least last time I watched, which was a few weeks ago.

Odd you should mention this. I seem to remember on one incarnation of the show (I can’t remember if it was Al from Home Improvement, or Louie Anderson as the host) the final round only allowed one “strike” instead of three. IIRC, the round was a “sudden death” type of thing, where either team had the chance to advance to play for the big money if they’d won it. Perhaps this is what MaxCastle was referring to.

The only reason I remember it is because I was thinking, “WTF? Why is there only one strike?”

There also the element, that if theres only one answer left, its probaby not obvious.

Sometimes they have very very silly last answers, which is unobtainable by no one. This is a probable out come for any ‘smart’ family, that they will probably only miss something very difficult.
Another issue is of course, destiny. This may be a behavioral thing, but showing you have enough confidence to play might help along a family pushing there mental barrier.

I don’t know if the rules are exactly the same as in the Finnish version but I can think of one other reason to play:

Your team is leading by a reasonable margin before the last round. Depending on the initial answers there are situations where you can secure your victory by choosing to play and intentionally answering incorrectly, thus preventing the opposing team from stealing enough points to pass you.

I don’t think I’ve seen more than one team use this strategy.

I don’t know if you’re talking to me but my answer doesn’t make that assumption at all.

I considered cases where the probability of a steal – given NO KNOWLEDGE of how many answers your team will get – is known at face-off time and went from there.

Of course you don’t know that but you’re making the decision with incomplete knowledge. If you can assume at face-off time – before you play – the probability of a steal is between 0 and .5 you should play. That seems to be what you’re assuming.

If the probability of a steal is high – imagine a category that is easy if you can think things over, but is hard to answer on the spot – then you should pass. Now, I can’t think of too many questions that are going to be like this but at least it give a more complete answer to the OP.

I haven’t watched the show in years, but when I did, the last round always had 1 strike. And, Mellon’s strategy wouldn’t work because the team always had to get to 300 or something, not just have the lead after the last round. They would have another short 1-strike round if no one was at 300.

I love this show and play along at home everyday at lunch.

It amazes me how stupid many of the contestants are. My favorite answer was to the question, “Name a famous real or fictional ‘mother’”. Folks were giving answers like “Mother Goose”, “Mother Teresa”, and “Mother Nature”. The final strike against one family came when the mother (interestingly enough) answered, “Mother Bubblehead”.



The problem with that reasoning is that that probability of a steal is reduced with every answer given. So you’re faced with the choice of reducing the probability for yourselves (by passing) or reducing the probability for the other team (by playing). Given that fact, there is no way that probability calculated at face-off time can be relevant.

Perhaps that applies only after five complete, three-strike rounds have been played? So round 6 and onward (not uniformly the “last round”) are “sudden-death” format? Because I’m rather certain that at least through five rounds they give three strikes. And I don’t recall seeing, at least any time recently, any games that went that far.

Chaim Mattis Keller

Imagine if you were in a freethrow contest. You’re given the option of shooting first or second.

Imagine you choose shoot first…
Scenario 1: You shoot and make your shot. Shooter 2 doesn’t get to shoot at all. Result: You win.

Scenario 2: You shoot and miss. Shooter 2 misses too. Result: You win.

Scenario3: You shoot and miss. Shooter 2 makes it. Result: You lose.

Imagine you choose to shoot second…
Scenario 1: Other guy makes the shot, you lose.

Scenario 2: Other guy misses, but you miss too, you lose.

Scenario 3: Other guy misses, you make it, you win.

So if you go first, you’ll win in 2 of the 3 potential results. If you choose to go second, you only win 1 of 3. Obviously you should always choose to go first.

Is this a stupid way of looking at it? What’s wrong with it?

The simple answer is you should NEVER pass. Since when you PLAY you will get whatever points are for that round even if you lose…and the other team fails to steal. So you have 2 ways to win - get all the answers, or have the other team unsuccessfully steal. Whereas if you PASS you MUST get a correct answer and you only
Get a shot at that AFTER the other team gets theirs.

The only advantage to PASSING is that you get to confer as a group - but that is hardly an advantage when the other team has first shot at winning and even if they get 3 strikes - you don’t win.

It is irrelevant that you may know nothing of the category - if you are guessing, it’s better to guess first then guessing second.

So you see, it’s really a rule the game show made back in the days when the people who made up the rules weren’t really scrutinizing them - kind of like the rules of Monopoly.

If player #2 doesn’t get to shoot if player #1 makes his first shot, obviously you always want to go first. The first shooter’s chance to win-lose-tie is 50-25-25.

If both players get a shot regardless, your chances to win-lose-tie are 25-25-50 and it doesn’t matter what order you go in.