Derren Brown: The System

I do enjoy most of Derren Brown’s programmes. The last series was a bit poor however, with episodes in which he essentially “kidnapped” a person and had them “wake up” in Marrakesh, not really going anywhere. But he’s a great magician and showman who positively reinvigorated magic on television.

The System
began with Brown claiming to have perfected a system in which a punter could be guaranteed a win at the races. We followed Khadisha who gets sent an anonymous text telling her the name of a horse that will win a specific race. While she doesn’t know who sent her the text, at some point early on, she’s been instructed to started taping herself on a video camera as she continues to receive texts revealing winning horses, and she continues to win.
Brown also draws together a few luminaries from the racing world, and performs a very good trick in which he reveals advance knowledge of some people that they pick randomly.
But back to Khadisha. By now she’s had five wins, and has been betting more each time. She now comes to a race course for the first time, and she’s accompanied by a camera crew who film her reactions as, amazingly, she wins when her horse comes from behind to win, after the leading two horses both dismount their jockeys at the final fence (there’s an uncomfortable part where it seems one of those horses is being shot having not recovered from the fall, but I think it eventually leapt back up).
Finally she’s introduced to Brown as the mastermind behind The System, who gets her to put £4,000 on a seventh and final race. We’re told that she’s borrowed this cash and can’t afford to lose it. With the bet on, the seemingly miraculous system is revealed by Brown.
She’s not the only person who’s been getting texts – there are 7,776 people (66). With the first race, they were each given one of six horses to back. In a six horse race, that left 1,296 winners. The production team kept going until they were down to the final six individuals who been randomly allocated the first four winners. Each of these had a small camera crew assigned as they made their fifth bet. Obviously the other five didn’t win.
Brown illustrated this nicely by standing in front of a table and tossing a coin ten times in a row to get ten heads. He revealed that he’d in fact spent upwards of nine hours standing there tossing the coin until chance let him get ten tosses in a row. The sequence will come out once in every 1,024 sequences, so it would take a few hours to get it.
Anyway, we were left with Khadisha as the other five all lost.
With the trick revealed it was clear Brown couldn’t know who would win the final race. And true enough, her horse didn’t come in, leaving her crestfallen. But Brown then revealed that he’d had a change of heart and put the cash on a different horse – the winner. And so, she had £13,000 and was very happy.
It was a good trick, and obviously the production team had put a lot of effort in from the outset, even if it became clear before the reveal what was going on.
But I’m still troubled by a few things. We started seeing home video footage of Khadisha fairly early on – certainly at a point where if all the people left in the experiment had been given cameras, then they’d have had to send out several hundred camcorders. This wasn’t mobile phone footage, so I don’t think people were using their own cameras (widescreen footage; decent resolution). And the contestants had obviously been asked to talk about what they were doing quite a lot, because Khadisha explained her thinking and didn’t just silently watch the races. This is the trick that’s used in many quiz shows where there are a limited number of questions. Because it’s all about suspense, it’s clear that contestants are asked to voice their thinking, explaining why they went for a specific answer. It’s this type of coaching that Khadisha seemed to have been given. Otherwise, there’d have been a very real danger of her just silently watching the races. I’d also love to know what bookies think of punters taking video cameras into their shops with them.
Then there’s the whole question of release forms. If you go on TV, you have to sign something to say that you’re happy to be broadcast. Objective (the production company that makes the Derren Brown shows) must have had to get those releases in right from the outset. It was never explained how nearly 8,000 people were recruited, but they’d surely need to know that it was for television, and agree upfront to take part. That surely means signing a release form, and agreeing to go through with the whole project and not disappear on holiday in the middle of proceedings.
We were also told that the 7,775 unsuccessful people were offered refunds for any cash they’d spent. I did at first wonder about that, although a poster at Digital Spy notes that it’d have cost somewhere around £20,000 to refund everybody involved – not too bad really. But did everyone even place a bet on every horse they were asked to? Even with the best will in the world, there were probably times when some contestants were unable to place a bet for varying reasons. True, they were undoubtedly told after the event that their horse had won, but having that knowledge and actually using it are two different things. Khadisha waved her winnings around happily for the camera – that makes good TV.
Finally, it’s obvious that for the final bet, Objective covered all six horses in the race to ensure that Khadisha won. £24,000 (6 x £4000) will have been just a small proportion of the overall production budget would have made it worth it. And the bookie involved will have been happy to take that bet!
Maybe I’m overly suspicious, but it all doesn’t seem quite right.
That all said, I still enjoyed the show, and especially enjoyed the start of Brown’s explanation, when he likened the method used to homeopathic remedies; some people feel as though they work (through the placebo effect amongst other reasons) like Khadesha who was convinced that there was a “system”, but in clinical trials they’re seen to make no difference (only one person in 7,776 was a “winner”). And it was also positive to see some basic statistics and probability theory presented on screen although I’m a little hazy about his “1.48 billion to one” odds on there actually being a system. The calculation he performed on screen with his racing world luminaries seemed correct, but had no direct bearing on the overall “System” he was trying to prove.
All said and done – I’m looking forward to whatever he does next, and I really must get around to reading his book which is sitting on my unread pile.


  1. Hi. I haven’t read through this very thoroughly, I apologise, and I will do when I have the time. But as for your observation that we saw home-movie footage of khadisha very early in the experiment, we actually only saw clips of approx 10 people, and he contacted 7000-odd, so it’s possible he asked people to only record themselves if they already owned a camera.

  2. That’s quite true Cat. However, if people only recorded themselves if they had a camera, then there would have been a good probability that the ultimate “winner” didn’t have one, which wouldn’t have made for a very entertaining show.
    It’s also notable that Khadisha shot in decent quality and widescreen. She wasn’t using her Nokia…

  3. One thing that always bothered me about the show which would’ve cut the whole production line dead is this- What if Kadisha had been one of these people who “were unable to place a bet for varying reasons”. Well surely the whole thing would’ve fallen through. the risk of this happening would surely have been too high for the production company to even have started the show. Does this question the whole “system”?

  4. I have just re-watched most of Derren’s specials in anticipation of “The Events” which are coming soon.
    There are a few things i noticed, which i’d like to point out.
    Firstly, like many of you, i was initially troubled by the use of cameras at the bookies. I found it odd that so many of the final six happened to have cameras with them, however, i think the video we saw gives away what really happened.
    The show positions itself as asking the people to keep a camera with them from the first bet (second race) meaning approximately 1296 people would have to have cameras, however we never see any footage of this bet being placed, or any discussion of winnings at this point… only Kadisha (somewhat oddly) talking about making her “second bet”, in spite of the fact that they were forbidden from betting in the first race.
    At the end, when others are discussing it, we hear one man saying it is his first time in a betting shop, and only the second bet he had ever made (implying that the first bet may have been made online by some other means).
    I know it comes across as stooges at times, but My read on the situation is that this is Derren’s first bit of misdirection. My feeling is that people were not actually required to start filming until the third race, and the show just cut together oddments that imply they had them during the second.
    By the third race, there were only 216 people remaining. Assuming that maybe 60% of the populace have a decent quality video camera, this is more than a manageable number for the production company to send cameras to. In addition this is a very manageable number for them to coach in speaking to camera too, most of which could be done online, as it seems that was the primary way that the company interacted with participants.
    Secondly, with regards to the final race, I agree with Adam, that the production company covered all eventualities. At the end we see a LONG time passes before Kadisha finally looks at the slip. We also see her remove it from her pocket. This implies to me that Derren was simply waiting for her to put it into her pocket, or thow it away or something before he made the switch.
    With regards to Tim’s coment
    “hat if Kadisha had been one of these people who “were unable to place a bet for varying reasons”. Well surely the whole thing would’ve fallen through. the risk of this happening would surely have been too high for the production company to even have started the show. Does this question the whole “system”?”
    I don’t think so.
    If Kadisha, or anyone, had decided not to place a bet at any point, I don’t think it necessarily brings the show to a halt. In many ways, it adds drama.
    Derren Brown – Voice over “By the fourth race, with the stakes becoming increasingly high, Kedisha seemed to be loosing faith in the system.”
    VT of Kedisha, Piece to Camera “I just don’t know any more. £50, that’s my baby’s dinner money. It’s worked so far, and i’m grateful, but that’s a risk I don’t know if i can take.”
    Derren – Voice over “Still, the system guarantees a winner and Kedisha had her winning tip for 24 hours. We asked her to watch the race anyway. As expected, the tip paid off, and the horse came through”
    Kedisha “I’m gutted. I can’t believe i didn’t place the bet. It’d been right every time so far, I don’t know why I thought this time would be different. I’d have won hundreds… that’s gutting, really is.
    Derren – Voice over “Thankfully, even if Kedisha didn’t trust the system, I did. Unbeknownst to her, I anonymously placed a bet on the horse on her behalf.”
    Kedisha “When that winning slip arrive… OMG, i just couldn’t believe it.”
    Derren – “The only stipulation was that she had to bet all of the winnings on one more horse.”
    My guess is the production company knew this would happen and placed a few bets on all the horses each race to cover something like this happening.
    Finally, with regards to release forms, I don’t think, as was implied, if not stated, that all of the people were chosen at random. They must have all applied to channel 4 to take part in a documentary regarding a betting system.
    In fact, with regards to the video thing, My guess is that part of the application process probably had a question about “Do you own a digital Video Camera” meaning that, as much as possible, everyone would be able to take video of themselves.

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