Devised by Bill Wright, the basic format of Mastermind has never changed — four contestants face two rounds, one on a specialised subject of the contestant's choice, the other a general knowledge round. Wright drew inspiration from his experiences of being interrogated by the Gestapo during World War II.
After each contestant has answered his specialised questions, they are given general knowledge questions. The contestants are recalled in reverse order of points scored.
The winner is the contestant with the most points. If two or more contestants have an equal number of points, then the contestant with the fewer passes is the winner. The possibility of passing leads to tactical play: passing uses less time, allowing more questions to be answered, but may count against the contestant at the end in the event of a tie.
Should the top two contestants have the same score and same number of passes at the end of the contest then a tie-breaker is employed, in which the two contenders are each asked the same five questions (one contender must leave the auditorium while the other answers). It is not clear what would happen should this fail to produce a clear winner, though it is implied that the process would simply be repeated as many times as necessary. It is, however, very rare for the tie-break to be required. In the version of the show hosted by John Humphrys, it has appeared twice in the main series and once in the Junior Mastermind spin-off, the latter being in the final broadcast on 26 February 2006.
The winner goes through to the next round, where he must choose a different specialised subject; if he gets to the final he may offer his first subject or a new one. The winner of the final of the BBC version is declared "Mastermind" for that year and is the only contestant to receive a prize, in the form of a cut glass engraved bowl.
In the United States, the game show 2 Minute Drill on sports network ESPN had its roots in Mastermind. Contestants faced questions fired at them by a panel of four sports and entertainment celebrities for two minutes. The contestant with the highest score after two rounds would win the night's prize, and the winner would have a chance to double those winnings by correctly answering the "Question of Great Significance," as host Kenny Mayne called it. In each series, winners advanced in a bracket-style playoff format, with prizes increasing from $5,000 in the first round to $50,000 (doubling to $100,000 by answering the final question) in the final round. Prizes such as trips to the Super Bowl or ESPY Awards were also given. The show had three series over a 15-month period, September 2000 to December 2001. Like Mastermind, 2 Minute Drill featured a leather chair, dramatic lighting and sound effects. Willy Gibson of Columbus, Ohio was the grand champion of the first two series; he was defeated in the second round of the third and final series. Unlike Mastermind presenters, Mayne had a very dry, quirky and sometimes sarcastic sense of humor, but did a very good job of keeping the game going; he would quickly jump in if one of the celebrity panelists was tardy in posing their question, so as not to penalise the contestant.
The lowest score record is 7 points, set by Colin Kidd in an edition broadcast in 2005. His specialist subject was "The World Chess Championships". Lower scores have been attained by celebrity contestants, such as Arabella Weir and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson who both scored 6 points on the same show. Murray Walker also scored 7 points in the same 2004 celebrity series, which is unusual considering that his specialist subject was "Formula One", the sport with which he is synonymous.
Arfor Wyn Hughes, dubbed "Disastermind" by the British press, has frequently claimed (most recently on a BBC tribute to Magnus Magnusson) that his score of 12 was the lowest ever, but in fact scores of as little as 9 points had been achieved several times prior to his 1990 appearance on the show.
In October 2006, Simon Curtis achieved the lowest ever score on the speciality subject round, scoring just 1 point. Curtis was at the Semi-final stages but passed on almost every question to do with "The Films of Jim Carrey". Curtis recovered in the general knowledge section, answering 7 questions correctly to avoid breaking or tying Kidd's record.
A special episode of Mastermind called Doctor Who Mastermind was broadcast on 19 March 2005, in which all four contestants had the specialist subject Doctor Who. The prize was awarded to the winner by the then current Doctor, actor Christopher Eccleston.
Some specialist subjects are considered not suitable to be used. The following are examples of rejected specialist subjects:
Also in 2004, Johnny Vaughan's BBC Three show Live at Johnny's featured a version called Mastermind Rejects -- the premise being that the specialist subjects were too ludicrously obscure even for Mastermind. In the final show of the series, Magnus Magnusson took over as the quizmaster - it was the last time he would utter the catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish" on any form of Mastermind. The specialist subject was The History of the Home Video Recorder, 1972 to 1984.
On their 2005 Christmas Special, comedy duo French & Saunders parodied the show with Jennifer Saunders playing Abigail Wilson, a pensioner whose special subject is Ceramic Teapots. She passes on all but one question, which she answers incorrectly anyway.
In 2005, the show was spoofed on BBC Radio 4's The Now Show where the specialist subject was "Britishness", relating to the proposed test immigrants may have to take, to prove they can fit in with British society.
Also in the 1970s, Morecambe and Wise performed a sketch based on Mastermind, which featured Magnusson and the black chair. The format was different, however, with Wise, then Morecambe, being asked 10 questions each.
In the late 1970s, Noel Edmonds radio Sunday lunchtime show used to feature a send-up called "Musty Mind" where a phone-in contestant would be asked ludicrous questions on a parody of a serious subject, such as the "Toad Racing" or, on another occasion, "The Cultural and Social History of Rockall" - Rockall being a bald lump of uninhabited rock in the eastern Atlantic.
Benny Hill parodied Mastermind on The Benny Hill Show on at least two separate occasions. In one of the parodies the show was called "Masterbrane". In each, Benny played the role of Magnusson while Jackie Wright played the hapless contestant.
Spitting Image used the Mastermind format in a sketch where a Magnus Magnusson puppet asked questions of a Jeffrey Archer puppet whose specialist subject was himself. The twist was that Archer's puppet, being incapable of answering questions about himself without exaggeration or evasion, ends the round with zero points.
A section of a 1992 episode of the BBC Two evening theme show TV Hell hosted by Angus Deayton and Paul Merton was entitled 'Disastermind' and told the story of a teacher contestant who obtained a risible score leading to much derision by his pupils.
In his early routines Bill Bailey would often parody the Mastermind music as he found it very sinister. He would then play the music on keyboard with an over-the-top hellish sounding climax.