How to Beat Your Friends at SBS’s Letters and Numbers

Letters and Numbers appears on our TV screens in Australia in a late afternoon slot. In our house we have been watching it on and off for some years. The game has a simple concept. There are five letter rounds in which points are awarded for the longest word produced from a series of randomly drawn letters. Three number rounds are included in which randomly drawn numbers are used to produce the answer shown by using the numbers to add, multiply, divide and subtract using brackets where necessary. There is also a conundrum to be worked out. The show is presented by Richard Morecroftand he is assisted by mathematician Lily Serna and wordsmith David Astle. It is easy for the viewers to participate with only a pencil and paper required for scribblings.

The show is screened regularly and I was surprised to learn that there had in fact only been two series of the show and the last episode was in 2012 so the show is now generated by repeats. The programme was based on the British Show “Countdown”, which has been running on Britain’s Channel 4 since 1982. In Australia Countdown is renowned as a popular music show hence the change to Letters and Numbers. The original show which was produced in France was also called Letters and Numbers (Des Chiffres et des Lettres). In France the show has run continuously since 1965 to the present day. There have been versions of the game is many countries.

How can you improve your performance and do well at Letters and Numbers?

Numbers rounds

In the program there are two contestants. In the numbers round one contestant chooses six out of 24 face down number tiles. These are arranged into two sets: there are 20 small numbers (two each of numbers 1 to 10); and four large numbers of 25, 50, 75 and 100. The contestant first decides how many large numbers are to be used, from zero to four, and then six tiles are randomly drawn and displayed.

A random three-digit target number is then generated electronically . The contestants have 30 seconds to work out a sequence of calculations with the numbers displayed and the final result should be as close to the target number as possible. They may use only the four basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and do not have to use all six numbers. It is often necessary to use brackets as the sequence of mathematical calculations is of paramount importance. BODMAS is an acronym or mnemonic used to help pupils remember the correct order to complete mathematical calculations:

What does BODMAS mean?

Each letter stands for a mathematical operation.

Brackets ( )

Orders/Others Orders are square roots or indices (sometimes called powers or exponents, square numbers and cube numbers). For example, 2³: the little 3 means that you multiply the number 3 times, 2 x 2 x 2 = 8. A square root is the inverse of a square number, so √25, the square root of 25, is 5 because 5 x 5 or 5² equals 25.

Division: ÷ Splitting into equal groups or parts

Multiplication: x Groups of

Addition: + The total of numbers together

Subtraction: – To take away numbers from other numbersA number may not be used more times than it appears on the board. Fractions are not allowed, and only positive integers may be obtained as a result at any stage of the calculation.

As in the letters rounds, any contestant who does not write down their calculations in time must go first, and both contestants must show their work to each other if their results and calculations are identical.

Only the contestant whose result is closer to the target number scores points: 10 for reaching it exactly, 7 for being 1-5 away, 5 for being 6-10 away. Contestants score no points for being more than 10 away, or if their calculations are flawed. Both score if they reach the same result, or if their results are the same distance away. Points are disallowed if the contestant says the solution is not-written-down after the host asks for it or if the contestant takes too long in giving a solution.


Contestant One requests two large numbers and four small numbers.

Selection is:

75, 25, 8, 6, 2, 1

Randomly generated target is:


Contestant One declares 153, while Contestant Two declares 155.

Contestant One reveals: (75 *2) +6-1 = 155, Contestant Two reveals (25×6) + 8-2-1 which is 155. Contestant 2 wins and earns 10 points.

In some games, there are many ways to reach the target exactly. Not all games can be solved, and for a randomly generated numbers it is impossible even to get within 10. It is most difficult when six small numbers are chosen and the target number is quite large. One large and five small numbers is the most popular selection, despite two large numbers giving the best chance of the game being solvable exactly. Selections with zero or four large numbers are generally considered the most difficult.

The 24 tiles are laid out in four rows, the top row of which contains only the four large numbers. The contestant may specify how many tiles to draw from each row, or simply state how many large and small numbers will be used; in the latter case, the assistant draws the tiles randomly. The numbers are usually placed on the board from right to left, starting with the small ones, but have occasionally been displayed in scrambled order. On rare occasions, the contestant has declined to make any choices, in which case the assistant selects the tiles.

Practise your mental arithmetic. You should be fast enough to try several different methods to reach the target in 30 seconds, in case your first ones aren’t successful.

Try split multiplication. This involves adding or subtracting smaller numbers from a given large number to get closer to the target when you multiply up. If the target is 472 with the numbers 75, 8, 6, 4,’ 75 x 6 is 450 and 8 x 4 is 32 so (75 x 6) + (8 x 4) = 472.

Learn the 75 times table. It’s quite easy when you realise that every four lots of 75 take you to 300, so for instance 9 × 75 is the same as 2 × 300 + 75, which equals 675.


For the conundrum, there is a lot of luck involved. Look for common prefixes and suffixes (e.g., RE-, PRE-, SUB, -ING, -ED) and hope for the best! This is something which true Letters and Numbers addicts put hours into mastering, so there’s no easy solution. Sorry.

But the letters rounds? You might get lucky!

Letters rounds

Some letters occur more commonly in the English language than others, and the Letters and Numbers letters pile is weighted to reflect this. For instance, there are many more E’s and S’s than Z’s. This means that words made up purely from very common letters – DISASTERS, NOTARIES, PRINTERS, DESERTED, and hundreds of others – are more likely to occur regularly. Learn a few, and you’ll probably get the chance to look very clever without needing to be an anagram expert. Better still, learn which letters you can combine with these words to make a longer word.

Above all practice, practice, practice and the best way to practice is by downloading the Letters And Numbers app.

download Letters and Numbers on the app store

1 thought on “How to Improve at SBS’s Letters and Numbers

  1. Countdown has been going here for years, in fact I know exactly when it started as it was a new programme for Channel Four, which started when my daughter was born. We had phases of being addicted to it, watching with pen and paper in hand; there was national mourning when the original presenter died. Hardly ever got the conundrum.

Leave a Reply