The first season of Squid Game: The Challenge has come to a conclusion, and after 10 episodes of players falling short of the win, one contestant was left standing with the $4.56 million grand prize. The reality hit and soulless IP grab brought a Big Brother vibe to the original K-drama's pastel sets and brutal children's games, with short-lived alliances and quick betrayals between players taking up as much screentime as the homages to the original series. The player standing at the end of it all would either win based on cunning strategy or plain luck, and at the end of the day, Mai Whelan (perhaps better known as Player 287) and her cutthroat gameplay propelled her to victory. Read on to learn more about the reality competition's first winner.
She's a Vietnamese immigrant who hoped to use the prize money to buy a house and retire.
Whelan, 55, is an immigration adjudicator for the Department of Homeland Security, who was born in Vietnam and is currently based in Fairfax County, Virginia. She came to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 8, following the Fall of Saigon in 1975. On the Netflix show, she recalled a harrowing memory where a soldier placed a gun to her head before her mother pulled her to safety. She joined the navy at age 18 and went on to serve for 20 years while also raising her daughter as a single mom. She now has a 12-year-old granddaughter she's especially close with.
She became a standout player as the games went on.
Near the end of the competition—after the contestants made it through games from the original show including Red Light, Green Light, Dalgona, and the Glass Bridge—Mai was one of the final contestants standing (particular from the cohort who received testimonial screentime in early episodes). She had several big moments where she chose self-preservation over fledgling alliances, including her attempt to eliminate Ashley (Player 278) over what Mai considered Ashley's "selfish" behavior during the Glass Bridge game, as well as Mai's decision to target her closest remaining friend, Roland (Player 418), during the Circle of Trust. She also had several close alliances with notable characters, including TJ Stukes (Player 182) who saved her from elimination and gave her the highest number in Glass Bridge, and Chad (Player 182) who trusted her to tell him where to move in the game.
By the final round, only Mai and self-proclaimed "go-with-the-flow" guy Phill (Player 451) were left. Instead of a battle to the death, like in the original show, the two faced off in a glorified game of Rock, Paper, Scissors: after each round, the victor got a chance to draw a key out of a pile. One of those keys opened a safe with the golden debit card loaded (likely only symbolically) with the $4.56 million prize.
"I am so happy because this is my childhood game," Mai said in a confessional referring to Rock, Paper, Scissors. While Phill admitted he was drawing randomly, Mai explained her strategy: "Playing against an adult male, they tend to draw towards rock and scissors because it symbolizes to them the power within them. Rock is solid and it's strong, and scissors has the power to cut, and it's also strong." Ultimately, Mai found the key to the safe, and became the winner of the biggest game show prize in history.
She said in her last confessional interview, "Today just validates that anything is possible. Even when [you] feel down and afraid, you have to pick yourself up, be a strong person and focus. Whatever you fear is, fight it with everything you got, and you can accomplish anything. And I've proven that tonight. I am the winner."
She won't receive the $4.56 million prize until after the show airs.
Even though it's been 10 months since the series was filmed, Whelan revealed in an interview with The Sunday Times that she had yet to receive the record-breaking cash prize as of December 7 (a day after the season finale premiered). According to an insider who spoke with Vanity Fair, the reality show's contestants "were always aware" that the winner wouldn't receive the prize fund until the finale episode aired, but Whelan was still (understandably) ready for her life-changing payout. "I feel like Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire," she told the outlet. "Show me the money!"
She's spent her time since filming laying low at home.
In a Tudum interview, Mai reveals that she's spent the months since winning Squid Game: The Challenge at home with her husband, their two dogs, and her 12-year-old granddaughter, while recovering from the anxiety of the two-week experience. “It was a relief to go back to normal life and not worry about getting eliminated. I needed that after two and a half weeks of intense go, go, go, and emotional ups and downs,” she says. “But the person that came into [the competition] is me. I’m still Mai, and she hasn't changed — except that I came out stronger.”
She also told the outlet that she plans to spend the near future renovating her home, and that she has plans for how to spend her winnings. "My heart is with people, animals, and climate change. If we continue what we’re doing, there won’t be a future for all the little kids growing up right now."
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