Dubai resident plays Squid Game: The Challenge and lives to tell the tale

Reality show based on South Korean drama has the biggest prize pool in history at $4.56 million

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Dubai resident Christiaan Kamstra is relieved he can finally speak publicly about his time on Netflix reality show Squid Game: The Challenge.

“Ten months later they finally air it and it brought back some great memories,” he tells The National. “When my wife saw me on screen she finally believed I was on the show.”

Referred to as one of the biggest reality shows in the world, with 456 contestants and a total prize pool of $4.56 million, the show, which had its global premiere on Wednesday, is based on the hit South Korean drama Squid Game.

Squid Game became a global phenomenon upon its release in 2021 and is one of the streaming service's most watched shows ever. It told the story of cash-strapped contestants who play popular children's games for a chance to win life-changing sums of money.

Like the fictional show, contestants in Squid Game: The Challenge are put through a series of tests. But unlike the original show, where those who fail are killed off, contestants are eliminated after each challenge.

But just like the original, each eliminated contestant means more money is added to the prize pool. As a result, dubious alliances are formed and relationships are tested as the stakes are raised with each game.

Kamstra, a South African father-of-two who runs an interior design company with his wife in Dubai, says he first heard that Netflix was seeking applicants for the show while listening to the radio last year.

“I remember being in the gym and shooting my audition tape while doing the exercise, explaining how I planned my strategy to win the money. After applying, I got a call from Studio Lambert in a matter of days,” he says.

“They had quite a few criteria before selecting me. There were many interviews and Zoom calls. They wanted to understand my background and more importantly the state of my mental health and if I was able to live away from my family for up to three months.”

British production company Studio Lambert is behind a number of reality shows, including another Netflix hit The Circle.

Kamstra says he was flown to the show's set in the UK on an all-expenses-paid trip in January.

“I was on set for two weeks. It was a real mind game as we had no sunlight. You don’t realise how tough life can be without family connections and access to the world.”

But Studio Lambert took care of all contestants, he says, as each person's mental and physical welfare was top priority.

“I was assigned a person who was continuously following up with me on how I was doing. The food we received was not five star but we all understood it was all part of the game,” he says.

“Netflix spared no money in making the set look exactly like the series. I walked in and realised that this was going to be more than just a game.”

Netflix released the first five episodes of Squid Game: The Challenge on Wednesday, with the next five set to arrive a week later on November 29.

While Kamstra is not legally permitted to reveal how far he progresses on the show, he says the Red Light Green Light game, the first on the show, was the toughest challenge.

In the game, a giant doll stands at the end of a hall with her back to the contestants, who are expected to race across to her from the other end. Whenever the doll turns around, contestants must freeze in position and hold that for as long as the doll looks at them. Those caught moving when the doll turns around are eliminated.

Out of 456 contestants, 259 are eliminated in the first round.

“Standing still for 20 minutes in one position was hard. It was cold and you could smell the fear in this game,” Kamstra says.

Now that the show has aired, Kamstra, who is also a musician, says he's glad he had the experience.

“I would do it all over again if given a chance,” he says.

Director, writer and executive producer Hwang Dong-hyuk confirmed in June last year that a second season of Squid Game was in the works.

Updated: November 23, 2023, 8:14 AM