On Sunday, the Game Show Network (GSN) aired a special whose title referred to the “scandal” on the 1980s hit game show “Press Your Luck.” Promotions for the documentary even referred to the incident as the “greatest scandal in game show history.”
But compared to the quiz show controversies of the 1950s—in which producers rigged outcomes by giving contestants answers prior to show tapings—the “Press Your Luck” “scandal” qualifies as nothing of the sort.
On “Press Your Luck,” the contestant in question merely used knowledge of the game to increase his odds of winning. As with a blackjack expert at counting cards who takes a casino to the proverbial cleaners, his actions neither violated the law, nor any standards that would warrant the ignominy that the “scandal” moniker connotes.
Doing Game Show Homework
“Press Your Luck,” which premiered in September 1983, featured players taking turns at a game board filled with various cash amounts, prizes, and the dreaded “Whammy”—which, when landed upon, took away all a player’s money. Players answered questions to earn spins, which each gave a contestant one chance to control the game board. With each spin, contestants would either win the cash or prize they landed on, or, in the case of a Whammy, lose their winnings to that point.
When CBS, which broadcast “Press Your Luck,” first premiered the game, it only used a handful of computer-generated sequences to randomize the indicator on the game board that the contestant stopped to determine the prize he or she would receive—or, on an average of one in six spins, a Whammy. A technological marvel for its day, the board’s computing power proved primitive by twenty-first-century standards. But at the time, CBS and Bill Carruthers, the show’s creator, felt that the handful of sequences would represent a sufficiently complex and random pattern that contestants could not decipher it.
Unfortunately for them, however, Michael Larson, an Ohio ice-cream truck driver with a proclivity for get-rich quick schemes, took both the time and energy to do so. Armed with a video cassette recorder, he recorded episodes of the show, watching in slow-motion to discern the patterns, and even using the pause button to mimic the show’s “spins.”
While learning the pattern of sequences, Larson discovered two other key facts: Two squares on the 18-square game board never contained a Whammy—and, in the show’s second round, always contained additional spins.
With these three pieces of information, Larson had the ability to turn “Press Your Luck” into a real-life ATM. By understanding the seemingly random, but in reality quite predictable, game board patterns, Larson could use every spin to win dollars—and additional spins—all while avoiding the Whammy that could take away everything.
How It Happened
Armed with his knowledge, Larson spent most of his savings to fly to Los Angeles and audition for “Press Your Luck.” Some of the show’s contestant coordinators thought Larson suspicious, and advised against casting him. Nonetheless, on May 19, 1984, Larson came face to face with the “Big Board” at his taping of “Press Your Luck.”
Footage of Larson’s appearance provides an inkling of his strategy. On his first few spins, Larson actually missed his marks, hitting a Whammy on his first spin in the first round, and a trip to Hawaii in the second round—a prize that, while appealing to most contestants, meant he had not landed in one of his two “target” squares on the game board. But as the episode goes on, he assumes a catatonic gaze before the game board—an intense stare of concentration akin to someone playing a video game.
In the end, Larson spun a total of 47 times, winning $110,237—the equivalent of more than a quarter-million dollars today—largely in cash. While the show’s producers originally did not want to award him the money, thinking Larson a cheat, they eventually concluded that he broke no rules, and disbursed his winnings. Immediately afterwards, however, they changed (and ultimately increased) the number of random sequences on the “Press Your Luck” gameboard, and prohibited syndicators from re-airing the Larson episodes for nearly two decades.
CBS’s Financial Stupidity
To the extent that the Larson episodes represented a “scandal,” such blame lies firmly with the “Press Your Luck” producers and CBS. As one documentary on the incident noted, Larson had just outsmarted them—completely legally. While Larson won more than $110,000 on the show, he could have used his knowledge to win far more. But for the threat of losing it all if his reflexes slipped and he hit a Whammy, Larson could literally have bankrupted CBS, one spin at a time, in $750 or $5,000 increments.
Unfortunately, however, Larson’s game show bonanza did not have a happy ending. Later in 1984, Larson, wanting to hit the jackpot one more time, withdrew most of his “Press Your Luck” winnings from the bank in $1 bills, trying to find one that would pay him a $30,000 prize promised by a radio station. Instead, burglars came to his house and carted off roughly $50,000 in cash. After run-ins with the FBI surrounding a lottery scheme, Larson died of throat cancer in 1999, at the age of 49.
Sunday’s special represented the second GSN show about the Larson incident. In 2003, the network broadcast its first documentary, “Big Bucks,” hosted by former “Press Your Luck” host Peter Tomarken (who died three years after it aired).
As a former “Press Your Luck” staffer interviewed for this year’s special noted, the Larson story remains compelling, despite Larson’s tragic end. For at least one brief moment, Larson won a small fortune, not by cheating, but by beating one of America’s largest corporations at its own game.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He has appeared on episodes of Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?