I’m sure most people have heard of the 1980’s game show Press Your Luck; iconic by the cartoon character “Whammy”, who would take all of your money on an unlucky spin of the game board. But in case you haven’t I’ll break it down for you.
Contestants go through rounds of answering questions, where correct answers accumulate “spins” that are later redeemed on a giant game board where you can win cash and prizes. The “Big Board” is a little like a slot machine in function. Prizes randomly appear and then light up when selected throughout the board. Pressing a big red button stops the lights and whatever you land on is your prize for that spin. The prizes range from cash, vacations, vehicles, stereos, cash plus a another free spin, or the dreaded Whammy. Landing on a Whammy takes away your money but the remaining spins stay in play. Your turn ends when you run out of spins, accumulate four Whammy(s), or pass your spins to another player in hopes they land on a Whammy themselves and bust out.
The chances of landing on a Whammy are said to be 1:6 spins…unless your name is Michael Larson.
Michael Larson was an unemployed ice cream truck driver from Ohio who was down on his luck. He was obsessed with game shows and particularly Press Your Luck. The more he watched the show, the more he started to notice a pattern emerging in the way the “Big Board” lit up. He noticed that it wasn’t really random at all. Just sequenced enough that the average joe who showed up to play the game would not be able to catch on and figure it all out. But Michael, was no average Joe.
Larson began recording the episodes of Press Your Luck and studied the patterns on the Big Board. He noticed that there were 5 sequences that the game board always used. He realized that if timed just right, one could not only ensure they would never land on a Whammy, but would also have a high chance to land on a cash prize with an extra spin almost every time. He practiced his technique by pausing his VCR at various intervals, as if his remote control was the big red button used to stop the board in the game.
Once he was confident he could beat the game, Larson used his life savings to fly to LA and audition for the show. He was in fact initially rejected by the interviewer, but that was overruled by the shows producer, a decision he’d later regret. It’s said that Larson spent the remaining money he had left on the suit he wore on the show which he had picked up at a local thrift store for $3.
Once on the show Larson soon realized that the reality of the game wasn’t the same as sitting on the couch pressing a remote control. He also had to answer the questions and accumulate enough spins to make everything work. In the first round of the game the questions are easier and the prizes on the board are much smaller. This introductory round helps the players acclimate to the game and helps determine the play order of the second round.
In that first round, he managed to accumulate three spins. This was the lowest amount compared to the other two contestants. This means Larson went first. On his very first spin, he landed on the Whammy. As you can see in the video, the look on his face is soul crushing. He went on to get a small cash reward for his other two spins.
The second round Larson was more comfortable playing the game and while he had a few near misses, he mostly stayed on task. In all he got to spin a record number of 47 times and accumulate $110,237 in cash and prizes.
Here is a video of all the 47 spins (both rounds combined). You’ll notice that his technique ensured he would only land on 1 of 2 prize locations. The first being third from the right on the top row, the next is the middle position on the right hand side. The few times he doesn’t land on those 3 spaces is when he messed up his technique, in which was very lucky that he didn’t get another Whammy.
This crusade of game show craziness went on so long that day, that they had to turn the normal 1/2 hour show into a two parter; the only time in Press Your Luck history that that had happened.
CBS only aired the episodes one time, and never put them into syndication. Outside of that, they have only been seen in documentaries, and special viewings on the Game Show Channel, and Buzzr TV.
CBS initially refused to pay Larson his winnings, as they claimed he had cheated. However they could never figure out how he did it so he was eventually awarded his money.
After the show CBS retooled the BIG Board with a new random number generating sequence, to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. They also instituted a rule where by the maximum they would pay any player regardless of how much they won was $50,000 for a single day.
Michael Larson destroyed the record for the most money ever won by a single player on a single appearance of any game show, a title which he then held until 2006 when Vickyann Chrobak-Sadowski won $147,517 dollars on the Price is Right.
What was your favorite game show? Have you ever been a contestant?