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Friday, May 18, 2012

Whammy of a Scandal or Pressing His Luck

Game shows can be a source of great entertainment.  With excitable contestants, energetic hosts, and the promise of cash and luxurious prizes, there is never a shortage of spontaneity and excitement.

Certainly, when most people go on a television game show, they have the dream of winning everything in sight, and for most people, they manage to win the game fair and square.

This blog entry is not about that though.

I’m sure that you’ve heard about some quiz show scandals that have happened over the years.  You know, the scandals where contestants (and in some cases, the producers of the show) have cheated or fixed the game to their own advantage.  It was a big deal back in the late 1950’s, as the reputations of several game shows were ruined.

Take the quiz show, “Twenty One”.  In 1956, contestant Herb Stempel accused producer Dan Enright of forcing him to lose the game on purpose so that another contestant, Charles Van Doren, would emerge victorious.  At first, the public didn’t believe his claims, dismissing him as a sore loser, but it was eventually confirmed that producers began to rig the show after their sponsors pressured them to make the show more exciting.

Other quiz show scandals soon followed.  On the show, “Dotto”, a former contestant declared that he had found a notebook filled with the answers to the questions that contestant Marie Winn had answered on stage.  And, on “The $64,000 Question”, contestant Patty Duke (yes, THE Patty Duke) had testified that she had been coached in what to answer on her appearance.

As a result of these scandals, several changes were made.  For a period of five years, television quiz shows disappeared from the airwaves.  And when game shows returned to television and enjoyed a second wind in the 1970s, networks initially issued a cap on the total amount of winnings that a contestant could walk away with (which have since been removed).

But despite all of the rules and precautions that networks have made to prevent another scandal from happening on quiz shows, some contestants seem to find new and ingenious ways to get the maximum experience out of their appearance, even if it means cheating to get it.

Well, if you can consider what our contestant did cheating.  It’s been debated since he made his appearance on a game show in 1984, and a documentary on the scandal was filmed in 2003 depicting the scandal piece by piece.  In fact, a lot of the information found within this blog entry was taken from this documentary, which can be found online at YouTube.

Just enter the words “Big Bucks: Press Your Luck Scandal” in the search box.

Now, some of you who may have been born after the mid-1980s might not remember the television game show, “Press Your Luck”.  The show was hosted by Peter Tomarken (who died in a 2006 plane crash), and aired on CBS between 1983 and 1986. 

The concept of the show was quite simple.  There were three contestants per episode, each of different backgrounds, and they were seated in front of a gigantic prize board with flashing lights and changing images.  Each of the eighteen squares on the board contained prizes, cash values, and other surprises.  But, we’ll get to that a little bit later.

All the contestants would get a chance to press their luck on the board...but before they could, they would try for the chance to win some spins.  The more spins that a player had, the better the chance was to win big!  How players earned the spins was by answering trivia questions asked by the host.  Players could buzz in if they thought they knew the answer.  Their answer would be added on a list of three possible answers.  If a contestant guessed the right answer, they’d earn a spin.  If the contestant buzzed in with the correct answer before the choices were revealed, they would get three spins.

After the questions were asked, and the spins were tallied up, the contestants would use their spins on the board.  A flashing light would bounce around the quiz board in a seemingly random fashion, and it was up to the contestant to stop the light by pressing a button on their podium.  Wherever the light stopped was what the contestant would win.  In most cases, the light would stop on a prize, a vacation, or cash prizes.  But contestants needed to heed caution as well, for there was a one in six chance of landing on a yellow square with an ugly red cartoon character inside of it.

These little red guys were known as “Whammies”, and they certainly did a whammy on the contestants.  If they landed on one, they lost everything!  And, if they landed on four during the course of the game, their game was over.  Let’s watch these mischievous critters in action, shall we? can definitely tell that this show was an eighties creation, couldn’t you?  Though, I readily admit that Boy George whammy was awesome!  And, here’s some trivia for you.  The man who designed the Whammy was Savage Steve Holland, who would later create the cartoon series, “Eek! The Cat”.

Part of the strategy was to determine whether you wanted to keep playing, or pass your spins to another player.  Basically, they had to choose whether they wanted to play it safe, or press their luck (hence the game’s name).  The winner was the contestant who had the most money after all the spins were used up.

Now that you know how the game was played, let’s meet our crafty contestant who was the catalyst behind the Press Your Luck scandal.

This is Michael Larson.  Or, rather I should say, was Michael Larson.  He died of throat cancer in 1999.  In the days that he was living, before he appeared as a contestant on Press Your Luck, he was a seasonal ice cream truck driver, who was often unemployed.  As a result of this, he spent most of his off days watching a lot of daytime television, especially game shows.

And when Larson happened to come across “Press Your Luck”, he was mesmerized by the game show...specifically the supposedly random pattern that flashed around the board.

But Larson soon discovered that the light pattern wasn’t quite as random as people were lead to believe. 

Larson frequently recorded episodes of Press Your Luck on his VCR, and played them back, over and over, in freeze frame mode.  By doing this, he cracked the pattern of the flashing light, as well as the squares on the board.  This diagram that I borrowed from the Wikipedia page on this scandal will help me explain it.

So, as you can see, each square was theoretically numbered from 1-18, beginning with the top left square going clockwise.  One discovery that Larson made was the light pattern.  Although the producers made it appear that the light pattern was completely random, Larson discovered that only five patterns determined how the light moved.  Once he figured out the pattern of the lights, he then focused his attention on the squares. 

And two squares caught his attention...squares four and eight.

In the second round of the Big Board game, Larson discovered that squares four and eight contained prize values plus one additional spin.  If a player landed on that square, they would win an extra spin.

There was also another interesting fact about those two squares.  Neither one contained a Whammy during the show’s entire three year run!  And, square number four was always the square that had the highest cash value.  So, if someone were to successfully memorize the pattern, they could basically play the game forever, as each time you landed on square four, you’d get an extra spin!  Why, someone could net themselves a mighty huge payday if they ever figured out the code.

And on May 19, 1984, Michael Larson decided to put that theory to the ultimate test.

Larson spent his entire savings on the trip to California, where “Press Your Luck” was taped, and auditioned for the show.  Interestingly enough, the contestant supervisor, Bobby Edwards was skeptical about Larson, saying that he was suspicious of him from the moment he went into his contestant audition.  Bill Carruthers, the executive producer of the show, disagreed.  The final decision was that Larson would be a contestant.  His opponents were Ed Long, a Baptist preacher, and Jamie Litras, a dental assistant.  Interestingly enough, Long and Litras also had strange feelings about Larson at first.  Long recalled that Larson had told him that he hoped that he didn’t have to go up against him, while Litras thought that Larson was intense and creepy.

At any rate, the first round went off without much incident.  Larson only earned three spins, and his first one landed on a Whammy square.  His next two spins earned him a total of $2,500, putting him in last place.  But that was fine with Larson, for he knew that the really big money would come in the second part of the game.

The rules of the game stated that whoever had the lowest score after the end of round one would start spinning on round two first.  And since Larson was in last place at the time, he was first to spin.  Having earned seven spins in the question round for round 2, we saw him go to work.  He promptly earned over eleven thousand dollars using his light strategy, and things were going well.  But then Larson pressed the button a little too early, and ended up winning a trip to Hawaii instead of big money.  Larson looked visibly puzzled at first, but soon went back to work.  By his fifteenth spin, Larson had earned over thirty-five thousand dollars in cash and prizes...but unfortunately, by his fifteenth spin, the show’s half hour had come to an end.  So, the decision was made to take the episode and split it into two parts.  Larson’s episode was to air on a Friday, and the second part would air the following Monday.

And on that Monday, the show resumed with Larson’s sixteenth spin.  Then a seventeenth spin, and then an eighteenth spin.  Peter Tomarken was blown away by the situation, and his opponents could only watch in shock as Larson’s total continued to rise.  Astute viewers might notice that somewhere around spin number nineteen, Larson’s demeanor changed, and he spun in complete silence, almost as if he was in a trance.  After 40 consecutive spins, Larson’s score had hit the six figure mark, and by the time he passed his two remaining spins to opponent Ed Long, his total was $102,851!!!

The audience gave Larson a standing ovation, and even Tomarken was blown away by what had just happened.  And would you believe that at some point, Larson almost lost it all?  You see, when it came time for Jamie Litras to spin, she tried to play strategically and passed a couple of spins down to Larson...a move that he never planned for.  And sure enough, Larson was so distracted that he pressed the button too soon.  Luckily, the light landed on a trip to the Bahamas...but that particular space had been a Whammy square just moments earlier.  His whole plan could have blown up in his face at that moment.  But in the end, he emerged victorious, and ended up with a total of $110,237, a record for most money won in a single day on a game show at the time.

Behind the scenes, however, producers were very upset.  It turned out that Bobby Edwards’ suspicions about Larson were legitimate.  Reviewing the tape, and watching Larson’s body language and his strange reaction to winning the Hawaii trip, they suspected that he had cheated.

However, proving it was the challenge.  CBS was initially going to withhold Larson’s winnings due to their belief that he had cheated by memorizing the patterns to his own advantage.  But according to the game rules, there was nothing in them that justified his disqualification from the show.  So, CBS was forced to pay Larson everything that he had won.  At the time of the Larson scandal, contestants could only come back to the show if they won less than $25,000.  Because Larson won four times that amount, he was never seen on the show again.  And to ensure that something like this never happened again, producers arranged for more light patterns, to make it harder for future contestants to crack.

So, what has happened since the Press Your Luck scandal? 

Well, some would say that whether he cheated or not, Michael Larson’s greed and manipulation of the Press Your Luck game board netted him some bad karma.  Most of his winnings were in cash, and Larson had invested the cash in real estate.  But when the investment turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, Larson ended up losing most of the fortune he won on the show!  Then, he tried to follow a radio contest which would reward someone with $30,000 for matching serial numbers on dollar bills with the one read on the air.  Larson withdrew large amounts of money from his account in one dollar bills to win the contest, and at one point had $40,000 in one dollar bills stolen from him after he carelessly left it behind at a party!

In the end, Larson lost his money, his common-law wife left him, and he ended up getting himself tied up in illegal activities involving a foreign lottery and was forced to go on the run.  He died in February 1999 at the age of 49, alone and penniless.

Talk about your karmic retribution.

There is one final footnote to add onto this blog note before we close the book on the Press Your Luck scandal.  In 2002, the Game Show Network brought out a revamped version of Press Your Luck which was simply called “Whammy”, hosted by Todd Newton.  The gameplay was exactly the same as it was back in 1984, only with a modernized board, and more Whammy spaces than ever before.  Well, in 2003, the decision was made to have a rematch featuring the contestants who lost to Michael Larson on “Whammy”.  Of course, Michael Larson had died by this point, so Ed Long and Jamie Litkas went up against Michael’s brother, James.

Guess what?  James ended up winning the whole game.  But, unlike his brother, James did it the legitimate way...well, we can hope anyway.

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