In the 1950s, game shows faced scandal for the first time. The most famous was probably Twenty One, which was found guilty of feeding answers to the contestants and coaching them on how to properly react when they “win” or “lose”. If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend Robert Redford’s Quiz Show which covers that in great detail.
After that, however, the shows took on a whole different persona. For starters, it became a federal crime to manipulate the results of a game show in any way. Secondly, most game shows created very low winning limits because – in their minds anyway – nobody would want to waste their time rigging a game for very little money. Finally, all game shows added a Standards & Practices team to monitor all aspects of the game to ensure that no cheating would take place.
Depending on the game, these standards may vary, but the idea has always been to protect the integrity of the game. For example, contestants from Jeopardy are not allowed to have any contact with host Alex Trebek before the show. That way, there would never be a concern about offering clues or hints to contestants about the questions being asked.
So it was especially interesting when, in 1984, a player managed to find a way past all of those regulations during an appearance on Press Your Luck. The best part? He never really cheated. He just found a way to buck the system.
Michael Larson was a former ice cream truck driver who had been dealt a few of life’s bad cards, but always looked for an easy way out. His brother claimed that “[Michael] always felt he was smarter than everyone else”. Larson felt that a game show would be a great way to earn some quick cash, but he wasn’t sure which game was best for him.
I was once asked by a person if Michael was a lovable loser… Upon reflection, I would have to say ‘no’. I just think he was a person doomed to self-destruction because of his desire to make money as quickly as he could.James Larson, Michael’s brother
He felt that he wasn’t very good with trivia, so that eliminated most of the quiz shows. During a period of unemployment in September of 1983, he discovered a brand new show that had just premiered with a very interesting concept.
The main attraction for Press Your Luck was it’s “Big Board”, featuring eighteen squares of various cash and prizes. Some spaces offered trips, while others held the opportunity for more spins as well. Similar to a modern slot machine, a cursor would “randomly” spin around the board and the player had to press a button to make it stop. They would win whatever prize was in that square.
[Press Your Luck‘s board was] kind of like a gigantic ship, almost like the Titanic. And in its day, it was the technological marvel of its time. Unfortunately, Press Your Luck, as the Titanic, met Michael Larson, the iceberg.Ron Schwab, Former Head CBS Stage Electronics Dept
But scattered throughout the board were also little red nasties, referred to as Whammies. A Whammy would immediately remove all of the contestant’s cash and prizes.
Often, as the board was changing and the cursor spinning, players would yell out, “Big Bucks! No Whammies! Stop!!!” as they hit the button. This became a bit of a battle cry for contestants.
The odds of hitting a Whammy were one in every six spins. That is what made the game exciting. You never knew where those darn Whammies would pop up. Players could have accumulated twenty thousand dollars before losing it all with just one unfortunate spin.
This was back in the pre-“Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” days. Game shows could be lucrative, but not tremendously. Most shows had a five-day cap on their returning contestants to minimize the winnings. In fact, until Michael Larson came along, nobody had ever won more than forty thousand dollars on the show
The most EVER earned on a game show to that point was $312,700 from Tic Tac Dough. Thom McKee won forty-three games over nine weeks to hit that mark, a record he held until Regis Philbin gave away his first million-dollar prize nineteen years later.
Michael Larson, however, was about to make a third of that in just one sitting.
During his unemployment, Larson taped every Press Your Luck episode and studied them like a forensic scientist searching for a crack in a cold case. One day, he finally found one.
The so-called “random patterns” were not really random at all. In fact, there were only eight different patterns with five board combinations that repeated. Still a challenge, but not impossible. After months of practicing the timing with his VCR, he felt he was ready to face the “Big Board”.
In May of 1984, Larson used almost his entire life’s savings to fly from Ohio to Los Angeles to audition for the show.
He really impressed us. He had charisma; he played the game very well. Here was this out of work ice cream guy who told us he loved the show so much he flew out on his own to try to get on.Bill Carruthers – Executive Producer/Director of Press Your Luck
Bob Edwards, the contestant coordinator, wasn’t so sure. “There’s something about this guy that worries me,” he told Carruthers. “But I overruled him,” Carruthers recalled, “I should have listened to Bob.”
Larson was added to the taping schedule for Saturday, May 19th. How broke was he? The shirt he wore for the show was purchased from a thrift store right down the road from CBS Studios.
As he waited in the green room before filming, Larson met a fellow contestant named Ed Long. Long was a Baptist minister from California who was scheduled to compete in the show right before Larson’s. Larson took an immediate liking to him, even telling Long that he hoped “we don’t have to play each other.” As fate would have it, Long did win, so he returned for the following taping as the returning champion. Seated to his left was Michael Larson.
As the opening credits began to roll, nobody realized the game show world was once again about to be rocked.
The format for the show was simple. The contestants were asked a series of four questions. If they answered correctly, they were awarded spins. They would then use those spins on the “Big Board”. Once all spins were used, they would answer four more questions. The second round of the “Big Board” was filled with much larger cash amounts. Whoever finished with the higher dollar amount won.
Larson finished the question round with three spins and got to go first. He had been practicing for months to learn the patterns and get the timing down, but that was in his living room. It was finally time to put his money where his mouth was. The board started switching and the cursor spun. He saw what he wanted and hit the button…
His only one for the entire game.
Now that he had a better idea of the timing, he forged ahead with some confidence.
Let’s take a moment to look at the genius behind his plan. As I mentioned, the “Big Board” is set up as 18 individual squares. For ease of explanation, this diagram shows them numbered starting in the top left.
Larson realized that squares 4 & 8 never showed a Whammy, so those were his “sweet spots”. In round two, they also featured free spins, which were key to Larson extending his earnings.
Now all he had to do was wait for the correct pattern. As I mentioned, the cursor was not completely random, so he knew where it would eventually end up. For example, once he saw the #2, followed by the #12 and the #1, he knew it was only two more squares to #4. Sounds easy, right?
Now try that under the pressure of the show, with the lights beaming down and the audience cheering and thousands of dollars on the line. Yet Larson did it again and again.
That very first spin helped him learn the lag time between hitting the button and stopping the cursor. After that first spin, he hit square #4 with his two remaining spins, ending the first round with $2500.
The second round was much more lucrative. After earning seven spins answering questions, he jumped right back to his favorite two squares. When he hit the $10K mark, something happened. It may have been nerves. It may have been over-confidence. Whatever it was caused him to hit a few random squares. Fortunately, he avoided the Whammy.
After that brief hiccup, his focus became laser-like. He hit #4 and #8 consistently. Each time, host Peter Tomarken cheered him on, even begging Larson to stop on one occasion. Nobody had ever hit these levels of success before. Tomarken was on the front line and just had to keep the show going.
Behind the scenes, however, the panic was growing. Remember, the odds of hitting a Whammy were one in six. After finding one with his first spin, Larson spun thirty-nine more times and never hit one. This was a massive statistical irregularity. The producers had no choice but to contact the head of CBS.
Something was very wrong. Here was this guy from nowhere, and he was hitting the bonus box every time. It was bedlam, I can tell you. And we couldn’t stop this guy. He kept going around the board and hitting that box.Michael Brockman, then-head of CBS Daytime Programming
Before long, the phones were filled with executives from all around CBS. Nobody knew how what to do. Obviously, Larson was doing something they hadn’t anticipated but was it cheating?
He could aim and hit, which we didn’t think was possible. And he continued to do it. [But] he wasn’t breaking any of the rules of the game. I could not stop the game. We knew how to deal with every situation, but all we could do with this was hang on for the ride.Darlene Lieblich, former CBS Program Practices Department Executive
Larson was squarely “in the zone”. One executive noted that Larson was like a kid playing a video game. Once that board started spinning, he was locked. As his total grew, so did the adulation from the audience, and he loved it. He played to the crowd with every spin.
Press Your Luck was a thirty-minute show. Most commercial breaks were planned for a moment when a player hit a Whammy. However, Larson wasn’t hitting any and the taping was going much longer than usual. The production team just decided to keep rolling. They’d eventually split it into two episodes.
It was like everyone was waiting for me to lose it… But I came there to win at least $100,000, and I kept going.Michael Larson
Once he crossed that $100K threshold, he finally stopped. He had made forty spins without hitting a Whammy. Thirty-five of them were on square #4 or #8.
The game wasn’t over, however. Since he kept earning those free spins, he still had four spins left. The rules stated that he could pass them to another player, who would have to use them. He passed them to Ed Long.
Larson sat back, feeling pretty confident, but a little concern was creeping in. He was mentally exhausted. He quit because he was starting to feel a bit fatigued. But he wasn’t done yet. The other contestant, Janie Litras, chose to pass her three remaining spins to Larson. If he caught even one Whammy, she could be victorious with her $9,385.
Fortunately for Larson, he fell right back into his zone with the first two spins, but missed his intended mark with the third, winning a trip to the Bahamas. He passed his last two spins to Litras, who couldn’t earn any extra spins, so the game was done. Larson’s final total: $110, 237 (just shy of $280,000 in 2020 dollars).
The show closed out with a quick Q&A between Tomarken and Larson. At one point, the host asked why Larson kept “pressing his luck”.
Two things: One, it felt right, and second, I still had seven spins and if I passed them, somebody could’ve done what I did.Michael Larson
But everyone knew the truth. Nobody was ever going to do what he did again. In fact, the suits at CBS weren’t even sure they would pay him for this appearance.
They studied the videotape and could tell that he had worked out a pattern. They noticed he got excited even before he had a moment to register the prize; he knew he’d landed on the intended square and was celebrating.
What everyone finally was forced to acknowledge was that what he did was legitimate. It was like being a card-counter at blackjack. After all, nowhere in the rules did it say that you couldn’t pay attention.Game show executive Robert Noak
Further investigation also revealed the inherent issues with the “Big Board”. A small number of patterns had been implemented during the pilot and nobody ever thought to change it. It appeared random and was never changed.
Until after Larson’s appearance, that is. The board was programmed with an additional thirty-two patterns and they’ve never had an issue since.
Just to be sure nobody would try to replicate his accomplishment, CBS also removed Larson’s appearance from its regular broadcast package. Even when it was sold into syndication, they would not allow the Larson shows to be included. The Game Show Network did a full feature on the scandal in 2003 and were finally allowed to re-broadcast them as they explained the situation.
Some people would have looked at this new wealth as an opportunity to make some changes and try to improve their lot in life. Larson however, was not “some people”. He went back to Ohio and worked in retail for a while, but kept looking for his next big score.
For example, in November 1984, he heard about a radio show offering $30,000 for anyone who could produce a dollar bill with an exact serial number match to their random number. Larson withdrew almost all of his remaining cash (in $1 bills) and checked them all. Finding none of them matched, he deposited some back to the account, leaving about $50,000 in his house. While he attended a Christmas party, his house was robbed and that remaining cash was taken.
That desire for a quick buck ultimately caught up to him. Before long, he was running from both the IRS & the FBI over his involvement in some massive Ponzi schemes. By the mid-1990s, he’d cheated twenty thousand investors out of $3 million.
Larson fell prey to the same fate as many comic book villains. He was obviously intelligent enough to figure out the pattern. He had to be charming to weasel his way onto the show and later to convince people to hand over large sums of money to him. How much differently would his life had been if he had used his powers for good and not evil?
We’d never have the opportunity to find out. While hiding out in Florida, Larson succumbed to throat cancer and died in 1999.
In 2002, Game Show Network rebooted Press Your Luck as Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck which featured a newly programmed “Larson-proof Big Board”. One special episode featured Ed Long and Janie Litras, the players from Larson’s original episode, alongside Larson’s brother James.
On his second spin of the “Big Board”, James hit the “Big Bank” space. Ed Long stared at James for a moment, shook his head and said, “I’ve seen this before…”