Thirty-one years ago today, on May 19, 1984, a bearded man in a blue suit walked into CBS Television City in Los Angeles to tape an episode of a game show, Press Your Luck, for which he’d been selected as a contestant. Michael Larson, an ice cream truck driver from Lebanon, Ohio, was due to be on for the fifth taping session of the day. After some chit-chat in the green room with Ed Long, a Baptist minister with a very 80s ‘stache, Larson waited for his turn outside the studio. Finally he was called in. Long, who’d won the previous game and came back for the fifth taping, was one of the other three contestants; the other was a dental hygienist, Janie Litras. The lights and cameras clicked on and Press Your Luck host Peter Tomarken started the proceedings with his oozy charm (and very 80s ensemble of pink shirt, pastel V-neck sweater vest and striped coat). The hapless host had no idea what he was in for. A few astonishing hours later Michael Larson walked out of the studio with a staggering $110,237–the most ever won by a game show contestant in TV history–and having committed an act of intellectual and mnemonic legerdemain that is still infamous in the history of gaming.
To understand how he did it one must understand how Press Your Luck worked. As most TV games are, it was pretty simple. The set was dominated by an illuminated board with a total of 18 squares. The squares illuminated in sequence, and a contestant pressed a button to stop anywhere he or she wanted. The square on which he/she stopped would light up and show what he’d won: a prize, a cash amount, another turn, or the key element, a game-stopper called a “Whammy.” Getting a Whammy meant a contestant lost all of his/her money and the turn passed to the next player. This was the key feature of the game because it was, in strategic terms, the house’s advantage. No player could win too much and bankrupt the show because, statistically speaking, he/she was 100% guaranteed to land on a Whammy eventually–that is, if the location of the Whammy was truly random. To almost everyone who watched the show, clearly it was. Michael Larson was the one person who noticed it wasn’t.
Here is the beginning of the show with Michael Larson, encompassing introductions and the first round.
There wasn’t much demand for ice cream in Ohio in the winter, so Larson spent a lot of time watching TV in the off season. He began watching Press Your Luck when it premiered in the fall of 1983 and he began to notice patterns in how the illuminated squares worked. Certain squares never seemed to contain Whammies when players happened to stop on them in exactly the right sequence, but the pattern was fabulously complicated–so much so in fact that the designers of the board never noticed them, and believed they were really random. Very much like the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man counting cards in Las Vegas, Larson kept track of the sequence of squares in his head and believed he could predict ahead of time when there was–and most importantly when there was not–a Whammy. In the spring of 1984 he spent almost all the money he had to travel to L.A. to audition for the show. He believed that through his system he could rake in truly big bucks.
He almost didn’t get on. At Larson’s audition, the producer, Bill Carruthers, was impressed by him, but the show’s contestant coordinator smelled a rat. He said to the producer, “There’s something about this guy that worries me,” but couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Carruthers prevailed and Larson went on the show. On May 19 the fateful taping began. Before he could run the board Larson first had to answer trivia questions to get a chance to spin. The first half of the show was exactly normal; Larson in fact hit a Whammy (he deliberately hadn’t begun his counting yet) and ended the first round in last place. When he finally got to spin in the second round, however, he put his pattern to the test. Spin after spin he racked up cash. No Whammies. The directors were becoming concerned, though not at first because they thought something was wrong, but because contestants hitting Whammies provided the breaks in play needed for commercials, and Larson’s incredible winning streak simply never let up.
Larson begins his intellectual assault on the ramparts of Press Your Luck.
Larson’s luck continued. Twenty spins without a Whammy…then 25…then 30. One of the show directors called a CBS executive at home in a panic asking what to do. The half-hour show had eaten an hour of tape, and Larson was bankrupting the program. Eventually they decided to let him keep playing because there was no obvious sign of chicanery. By now Peter Tomarken was visibly shaken and the other players were angry. Lapsing for a moment in his pattern, on spin 45 Larson landed on a money prize, but not an extra spin. The turn finally passed to Janice. She managed to win over $9,000, but then threw Larson, if you’ll pardon the expression, a whammy: she had free spins left over but she passed them to him. He wasn’t expecting to spin again so soon. He took them (as the rules obligated him to do), but he was tired and on the verge of making a mistake. When he landed on a square that won him a trip to the Bahamas, he realized he was done and couldn’t risk blowing his incredible winnings. The show finally ended and he was over $100,000 richer.
The producers of the show, however, were convinced he’d cheated. Reviewing the videotapes, they noticed some strange things, such as the fact that Larson seemed to celebrate a lot earlier each time he won than other contestants did, and other subtle clues that indicated he knew what was behind the board. But an investigation by CBS’s lawyers concluded that what he’d done was not illegal, nor in breach of any contract he’d signed. He beat the show through intelligence and attention to detail, not trickery. CBS wrote Larson’s check. After some internal debate they decided to air the shows with Larson, which had to be split into two separate episodes, airing June 8 and 11, 1984. But at the same time they quickly retooled the game board to make sure its patterns couldn’t be memorized. They also instituted an all-time winnings cap of $75,000. Press Your Luck was finally canceled in 1986.
Part 3: the streak continues. You can tell by the end of this segment–by which time Larson has crossed the $100,000 threshold–the other contestants know something is seriously wrong.
The final battle. This is where the drama is–Larson finally has mercy on his fellow contestants (and CBS).
Although Larson’s win was legal, CBS was deeply embarrassed by the incident. For years they refused to allow the Michael Larson episodes to be rebroadcast; finally they relented in 2003, and ultimately they wound up on YouTube (which is why you can see them embedded here). Larson himself did not live happily ever after. He lost some of his winnings in a shady real estate scheme, and $50,000 of it, which he had converted to cash for a very convoluted reason, was stolen. He later got in trouble with the IRS and other federal agencies for a foreign lottery scheme. He was still on the run when he died of cancer in 1999, age only 49.
In my opinion the story of Michael Larson’s unlikely victory is one of the most fascinating tales from the world of games. It goes to prove that there really is something to the phrase “mind over matter.” Michael Larson’s winning streak was something extremely rare in the realm of gambling: a pure act of will that paid off in cold hard cash.