originally published December 12, 2013
As a child raised within the warm glowing bosom of television, coming down with a cold had its advantages. A day off meant I’d have access to those glorious programs with the flickering lights, sonorous bells and adrenaline-drenched, screaming contestants. The game shows. Sale of the Century. Card Sharks. The Price Is Right. It was an opportunity to drink in the enthusiasm of strangers winning fabulous prizes. I loved it.
There was no game show that better served the entertainment-starved eyes of a mid-80’s child than Press Your Luck. There was a board with bouncing lights and tempting prizes, players would yell at the fates with the passion of true desperation, and when bad luck would fall, an adorable cartoon creature would worm his way onto the screen and sweep away their money. The Whammy. The contestants hated him, but he was the reason I watched.
Then one day, someone beat the system. A man figured out the guts of the show and changed everything. Meet Michael Larson.
Michael was, according to his own family, an odd man. He drove an ice cream truck in Lebanon, Ohio for at least ten summers, and worked as an air conditioning mechanic for the rest of the year. He had a common-law wife and three kids, but more importantly, he possessed an entrenched belief that he was savvy enough to earn a heap of cash, ideally through legally grey means. When a bank would offer $500 to each new customer, Michael would open an account, take the money, then close the account. He’d then open another under a different name. Michael was the kind of guy who liked to exploit the flaws in the world around him.
In case you don’t remember how Press Your Luck works, I’ll give you a quick refresher. Players answer questions to earn ‘spins’. Those spins are then used on the big board (pictured above), where squares light up seemingly at random. The player yells, “STOP!” (which I believe is merely an optional theatrical gesture) and slams on the button in front of them, and whichever square is lit up will provide a prize. If the Whammy is in that square, the player loses all the money they’d accrued throughout the game.
As random as it seems, each square on the board only offers three possibilities:
In addition to the pre-set trio of options for each square, the light indicator moved in one of five programmed patterns. Michael Larson watched episodes of the show frame by frame, learning the patterns, then figuring out how to identify which pattern was in play at full speed. His goal was to predict when the board would stop on one of two squares: the one on the top row just to the right of center, and the middle square on the right. Both offered only cash prizes, plus bonus spins. If he hit only those two squares, he could theoretically keep playing and spinning and racking up money as long as he’d like.
It cost Michael most of his savings, but he made his way to Hollywood to audition for the show. He was picked for the fifth episode to be taped that day, destined for a Friday airing in June of 1984. His competition would be Ed Long, a Baptist minister and the previous episode’s winner, and a dental assistant named Janie Litras.
Round one didn’t go so well. Michael’s extensive preparation didn’t help him answer questions, and though he finished the round with $2500, he was in third place.
Then came round two.
Michael’s play was erratic at first, and he wound up scoring a few prizes, like a sailboat and a trip to Kauai. Then he decided to stop toying with the game. Michael set his sights on those two squares and nailed them with deadly precision. The money built up and the audience went crazy. Paul Tomarken, the show’s host, was begging Michael to stop, lest he hit a Whammy and lose his $40,000… $50,000… $60,000… The audience got quieter and quieter the closer Michael got to $100,000.
After racking up over $102,000, he passed his remaining spins to Janie Litras. Janie’s first spin was a Whammy, and she promptly lost the $4,608 she’d won in round one.
After gaining back some money, Janie passed her remaining spins back to Michael, presumably hoping he’d hit a Whammy and lose it all – this was a common strategy in the game, to force the leading player to spin at least once more and risk it all. Sure enough, on his third spin, Michael made a mistake. Fortunately, that mistake netted him a trip to the Bahamas. He walked off the set $110,237 richer, mostly in cash.
Michael was not invited back for the next show; CBS had a rule in place that if any contestant won $25,000 on any of their game shows they could not return as next-day champs. But the network didn’t want to pay Michael – they knew that he’d cheated.
Or had he? Was it really cheating or simply an exercise in studious preparation? The board had been running with these pre-programmed patterns since the show began – there was nothing in the rulebook to disqualify Michael. They had to pay him.
Unfortunately, if there is an otherworldly dispenser of karma out there, he was paying attention to CBS that day. Larson invested a heap of his winnings in a real estate deal that turned out to be nothing but a Ponzi scheme. He was obsessed with rapid routes to riches more than ever before. He and his common-law wife went out to a party once, leaving between $40,000 and $50,000 cash in their home. They were robbed and the money was stolen. Michael accused his common-law wife of being in on the theft, and she promptly took off with his kids.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1994, Michael got involved with a scam to sell part of a foreign lottery. The Securities & Exchange Commission, along with the IRS and FBI came after him, and Michael was forced to go on the lam. The authorities never caught up with him until his death in 1999. The throat cancer got him.
As a result of Michael’s successful victory over the Press Your Luck game, the show’s producers were quick to revamp the system, programming the board with 32 patterns, and making it next to impossible for anyone to prepare the way Michael did. In fact, all game shows become more alert to holes in their operation after the Michael Larson affair.
It didn’t set Michael up for life, but it earned him a weird place in TV history. If only I’d been at home sick that day.