The dawn of cable television in the 1980s created a unquenchable thirst for content and game shows filled the space quickly and relatively cheaply for network syndication. Shows like Tic-Tac-Dough, Joker's Wild and High Rollers littered the small screen up and down the dial. One of the most popular was Press Your Luck, hosted by Peter Tomarken. It was a relatively simple game, with modest cash prizes for the winner. Modest, that is, until a strange fellow named Michael Larson arrived and changed everything.
Michael Larson was an unemployed ice cream truck driver from Lebanon, Ohio, that was immediately drawn to the game when it debuted in 1984. He began taping the episodes on his VCR and watching them over and over. It's fair to call him obsessed.
The premise of Press Your Luck was essentially a combination of trivia and what seemed like an odds game. Each game would start with three opponents answering trivia questions to earn spins. After the first commercial break, players took spins to play the "big board" of prizes. The lights would bounce around a changing pattern of prizes, from low-value cash earnings like $100 to big prizes like trips and thousands of dollars in cash. As the lights flashed and prize squares changed, a player would yell "STOP" and the lights would stop on one of the squares, revealing the prize. Also hidden in the pattern were the dreaded "Whammys." If a player was unlucky enough to stop the board on a Whammy, the player's bank was wiped, leaving them with nothing. Usually, the winner won something in the neighborhood of $10,000 or so. The combination proved a popular format, but there was one critical flaw in the 'odds' game that Larson eventually figured out.
As Michael Larson obsessively watched the show back in Ohio, he began to recognize patterns that the lights and prizes followed on the big board. Using his remote control, he would slow down and pause the show, memorizing those patterns. Eventually he cracked the code. He figured out that there were only five patterns and he worked out where he would need to yell "STOP" in order to win the top prizes and, of course, avoid the Whammys. Armed with this information, Larson took the little amount of money he had left in his savings account, bought a plane ticket and headed to Hollywood, determined to win big.
At Larson's audition, he was interviewed by the show's contestant supervisor, Bobby Edwards, was suspicious of Larson immediately and told the Executive Producer of the show, Bill Carruthers that he shouldn't be allowed to play. In a decision that proved very fateful, Carruthers disagree and allowed Larson to play. Bobby Edwards wasn't the only one that got a weird vibe about the unemployed Ice Cream Truck driver from Ohio, both of Larson's opponents found him very odd as well. Larson didn't care. He had one mission and after acquiring his first three spins, he was ready to go. Watch the video below to watch it all unfold to the horror of the producers, then continue the story below.
The lights started flashing, the sounds started beeping and Larson watched for his pattern. "STOP" he yelled and it stopped... on a Whammy! Strike it up to nerves, but Larson missed his first spin badly. He wouldn't hit another Whammy for the next 46 spins. Tomarken, the host was almost speechless. In the control room, the producers were going nuts, they couldn't figure out how this guy was winning so much. They sensed something was amiss, but couldn't do anything to stop it. Larson just kept winning and winning and winning, until he had finally won $110,000! He passed his remaining spins to another opponent and his triumph was complete.
When the dust settled after the game, the producers were dumbfounded. What had happened? There was no way he could have been that lucky, they figured. They refused to pay. They knew Larson had to have cheated. Eventually, they did figure out what he had done, learning the patterns of the board and they are also discovered there was nothing in the rules that said a player couldn't do that. They were forced to pay Larson the full amount, though because he had exceeded their limit of $25K for a champion, he was not back on the next day as a returning champion as most winners were. Larson returned to his home in Ohio and continued to live his quirky life and died 15 years after his appearance on the show, but will always be remembered in infamy for the time he broke a game show.
*Quick Fun Fact - The cartoon Whammys on show were designed by Savage Steve Holland, who would go on to direct the movies "Better Off Dead" and "One Crazy Summer" and create the TV show "Eek! The Cat"
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