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View Press Your Luck Scandal

Type:   Beating the System.
Summary: A contestant became a big winner on a game show by realizing that the computerized game sequence was not random.
Posted by: Elliot Feldman

Michael Larson plays Press Your Luck
On May 19, 1984, Michael Larson, an unemployed ice cream truck driver from Lebanon, Ohio, won $104,950 in cash, a sailboat, and two all-expense-paid vacation trips from two appearances on the CBS television game show “Press Your Luck.” At the time, $40,000 was considered to be a huge winning. Larson’s winnings set a record for the largest prize money award on any game show.

CBS initially refused to pay Larson his winnings, suspecting he had cheated. However, although Larson had won under unusual circumstances, he had not cheated. Instead, he had memorized the show’s computerized game board sequences, allowing him to continuously keep selecting winning board squares. He became the game’s biggest winner in less than an hour. CBS eventually conceded that Larson had done nothing illegal. He had simply outsmarted the game.

How He Did It

“Press Your Luck” debuted in September 1983. Contestants answered trivia questions to earn the right to earn “spins” on the game board. The board consisted of 18 squares, each one featuring prizes—or a character named “Whammy.” The squares lit up in a seemingly random pattern, and a player would press a buzzer to stop on squares with prizes. But if a player buzzed in and got Whammy, he would lose all the money he had accumulated.

Larson, who had ample time to watch the show because he was out of work, quickly became obsessed by it. He started to videotape it to see if the flashing light sequences were truly random. To his surprise and delight, he discovered that they weren’t. There were six three-square sequence patterns, and two squares never had the Whammy at all. For six weeks, he memorized these sequences. Then, in the spring of 1984, he used all his cash to fly out to Los Angeles and tried out to be a contestant on the show. He almost didn’t get selected, but he did get on.

The Game

During the game, Larson initially acted as if he was just a regular naive player, purposefully hitting a whammy in the first round. But in the second round he began to implement his system. He quickly racked up $28,000 in prize money, as well as numerous additional spins. These spins allowed him to keep winning more money as the other two contestants sat idly by. The host of the show, Peter Tomarken, was beside himself with amazement.

Larson’s strategy required excellent hand-eye coordination to hit the buzzer at the right time, and as his winnings increased, and the tension increased, he struggled more with the timing of the buzzer. Nevertheless, he kept playing. Finally, after 40 spins, when he had reached the $100,000 mark, Larson called it quits and allowed another contestant to complete his spins.

Larson’s winning streak went on for so long that it had to be broadcast over two episodes.


Larson wins big.
CBS initially resisted giving Larson his money, but eventually it relented, conceding he had done nothing illegal. However, the show immediately made sure to add more sequence patterns to the board to make sure no one else could repeat his strategy. In addition, it set a winnings ceiling of $75,000. Reportedly, if CBS had invested a mere $600 in upgrading the game sooner, they could have fixed the flaw that Larson took advantage of.

Larson soon lost his winnings, partially to a bad real-estate investment, and partially to a robber who broke into his house and took the cash (which Larson had foolishly kept in dollar bills inside his home). He died of throat cancer on February 16, 1999, while on the run from the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission for his alleged involvement in a securities scam.

For years there have been rumors about a movie based on his life being in development. Reportedly, Bill Murray has expressed interest in playing him. However, there is currently no word on when or if such a movie might materialize.

Game Show Network

CBS only aired the Larson episodes of Press Your Luck a single time, and then, for the next nineteen years, kept them hidden away.

They only emerged from the vaults in 2002, when the Game Show Network entered into a contract to buy all rerun episodes of the eighties game show. At first, the production company refused to include the two Michael Larson episodes as part of the package. When GSN threatened to cancel the deal, the production company relented and included the controversial episodes.

In 2003, the Game Show Network ran a special documentary called “Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.” The documentary included excerpts from the two episodes and interviews with Larson’s family, the other two contestants, and the show’s host Peter Tomarken.

Also, in 2003, GSN revived Press Your Luck. The new show was “Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck.” On one episode of the new show, GSN brought back the two contestants who lost to Michael Larson in the eighties. The third contestant was Larson’s brother James. The two losing contestants from the eighties episodes lost again, this time to James Larson.