|THE MICHAEL LARSON SWEEP|
The below article is (c) Copyright 1994, TV Guide
This is the untold story of a game show that wasn't fixed--but of one crafty contestant who "fixed" the game show itself. In the process, he won more money in one appearance than any other game-show contestant in the history of television. And, to the embarrassment of the network and the producers, he did it legally. Chances are you've never heard of Paul Michael Larson or his remarkable feat. But on May 19 1984, Larson--a mild mannered but very clever ice-cream truck vendor from Lebanon, Ohio--did what the network executives and game-show producers thought was the impossible.
It all happened when he competed on Press Your Luck, which aired on CBS from 1983 through 1986. Larson, who drove a Mister Softee truck in his hometown, had started watching the show in November 1983. "It was winter," he recalls, "and I wasn't exactly selling a lot of ice-cream. I was watching a lot og television." And Press Your Luck was a fun game to watch. Contestants competed to answer questions correctly. If they did, they earned spins and got control of "the board"--and a chance to win money.
As lights flashed around the board, the player had to hit a plunger to stop on a particular square. If that square held a prize or money, the player got to keep it. There were bonuses as well. One additional hidden spot on the board gave the player an extra spin as well as extra dollars. But players had to avoid the dreaded "whammies" placed at intervals on the board.
A whammy bankrupted you, and you lost your turn.
Larson became fascinated with the illuminated money board, and was convinced he could determine the location of all the whammies. Around Thanksgiving of '83, he videotaped every show for a few weeks. He studied the videotapes, slowing them down and freezing the image to look at the board patterns one frame at a time. "I discovered there were only 6 patterns on the board. It wasn't random," Larson says. "And so it was just a process of memorizing the patterns." Armed with that knowledge, he had the edge. It meant that he knew exactly where each whammy was hidden. All he had to do was get on the show, answer enough questions to get to the board, remember the sequence, and he was home free. Larson bought a discount airline ticket and flew out to Los Angeles.
Press Your Luck executive producer/director Bill Carruthers remembers Larson's audition for the show well. "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." Bob Edwards, the contestant coordinator, had doughts. "There's something about this guy that worries me," he told Carruthers. "But I overruled him," Carruthers now laughs. "I should have listened to Bob."
Larson was booked for a regular Saturday-afternoon taping.
Press Your Luck, like most half-hour game shows, was structured in two equal parts, with the big-money prizes availible during the second half.
Larson and the other two contestants were introduced, and the game started. "Nothing really unusual happened during the first half of the show," Carruthers says. Larson played the game well enough but not spectacularly. At the end of the first round, he was only in third place. But when the second round began, Larson made his move. He answered a question correctly and got control of the money board. Unlike the other contestants, Larson didn't have to press his luck. He simply had to memorize the pattern he had memorized and...press. And press he did.
"The odds of hitting a whammy were about 1 in 6," Carruthers recalls. "So if a player didn't hit on the first time, it wasn't surprising. A second, third or foruth time, it was getting scary. If you spun more than 6 or 7 time in a row and didn't hit a whammy, that was remarkable. The good contestants knew it was a good idea to pass control of the board after about four or five spins."
But not Larson. He hit the plunger once and didn't just hit a money prize, but the money prize that also gave him another prize, and another spin. He hit the plunger again and hit the same spot, with more money and another spin.
And he kept hitting the spot. Inside the director's booth, pandemonium was slowly erupting. The pace of the show--even the commercial breaks--was timed to coincide with a contestant hitting one of those whammies, which bankrupted the player, stopped the action, and gave the emcee the opportunity to take a pause. But Larson wasn't giving anyone--including himself--a chance to catch his breath. In just a few short minutes, Larson had become the Energizer Bunny of game-show players.
He kept going and going and going. Not just six spins without a whammy, or 10 spins without busting. But 35 spins in a row! Michael Brockman, then CBS's head of daytime programming, was at home when the panic phone call came in. "Something was very wrong," he remembers. "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." Back inside the control toom, the decision was made: Keep the tape running. The half-hour show was already nearly a full hour.
When Larson hit about $80,000, already a show record, the studio had suddenly become very quiet. "It was like everyone was waiting for me to lose it," Larson says. "And I was beginning to lose my concentration and discipline. But I came there to win at least $100,000, and I kept going."
On the 45th straight winning spin, Larson nearly lost it. He hit the plunger, and it landed on a money prize, but not the extra spin. "I remember that moment. I was just so drained," Larson says. "I suddenly forgot where the whammies were. So I stopped and passed control of the board to the other players. I felt so relived that it was over."
But it wasn't over. The other players--stunned, confused, and just a little angry--knew they stood no chance of winning, so one of them answered a question correctly and did something that Larson hadn't counted on--she gave her spins, and therefore control of the board, back to Larson.
Now, Larson had to hit the plunger. A whammy would have wiped out everything. This time, he had indeed pressed his luck. "It got very tense," reports Brockman. "We could see he had lost his mental focus and he was at risk." But Larson's luck held. He hit another money prize. And again, he stopped. He was declaired the winner.
In just one appearance, he had won $110,237 (about $104,000 of it in cash, the rest in trips), the most ever won at one time by a contestant in the history of television game shows. (By contrast, Charles Van Doren, portrayed in the recent movie "Quiz Show," won $129,000 over 15 weeks on Twenty-One.) CBS executive, scared that they were now victims of a repeat of 1958, hurriedly called a meeting with Brockman and the producers. The network was reluctant to air the show without an investigation.
Brockman press the CBS lawyers to prove that what Larson had done was illegal. They couldn't. "What everyoone finally was forced to acknowledge," says Robert Noak, a game-show executive, "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." Larson got his money.
Needless to say, the structure of the prize board and its computer-generated whammy patterns was augumented immediately thereafter. Some 20 random-access programs were added to the mix, and a winning cap of $75,000 was imposed. And that Press Your Luck episode did indeed air in June 1984, as an unprecedented two-part special, complete with an explination by host Peter Tomarken.
And what did Larson do with his money? He paid the taxes on his winnings ($35,000) and invested the rest, most of it in vacant land in a real-estate deal to build homes back in Lebanon. "It didn't work out," he says. "We had a cash-flow problem, and I lost everything."
He then called one of the show's contestant coordinators and issued a challenge: "I know you've added patterns to the board, but I bet I can beat you again. How about a tournament of champions?" Nobody took him up.
By the way, if you want to see Larson's
amazing performance, you might be able to catch it. Press
Your Luck reruns still air in syndication on
the USA Network, Monday through Friday at 3 P.M.
(Actually, its now on GSN at 9:30 & 1:30 AM & PM!)
(Actually, its now on GSN at 9:30 & 1:30 AM & PM!)