The story of How Michael Larson cracked the Press Your Luck game show
From the beginning, Michael was a man with a plan. On the Saturday afternoon of May 19, 1984, during the second round of a taping of the CBS game show Press Your Luck, Michael put that plan into action. When all was said and done, Michael walked away with over $100,000 in cash and prizes, at the time the largest one-day total ever won on a game show. This is how Michael Larson cracked the Press Your Luck game show code.
From Ice cream Truck Vendor to 100k prize winnings
Michael, a Mister Softee ice cream truck vendor from the small town of Lebanon, Ohio always tended to get rich quick schemes. He liked to watch infomercials that promised the viewer the secret to earning riches. Michael believed that game shows contained secret hacks and that if he could just crack one, he’d win. In the fall of 1983, Michael became fascinated with Press Your Luck, a brand new daytime broadcast game show which had premiered in September of that year.
The Press Your Luck game Show
Press Your Luck was billed as a cutting edge game show featuring flashy, technologically advanced audio-visual equipment. The game show had simple rules and a straightforward structure. Each episode began with the host asking the three contestants a series of trivia questions. The opponents would buzz in; the first person to hit the buzzer would get to try to answer the question. Correct buzz-in answers earned three spins, while correct multiple-choice answers earned one spin.
At the end of each round, the players would take turns spinning on the massive game board called the ‘Big Board’. The Big Board was made up of 18 backlit squares, through which constantly rotated cash and various prizes such as appliances, jewellery and vacation packages. The Big Board also contained a pick known as a “Whammy.”
During a spin, an indicator light rapidly shuffled around the squares, lighting them up. The player would then choose when to slam down a big red button, halting the indicator. The contestant then won whatever prize was featured in the illuminated square.
At the end of each spin, the player had the option to “press their luck” by spinning again or they could pass any remaining spins to the next contestant. If a player landed on the show’s trademark Whammy, a tiny cartoon gremlin in a red suit would steal all the money they’d won up until that point, sending the hapless contestant back to zero and passing the turn to the next player.
Watching past recordings
After obsessively watching Press Your Luck, including recording episodes to VHS and pausing to study various frames, Michael discovered that the light selector moved around the Big Board in 5 patterns. He also realized that when counted clockwise with #1 being the top left corner around the board, the fourth and eighth squares always had cash and never were Whammies.
Furthermore, square #4 always contained the largest cash amount and in the second round, contestants were awarded an additional spin if they landed on those spots. Theoretically, Michael could play the Press Your Luck Big Board in the second round for as long as he wanted if he could memorize and use the patterns.
So that’s exactly what he set out to do. Over the next several weeks, Michael memorized every possible pattern. Then in May of 1984, Michael scraped together some money and bought a discount airline ticket to fly out to Los Angeles and audition For Press Your Luck.
Though Michael was charismatic and loved the show, later the show’s contest coordinator Bob Edwards claimed that he had a funny feeling about Michael from the start and didn’t trust him. Unfortunately, Bob’s decision not to cast Michael was overruled by executive producer and director Bill Carruthers.
Michael as a contestant of the game show
Michael was booked as a contestant for the fourth episode of a Saturday afternoon taping; his episode was meant to air Friday, June 8, 1984. The two contestants competing against Michael were Janie Litras, a dental assistant, and Ed Long, a Baptist minister. Ed was Press Your Luck’s returning current champion, having won $11,516 on the previous episode.
The show began like any other with an exciting live studio audience and host Peter Tomarken engaging in some friendly banter with the contestants. Michael got off to a rocky start, on the second trivia question, he pressed the buzzer prematurely, interrupting Peter. He answered that in addition to being wrong, was quickly revealed to be a poor answer when Peter completed asking the question. Michael finished the round earning only 3 spins, while Ed earned 4 and Janie 10. Per the game rules, since Michael had the lowest number of spins, he got to play the Big Board first.
Hit a Whammy on the first spin
On Michael’s first spin, he faltered and hit a Whammy. But then Michael took a deep breath and focused, concentrating on the board. He hit square #4 twice for $1,250 and finished the round with $2,500; however, he was still in last place. Ed and Janie each finished the round without a Whammy and won $4,080 and $4,608, respectively.
Subsequent spins a success
In the second trivia round, Michael did slightly better and earned 7 spins. Once again since he was in third place, he got to play first at the Big Board. Michael carefully relied on his pattern strategy, aiming for squares #4 and #8. He quickly won over $10,000. He also deviated from the pattern to win prizes.
Landing on square #7 won him a trip to Kauai, Hawaii worth $1,636, square #17 was worth $700 and a spin, square #6 earned Micheal the “Pick a Corner” and he was given the choice of $2,250 in square #1, $2,000 in square #10, or $1,500 and a spin in square #15. He choose square #1 with $2,250. Then he won a sailboat worth $1,015 by landing on square # 7.
The director began to get worried, an episode of Press Your Luck ran for a 30-minute time slot and generally they would cut to commercials when a contestant hit a Whammy and there was a break in the play. With Michael sticking to his memorized patterns and hitting targeted squares each time he spun, he was on a roll with no break in the gameplay. The director decided to simply keep filming.
As Michael continued to spin, earning his way to $40,000, up in the control booth the show’s executives took notice, something wasn’t right. Michael was unnaturally lucky, the odds of hitting a Whammy were one in six spins and Michael had already spun over 10 times.
Meanwhile, the studio audience was going wild, cheering Michael on each time he added more money to his winnings. Michael basked in the spotlight, grinning and raising his arms in victory, each time he hit his desired square and racked up a win. Soon he was at $50,000 and then $60,000.
Executives of the show afraid of losing money
By this time an astounded Peter was begging Michael to stop, the host’s nerves were frazzled. Michael’s opponents could only stand there, dumbstruck and confused. Behind the scenes, CBS executives were calling each other, trying to figure out a way to stop the game, the show was seriously losing money and in danger of going bankrupt. However, as Michael wasn’t breaking any of the game’s rules, the executives couldn’t stop it.
Won $102,85 after 40 spins
Finally, Michael stopped once he reached $102,851. By this time he had made 40 spins on the board without hitting a Whammy. For 37 of his spins, he had won cash. After announcing he was passing his remaining four spins, the audience gave Michael a standing ovation.
Per Press Your Luck’s rules, Janie received Michael’s remaining four spins. However, since she was the leader after the first round, Ed, who was in second place and had two spins got to go first. A flustered Ed immediately hit a Whammy and lost the money he had earned in the first round. Then Ed hit a square worth $5,000 and a spin. On his next spin, he won yet another spin. But then, he hit a second Whammy with his final spin and went back to $0.
It was finally Janie’s turn. On her first spin, she hit a Whammy and lost the $4,608 she had won in the first round. But she still had 6 spins, the remaining 3 Michael passed to her and 3 she had earned in the second trivia portion of the game. Janie ended up earning $9,385 in cash and prizes in five total spins. Since she managed to hit squares with extra spins, she only used three of her spins.
Janie passed her remaining 3 spins to Michael, a smart strategic move. If Michael got one Whammy, he’d lose his entire winnings and Janie would win the game. Unfortunately for Janie that wasn’t going to happen, since Micheal was operating via knowledge and not a chance.
Michael was agitated to have another turn so quickly; he was tired and beginning to have a hard time concentrating. He played a few more spins. On his final spin, he won a trip to The Bahamas valued at $2,636. Michael passed his remaining spins to Janie. She failed to earn any additional spins with them, ending the game.
Michael’s final cash total was $104,950. Overall, Michael won $110,237 in cash and prizes; his winnings were equivalent to $266,000 in 2018.
Storm at CBC
At CBS a storm was brewing. Press Your Luck’s producers and Michael Brockman, the head of CBS’s daytime programming department met to review the tape of Michael’s wild winning streak frame by frame. They noticed that Michael immediately, prematurely celebrated after many of his spins, a second or two before the Big Board confirmed his win. Michael knew ahead of time what square he was going to land on.
At first, CBS deemed Michael a cheater and refused to pay him his winnings. However, despite going over Michael’s release form and other documents with a fine-toothed comb, the company couldn’t find a clause in the game’s rules with which to disqualify him. It wasn’t illegal to memorize the Big Board’s patterns. The network grudgingly paid Michael his winnings. Because he had surpassed the CBS winnings cap of $25,000, Michael was not allowed to return for the next show.
Reworking CBS d Press Your Luck’s Big Board
immediately reworked Press Your Luck’s Big Board to use a new set of 5 patterns. The next month they changed the patterns again. In August of 1984, the Big Board was fully reprogrammed with 32 patterns making it impossible for any future contestant to win with Michael’s memory trick. Press Your Luck ended up running 2 more years until it was cancelled in September of 1986.
Initially, CBS wasn’t going to broadcast Michael’s episode but eventually relented. It was shown as a special two-part event. Part one aired Friday, June 8, 1984, with the second episode airing on Monday, June 11. The episodes earned the highest ratings in Press Your Luck’s history.
Michael’s winning episodes were then buried in the vault by CBS who wanted to forget the whole embarrassing ordeal. Even after the Game Show Network–GSN bought syndication rights to Press Your Luck, CBS and the game show’s producers didn’t want Michael’s episodes to air. Nineteen years later on March 16, 2003, GSN was finally allowed to air the episodes as part of a two-hour documentary about Michael’s controversial win.
Meanwhile, Michael returned home to Lebanon with around $90,000 in winnings post taxes. He invested some of his winnings in real estate, but the opportunity didn’t pan out. Michael continued to get involved with getting rich quick schemes.
Participating in other competitions
In November of 1984, a local radio show held a promotion promising a $30,000 prize for matching a 1 dollar bill’s serial number with a random number readout on the air. Michael withdraw his remaining winnings in 1 dollar bills and spent days inspecting money in an attempt to win the prize. When he discovered that he didn’t have the winning number, Michael redeposited some of his money, keeping the rest of the cash at home. He came to regret this decision when his house was burglarized and $50,00 in cash was stolen while Michael was at a Christmas Party. The robber was never found.
Later Michael reached out to the producers of Press Your Luck to suggest that they stage a “tournament of champions” show. He boasted that he could beat the reprogrammed Big Board. They declined.
Michael involvement in Ponzi schemes
Michael went into a downward spiral, eventually getting involved in a massive Ponzi scheme. He sold shares in a fake American Indian Lottery. By the mid-1990s, he’d managed to defraud 20,000 investors out of $3 million.. With authorities including the IRS and FBI hot on his trail, Michael fled Ohio and disappeared. His whereabouts were unknown until his death from cancer on February 16, 1999, in Apopka, Florida.
Aside from fraud and get involved in questionable schemes, Michael achieved an amazing feat. His legendary winning streak on Press Your Luck necessitated keen observation skills, dedication and confidence to perform well under pressure in front of a live audience, not to mention superior mnemonic memory skills.
How good is your memory? Do you think you could have pulled off Michael’s strategy? See more