Back on May 19, 1984, history was made at CBS by a man who showed how successful you can be if you just pay attention.
Having watched Press Your Luck since it premiered, Michael Larson, then an unemployed ice cream truck driver from Ohio, came to the conclusion that the swift, seemingly random flashing lights that bounced around the Press Your Luck board were hardly random at all. By taping the show religiously and pausing the tapes, Larson discovered that there were just six light patterns on the board. With this bit of knowledge, he practiced at home while watching the show and realized that he could stop the board wherever and whenever he wanted, if he just had patience.
Armed with that knowledge, a fifty-cent thrift store shirt on his back, and money borrowed for airfare to Los Angeles, Michael tried out for the show and was booked. The executive producer and head contestant coordinator disagreed over whether or not Larson should be on the show–the coordinator sensed something “off” with Larson. But the producer overruled and Michael was allowed to play.
Competing against returning champion (and winner of $11,000) Ed, a Baptist minister, and fellow newcomer Janie, a dental assistant, Michael played it cool in round one. He even hit a Whammy on his first spin! However, on his last two spins he nailed the top amount, $1250. His $2500 total, however, had him in last place, and the producers were none the wiser.
By earning seven spins in the second round of questioning, however, Michael was able to go to town. On the round two board, he focused mainly on two spaces, each of which guaranteed money and an additional spin, which was crucial for him to play and play and play. One space alternated between $500 + Spin, $750 + Spin, and $1000 + Spin. The other was the “Big Bucks” square, which alternated between $3000 + Spin, $4000 + Spin, and $5000 + Spin.
Given the opportunity to play first, Michael quickly bumped his total up over $10,000. At the $18,000 mark, Michael’s spin was designated the “Home Player Spin” (a gimmick running to entice viewers to watch). At this point, host Peter Tomarken astutely noted that “Michael is on a roll.”
Things first seemed awry when Michael passed the $25,000 mark and continued to play. At this point, any sane player would have passed his spins if he could, since the odds of hitting a Whammy after not seeing one for that long would be high. But Michael played on and on, and by the time he passed $30,000, Tomarken seemed incredulous that he was still spinning. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy.
Although there was no disruption in taping, the game was post-edited to end a “first half” when Michael hit the $36,000 mark. In the eight months the show had been on, the game had always completed in the allotted time. Thirty minutes had already passed, and Michael was still spinning…and his opponents had yet to touch the board.
Michael spun on and on, methodically passing the $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000 marks. Tomarken grew stunned and almost in shock as he watched Michael rack up more money in one sitting than anyone had ever done in a five show run.
Around the $70,000 mark, however, Michael began to falter. His spins grew longer as he struggled with hitting the button at the exact moment. Despite knowing every pattern, if Michael couldn’t sync up his buzzer hitting with the board, even if he was off by one cycle, he could unintentionally hit a Whammy. Indeed, at a few points along the way, Michael missed his pattern, but luckily landed on other cash amounts or trips.
When Michael broke the $100,000 mark, he passed his four remaining spins, and raised his hands up in the air in triumph. The crowd leapt to its feet and gave him a standing ovation, and Ed, who had $3,000 in his bank, was given the daunting task of trying to catch up over $97,000 in four spins. A Whammy ultimately ended his turn, and Janie was given a shot at playing. In four spins, she racked up around $8,000 in cash and prizes. With three spins left and a huge difference to make up, Janie realized her only chance at winning was to pass her three remaining spins to Michael, which she did.
Michael hit for cash on the first two of the three passed spins, but the third was another story. Aiming for the pattern where he would hit either $500+Spin, $750+Spin, or $1000+Spin, Michael stopped the board one frame too early and landed on…a trip to the Bahamas (“With that money you could BUY the Bahamas,” Peter said). What Peter didn’t notice is that the particular spot Michael had hit had just switched from $700+Spin…the other two slides in that box? The Bahamas trip…and a Whammy. After spinning over 40 times, Michael nearly lost over $100,000.
But luck shined on him in that situation and he passed the two spins that he’d earned back to Janie, who could not earn an additional spin and lost the game by a huge margin. Michael became the champ and won $110,237, over $100,000 of that in cash. In the post-game interview, Michael fudged when asked why he continued to spin after he earned $30,000, an amount that would have been insurmountable by his opponents. “Well two things,” he said. “One it just felt right, and two, I had seven spins and I thought, someone could do what I did.” It was pretty lousy reasoning, but it passed for the taping.
The producers tried in vain to disqualify him after the show, but Michael hadn’t really done anything illegal. He’d simply paid attention. In fact, had Michael been ultra-cool and ultra-patient, he could have played on forever, winning millions of dollars. That would have required hours and hours of game play, but there was no stipulation in the rules about how long a contestant could spin. However, Michael was stifled by the CBS regulation that put a cap on $25,000 in winnings. While Michael was allowed to keep all of his money, he was not allowed to return as a champion on the next show.
Sixteen more random patterns were added to the board after that taping, making it much more difficult to figure out. Interestingly enough, contestant coordinators noted that contestants who appeared immediately after Larson’s episode taped had also figured out the original pattern and were slightly disappointed that they couldn’t break the bank.
Larson’s episodes aired only once, on a Friday and Monday in June of 1984. The ratings for the second episode of his reign were 2 1/2 times bigger than the ratings for a “normal” episode of Press Your Luck. While USA Cable did receive the entire 3-year run to be rerun, they were forbidden from airing these episodes, so only people who were smart enough to tape way back in 1984 were lucky enough to keep them.
A somewhat sad postscript to the story is that Larson eventually wound up losing all his winnings in a bad housing investment deal. In fact, he lost all the money before the show was even cancelled, prompting a call to the network asking if he could participate in a tournament of champions. Not surprisingly, the show politely declined.
Larson’s story was told in both a TV Guide interview and a Good Morning America interview in 1994, around the release of the movie Quiz Show. Both outlets compared Larson’s legal genius with the rigging in which 21 contestant Charles Van Doren participated.
Larson’s story was further immortalized in 2003, when GSN produced a documentary on the event called “Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.” The documentary showed never-before-seen clips of Michael’s episode, and featured interviews with producers Bill Carruthers and Bill Mitchell, as well as other Press Your Luck staffers. The documentary also featured interviews with Larsen’s brother and common law wife, who presented a different side of Michael’s life that had never been heard before. Michael lost of all of his money quickly, including $40,000 in one dollar bills that was stolen from his home shortly after the episode aired. At the time of his death in 1999, Michael was on the run from the law, and many members of his family weren’t speaking to him. But the world remembers him for his accomplishment on Press Your Luck, and with his episodes finally airing for the first time since 1984, a whole new generation can appreciate what he pulled off that day in 1984.
(Source: Game Show Central)
Michael Larson’s run on Press Your Luck: Part 1
Michael Larson’s run on Press Your Luck: Part 2