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2, 12, 1, 9, 4: Big Money. No Whammies.
April 3, 2012 11:25 AM   Subscribe

On May 19, 1984, an unemployed ice cream truck driver named Michael Larson went on Press Your Luck and over the course of two episodes, took home more money than had ever been won in the history of television: $110,237 -- to the shock of the show’s producers and host, the late Peter Tomarken. How did he do it? The show’s game board had only 5 patterns of 18 squares, and Mr. Larson had memorized them all. After the show, CBS tried to disqualify him but couldn’t, because Larson hadn’t done anything illegal. But they did refuse to allow those episodes to be aired in syndication. So, they didn’t re-air until 2003, when the Game Show Network produced a Tomarken-hosted documentary about Mr. Larson’s incredible win: Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.

It took Mr. Larson 47 spins to win $110,237, which included a sailboat, trips to the Bahamas and Hawaii, and over $100,000 in cash.

At this time index, the documentary breaks down exactly how Michael beat the game’s “Big Board.” Tomarken then gives Larson’s previous fellow contestants the opportunity to mimic Michael's accomplishment. Once it has been pointed out, the pattern becomes immediately obvious when it shows up in other episodes from the same era.

The episodes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

A 10-minute compilation video of his spins:
* Michael Larson’s Spins of Terror

Back in 2010, This American Life highlighted Mr. Larson’s story. Starts at approximately 38:17 in Act Four of the episode: Don’t Hate the Player. Transcript

Larson, Previously on MeFi. The Bill Murray movie does not seem to have materialized.

There were a total of about 80 whammies on the original Press Your Luck. Here are 15 minutes worth, complete with shouting contestants.
posted by zarq (42 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
Unsure if this will be of interest to anyone, but here's an alternate link for the documentary, broken into 11 parts.

Larson passed away in 1999 of throat cancer. He lost the money he had made within months of earning it on the show -- to a bad real estate investment and a home robbery.
posted by zarq at 11:28 AM on April 3, 2012


The first place I heard this story, and still my favorite recounting of it, can be found in the surprisingly well-written and low-gore Rotten Library.
posted by contraption at 11:34 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


gives Larson’s previous fellow contestants the opportunity to mimic Michael's accomplishment

Actually I'm surprised with the 100,000+ Flash-based games out there that there's not a simulator with the real Press Your Luck board sequences, where we can try out some of Larson's tricks for ourselves.
posted by crapmatic at 11:37 AM on April 3, 2012


No whammies!
posted by Catblack at 11:37 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember seeing this streak when the shows originally ran. I'm no idiot savant, but I could definitely tell he found a pattern and was hitting the button at a very precise point the sequence. Not sure why everyone was so dumbfounded at the time.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:42 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just got to thinking -- what if Larson wasn't the only one? What if there were other contestants who knew the patterns but played only enough of them to stay a little bit ahead? I suppose it's possible to sift through some episodes and see if someone's wins keep turning up with the same sorts of patterns.
posted by crapmatic at 11:42 AM on April 3, 2012


A bunch of this is a double though with added content.
posted by Justinian at 11:43 AM on April 3, 2012


crapmatic, I've seen accounts where people had also figured it out, and Larson was just the first to exploit it, and once faced with the new big board, they fell apart. It was on the special that GSN aired.
posted by deezil at 11:45 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Justinian: "A bunch of this is a double though with added content."

Yep: I linked to that post in this one, too. The documentary didn't exist when that post was made nine years ago. It contains a full description of the pattern Larson had identified as well as a demonstration. Tomarken's own perspective on the incident. Also, interviews with Larson's brother and common-law (ex) wife, producers, a production engineer and assistant, and the person stationed in the booth who was in charge of making sure no one was cheating: Darlene Lieblich Tipton. Many of whom were also interviewed in the This American Life segment.

So I figured it would be okay to revisit. :)
posted by zarq at 11:49 AM on April 3, 2012


that dude was only 34 at the time of the taping?
posted by any major dude at 11:50 AM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Though this is definitely a double, I love reading about this story every time.

Of interest, also read about Terry Kniess on the Price is Right.
posted by joinks at 11:50 AM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Oh I just realized how well fleshed-out this post is. Nice. Carry on.
posted by joinks at 11:51 AM on April 3, 2012


I used to watch this show and speculate that there might be a pattern. But it goes so fast you really needed to invest in a VCR to figure it out.
posted by DU at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2012


I mean....there have been game shows that were more flawed than this...
posted by schmod at 12:00 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


crapmatic: " I suppose it's possible to sift through some episodes and see if someone's wins keep turning up with the same sorts of patterns."

Many of the old PYL episodes have been uploaded to YouTube. Hours and hours of viewing. While putting together this post, I couldn't believe the volume.

This user has a bunch.

This user has a lot more. (scroll down). I nearly included links to all of their Press Your Luck playlists in this post, but thought it might be overkill. But, in case you're interested in sifting through, here are a few episodes from 1983, and some episodes that aired in 1984 before Larson's win.
posted by zarq at 12:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find the concept of an "unemployed ice cream truck" driver interesting. Until reading this I had always assumed it was a solely owned and run kinda proprietorship gig.
posted by straight_razor at 12:07 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Scandal" ?
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:12 PM on April 3, 2012


Yep: I linked to that post in this one, too

Bah, don't get in the way of my sense of memory superiority with your facts.
posted by Justinian at 12:29 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


14:06
Peter: "$11,516 Ed, what are you gonna do, besides buy a lot of E-cup brassieres?
Ed: "No, I won't buy any of those I promise, Peter."

I...what?
posted by obscurator at 12:38 PM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


In related Press-your-luck videos, I would also recommend watching "The Infiltrator," Harmon Leon, on the PYL reboot "Whammy"

I first saw this in an alt weekly a few years ago, he has reprinted the story in his book, here.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 12:40 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Justinian: " Bah, don't get in the way of my sense of memory superiority with your facts."

Ha! :D
posted by zarq at 12:43 PM on April 3, 2012


Wow, I clicked on the documentary link expecting to watch a few minutes and I just sat through the whole hour+ show. I was captivated and so excited to see him winning. I really loved this show as a kid and I think watching him win and win really brought something back for me, I was giggling and shouting and jumping around. I mean it's just a classical David vs. Goliath, as one of the CBS executives says.
posted by grog at 1:07 PM on April 3, 2012


At least with the reboot of the show they invested in a 200Mhz computer to make the board more random.
posted by birdherder at 1:20 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


10 Show $fancy_lightshow
20 If player depresses button, go to 30
30 Run $light_up_square on $next_entry on $list_of_random_numbers_we_generated_in_Dave's_office_by_rolling_dice
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:26 PM on April 3, 2012


Yeah Cool Papa Bell, even as a kid at the time I could see there were obvious patterns. At the time I had assumed that the displayed lightshow must just have been a visual fiction composed for the viewers at home, that the real board, in the studio, was more meaningfully random. This is because I was programming my Commodore 64 back then and I knew from reading its manuals about the behavior of pseudorandom number generators. It seems inconcievable that I could probably code a much better random number generator than this big network gameshow.

Part of growing up, I think, is realizing that the world is a dumber place than you thought.

I'd also like to second the endorsement above to the Rotten Library, there's all kinds of great stuff there. But woe betide the person who clicks to another link on that site.
posted by JHarris at 2:01 PM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


I find the concept of an "unemployed ice cream truck" driver interesting.

As do I. If it's being driven, surely it's employed.
posted by DU at 2:10 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Shortly after Epcot Center at Disney World opened, I visited the exhibit on computers and information. They had one display which had a 4 by 4 square of 16 tiles. The display would flash a random pattern of light and dark squares for a fraction of a second, then give you a chance to reproduce the pattern. If you got it right, it would flash another pattern, this time a little faster. I guess you were supposed to use your visual memory to recall the pattern, and maybe learn something about computer vision.

I tried it a couple times and didn't do that well, but afterward I went back to my hotel and started practicing binary numbers. The next day I tried the display again. This time, when a pattern would flash I converted it into four decimal numbers and kept repeating them in my head until I had to reproduce the pattern. For example, if the pattern looked like this
■□■□
□□■■
■■□□
□■■□
I'd look at the rows and think "1010 0011 1100 0110... that's 10 3 12 6". I got it to where I wouldn't make a mistake for dozens and dozens of patterns in a row, until eventually the patterns where flashing so fast that I could barely see them go by.

People were amazed. Crowds gathered to watch. Everyone seemed to assume I had some kind of superhuman image memory or something.

I don't know if the display is still there, but if it is and you go to Epcot Center, give it try. Make some bets on how well you'll do and send me some of your winnings. People don't know binary.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:11 PM on April 3, 2012 [23 favorites]


Yeah, double or triple. It's a good story, but I saw news coverage of it pre-Internet, I think...
posted by mrgrimm at 2:34 PM on April 3, 2012


He lost the money he had made within months of earning it on the show -- to a bad real estate investment and a home robbery.

Because he kept the money in stacks of bills in his home, is why he lost the money in the robbery. For which (IIRC from the "This American Life" episode) he blamed his then-girlfriend, which also ended their relationship.

He doesn't sound like someone who had particularly good judgment outside of his acumen in figuring out how to beat the "Press Your Luck" computer. Sad story, all around.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:22 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sidhedevil: " Because he kept the money in stacks of bills in his home, is why he lost the money in the robbery.

Yes. But worth noting that while the money was being stored in his home, to all accounts that was supposed to be a temporary situation. It was initially deposited into a bank account. In late November or the beginning of December, he apparently withdrew $100K in singles from multiple bank branches in order to try to win a radio station contest on dollar bill serial numbers. Match the serial number, win $30K. He had been working for a week or so with his (common law) wife (they'd had a child together) to organize and categorize them. They went through half, deposited that amount back into the account and still had $50K left to do. One night they went out to a Christmas party and their home was broken into.

Keeping $50K in your home is still wildly poor judgement. But I can sort of see his logic behind doing it short-term.

For which (IIRC from the "This American Life" episode) he blamed his then-girlfriend, which also ended their relationship."

Yep.
posted by zarq at 3:45 PM on April 3, 2012


I like this story almost as much as the one about the rapper who got a PhD out of her recording contract, and the terminally ill patient who got a semi-permanent annuity because an insurance company didn't expect her to live as long as she did.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


It took Mr. Larson 47 spins to win $110,237, which included a sailboat, trips to the Bahamas and Hawaii, and over $100,000 in cash.

It's almost as amazing that just 30 years ago, you could get a sailboat and two tropical vacations for under $10,000.
posted by hwyengr at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've always loved this story for it's delightful angle of "enterprising unemployed guy beats the system" angle, and it's well presented in the documentary. The fact that he A: noticed a pattern, B: was able to crack the code, C: managed to get on the show, and D: was able to perform under pressure, is remarkable.

But man, they didn't waste any time in villainizing the guy, did they? The creepy slow motion zooms into his eyes looked straight out of a negative political add. I almost expected them to fade into a black & white shot with animated devil horns on the guy or something.

And calling his death "the ultimate whammy"? Pure class.

I think I first heard about this guy in my early internet days over at alt.folklore.urban or maybe on snopes.com and loved the story immediately, though today was the first time I had actually seen any of the footage.

It always kinda sucks when these stories have such downer endings. (see also: Larry Walters)
posted by ShutterBun at 6:26 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


ShutterBun: "But man, they didn't waste any time in villainizing the guy, did they? "

Yeah, it's a great story, but the documentary really hammers this classist theme that he was a malicious con-man when all he did was play by the rules and win. It's that common theme that beating the system is only good when rich people do it, when poor people beat the system they must be *punished*, hence the unseemly satisfaction the documentary takes in his later misfortunes.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 9:02 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Heard about the rapper who forced her label to pay for her Cornell Ph.D.? It never happened.
posted by jcruelty at 9:16 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Still not easy. If you've ever played that game at the arcade where a light spins in a circle and you have to stop it to win a bunch of tickets you know how hard it is to have fast reflexes... even when the pattern is obvious.
posted by banished at 10:09 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Still not easy. If you've ever played that game at the arcade where a light spins in a circle and you have to stop it to win a bunch of tickets you know how hard it is to have fast reflexes... even when the pattern is obvious.

Those machines are generally adjustable to make payouts more or less likely.

I used to think (in fact, almost commented to say!) that the machines contained a random factor on a "hit" that, combined with internal records on how often the game has been won, could be used to cause the game to "cheat" correct presses left or right to make them lose. However I have read through the manuals for two games sitting here, one of which is apparently the most popular game of the sort, SEGA Amusements' Cyclone, and there is no operator setting for this listed in the manual. If it's there, it's an undocumented feature.

But these machines do allow the operator to decide how many milliseconds the Jackpot light is lit on its sweep through the board. It's adjustable from 1 to 20 milliseconds; probably most locations will have it set up at the default value, which is a scant 3 milliseconds.

So, the pattern may be obvious, but that doesn't mean it's not much harder to hit the jackpot light than an arbitrary other spot on the board.
posted by JHarris at 9:23 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


This quote from the Rotten Library on the subject is especially hilarious:

Keep in mind: everyone in the audience believed Larsen was simply experiencing a bubble of good fortune destined to pop at any moment. Host Peter Tomarken remained incredulous throughout each of Larsen's forty-five consecutive and financially successful spins. Who in their right mind would risk so much money so fucking often? In the history of game shows to this point, there had never been anyone this lucky. The more money he accumulated and risked against Whammies, the more he looked like an insane gambling addict totally out of control. The host was freaked, the audience was freaked. There were difficult, heart-wrenching moments when even Larsen's opponents had concerned looks on their faces. One reached out and touched his elbow. Are you sure you want to keep doing this?

You almost wish you were there.
posted by Thoth at 11:14 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


JHarris, we had one of those cyclone machines at the arcade where I worked during the summer. This one guy came in and got pretty good at it and could get the jackpot about 1 in 3 tries. With each jackpot winning quarter he put in, he'd get the jackpot of 50 tickets which were worth a total of 17 cents at the time. That's a trade I'd make all day.
posted by sciencejock at 3:01 PM on April 4, 2012


It depends on what the Cyclone machine was set for. Not only is the time window for the jackpot lot adjustable, but there's also a mode the machine can be set for in cases where kids and older players are in the same audience, where randomly the game will set the Jackpot time window to maximum (20 milliseconds) to give kids a better chance at winning. Would you happen to know what your arcade's Cyclone was set for?

I'm somewhat interested in this because I'm not bad at this kind of thing if I focus on it. The extra life slot machine in NES Super Mario 2 has a pretty quick time window for each item, but if I get in a groove (not a foregone conclusion) I can get three cherries pretty consistently. I've been at over 100 lives multiple times. I don't know what the time frame is for the slot machine, but it's probably the screen refresh rate, or 60 fps, which would compare to about 17-18 milliseconds on a Cyclone machine, or close to the easiest the machine can be set at.
posted by JHarris at 6:07 PM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Mario and gaming the system, there's only a handful of card-matching game configurations in Super Mario 3.
posted by BiggerJ at 11:33 PM on April 4, 2012


Yep, there's a Nintendo Power guide that lays them all out. Fun fact: on the NES version, if you always pick the second and fifth cards of the second row first on a new board, you always get a match!
posted by JHarris at 6:02 PM on April 5, 2012


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