|Born||Paul Michael Larson
May 10, 1949
|Died||February 16, 1999
Cause of death
|Occupation||Ice cream truck driver,
Air conditioning mechanic,
Game show contestant
|Known for||Champion on Press Your Luck|
|Spouse(s)||Teresa McGlynn Dinwitty (1983–94, divorced), had been married and divorced twice before|
|Children||Three (Paul Michael Jr., Jennifer, another one unknown)|
Paul Michael Larson (May 10, 1949 – February 16, 1999) was a contestant on the American television game show Press Your Luck in 1984. Larson is notable for winning $110,237 (equal to about $250 thousand in today's money) in cash and prizes, at the time the largest one-day total ever won on a game show. Larson was able to win by memorizing the patterns used on the Press Your Luck game board.
Larson used his cash winnings for taxes and real estate investments. However, he had other problems, such as getting in trouble with the law and getting involved in illegal schemes. As a result, Larson lost all of his winnings and decided to migrate to Florida, where he later died of throat cancer at the age of 49. Even after his death in 1999, Larson's game has been re-shown on TV multiple times and inspired the 2003 Game Show Network documentary Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.
One of four brothers, Larson was born in Lebanon, Ohio. After getting married and divorced twice while very young, by 1983, Larson had a common law marriage with Teresa McGlynn Dinwitty. Two of their three children were named Jennifer, for whom Michael used his winnings to buy birthday presents, and Paul Michael Larson Jr. One of his brothers, James, a chemistry teacher, and his wife Dinwitty considered him strange, as he thought he was smarter than everybody else.
For several years, Larson was a Mister Softee ice cream truck driver as well as an air conditioning mechanic. While he was often regarded as creative and intelligent, Larson had a preference for shady enterprises over gainful employment. In middle school, he would often smuggle candy bars into class and try to secretly sell them to make a profit. Another scheme involved opening multiple checking accounts with a bank that was offering a promotional $500 to every new customer. Larson would withdraw the money as quickly as possible, close the account, then repeat the process again under a different name. Larson also started a fake business under the name of one of his family members and hired himself to work for the company. He then laid himself off in order to earn unemployment benefits.
Larson began recording episodes of Press Your Luck shortly after its premiere on CBS in September 1983. Through a careful study of the light indicator used for its eighteen-square "Big Board", Larson discovered that it always moved in one of five looping patterns. This meant that by memorizing these patterns, or at least parts of them, he would be able to predict which squares the indicator would move to next.
He also discovered that the fourth and eighth squares (when numbered beginning at #1 in the top left hand corner and then moving clockwise along the board) always contained cash and, most importantly, never had a Whammy in them. Square #4 also hid the highest dollar values for any given round and in the second round, both of those squares also rewarded contestants with an extra spin of the board if they were hit. Square #4 contained $3,000 + ONE SPIN, $4,000 + ONE SPIN, and $5,000 + ONE SPIN; Square #8 contained $500 + ONE SPIN, $750 + ONE SPIN, and $1,000 + ONE SPIN. The extra spins meant that Larson, at least in the second round, could play on for as long as he dared and never have to stop at a Whammy if he managed to follow the patterns he discovered.
Carrying this knowledge and using nearly all of his saved money to make the trip to Los Angeles, Larson traveled to CBS Television City to audition for Press Your Luck. The program's executive producer Bill Carruthers and contestant supervisor Bobby Edwards discussed whether to have him on the show after his tryout interview; Edwards was suspicious of Larson and his reasons for trying out, but Carruthers was not. The final decision was to let him on, so he was booked for the show and later chosen for the fifth taping of that day, intended as a Friday episode. For the rest of his life, Carruthers would say that he regretted not listening to Edwards.
While waiting in the green room, Larson met Ed Long, a Baptist minister booked for the fourth taping, and they struck up a conversation. Long recalled that at one point, Larson, who had watched Press Your Luck a lot, asked him how many times he had seen the show. When Long replied that he had only seen it once, Larson responded by looking at him as though he "were from another planet." Soon, Long was called up to go on the show and as he left, Larson said to him, "I really hope we don't have to play each other." As it turned out, Larson would in fact have to face Long (who won $11,516 in his game) and a dental assistant named Janie Litras.
As always, the game began with the first of two question rounds in which contestants answered questions to earn spins for the Big Board; a correct buzz-in answer earned three spins, a correct multiple-choice answer earned one spin. Larson's memorization of the patterns could not help him here, and he appeared to struggle early-on. On the second question, host Peter Tomarken asked "You've probably got President Franklin D. Roosevelt in your pocket or purse right now, because his likeness is on the headside ..." Larson buzzed in at this point and answered, "$50 bill", after which Tomarken finished the question "of what American coin?" with the answer being "a dime". Larson was visibly annoyed by his early buzz-in backfiring. Because of this and Tomarken mentioning the early buzz, he did not buzz in again, answering the last two questions multiple choice and finishing with only three spins, behind Long's four and Litras's ten. With the fewest spins, Larson went first. On his first spin he hit a Whammy but on his next two, he hit square four for $1,250 and finished the round with $2,500. But Long and Litras went through their spins without a Whammy and finished with $4,080 and $4,608, respectively, putting Larson in last place.
After the first two questions in the second round, Long had no spins while Larson and Litras each had one. To boost the spin totals, Tomarken switched to a deck of "easier questions". Larson successfully buzzed in on the final two questions to earn six more spins, for a total of seven, while Long finished with two and Litras with three. Because Larson was in last place in the first Big Board round, he would get first crack in the second. Casting off all pretense, he went to his pattern play, aiming for Squares #4 and #8.
Larson quickly bumped his total to over $10,000. Early on, his pattern play was irregular, as he stopped three times on squares not called for: a trip to Kauai worth $1,636 in Square #7, $700 + ONE SPIN in Square #17; PICK A CORNER in Square #6 (where he was given the choice of $2,250 in Square #1, $2,000 in Square #10, or $1,500 + ONE SPIN in Square #15—he chose $2,250); and a sailboat worth $1,015 in Square #7. Along the way, he also won $1,000 for Michael Landry of Jeanerette, Louisiana as part of the show's "Home Player Spin" game by hitting $1,000 + ONE SPIN in Square #8.
After the sailboat, Larson's pattern play became deadly accurate, as he hit his target squares each time he spun. Tomarken was increasingly astounded and incredulous that Larson was still spinning despite not having seen a Whammy for so long. The studio audience, believing him to be enjoying inexplicable good luck, was whipped into a frenzy. At the point where he exceeded $36,000, the episode was post-edited for Tomarken to announce that they had run out of time, and that the game would resume the following Monday. He also read the runners-up names in the Home Player Spin game. As part two of the episode began, Tomarken explained to viewers who missed the Friday show what was going on, and the game resumed.
Larson continued to press on, methodically exceeding $40,000, $50,000, and $60,000 without losing any of his four remaining spins. Long and Litras had increasing difficulty hiding their disgust with what was going on, and Tomarken virtually begged Larson to stop more than once, fearing he would hit a Whammy.
The closer Larson got to $100,000, the quieter the audience became. Finally, he surpassed the $100,000 mark at $102,851. He then passed his remaining four spins to Litras, who had the second highest total at $4,608, raised his arms in triumph and received a standing ovation from the audience. Long, who took the next spin, immediately hit a Whammy and lost the $4,080 he racked up in the first round, leading Tomarken to wonder aloud if Larson "knew that the Whammy was coming." He then hit $5,000 + ONE SPIN twice, before pressing on and hitting another Whammy, costing him $10,000 and effectively ending his participation in the game.
Litras Whammied on her first spin as well, which was one of the spins passed to her by Larson, and lost the $4,608 she racked up in the first round. The remaining three passed spins were moved to the earned column since she Whammied, giving her six spins to do as she pleased with. In five successful spins, she racked up $9,385, and passed her three remaining spins back to Larson. Larson was not expecting to spin again, despite the often-used strategy in which trailing contestants passed their remaining spins to the contestant in the lead; however, per the rules, he was forced to take those three spins. After hitting his target squares on his first two spins, he finally made another mistake while aiming for Square #8 on his third spin. He stopped the board on Square #17 just as it was changing from $700 + ONE SPIN. Fortunately for him, he stopped on a trip to the Bahamas worth $2,636. But the other slide in that square was a Whammy; he almost lost over $107,000 in cash and prizes.
Larson now had two earned spins that he could do as he pleased with and, with his total at $110,237 and Tomarken joking that he had enough money to buy the Bahamas, he quickly passed his two earned spins back to Litras. Though Litras took both spins safely, she earned no additional spins with them. Her final desperate spin ended with her landing on a Mexican Cruise in Square #15 and she lost the game by a huge margin. Larson won the game with $110,237; of this $104,950 was in cash.
At the end of the episode, Tomarken asked Larson why he decided not to pass his remaining spins before he did, considering the lead he rapidly gained over Litras and Long. Side-stepping revealing how he had won the game, Larson responded with, "Two things: one, it felt right, and second, I still had seven spins and if I passed them, somebody could've done what I did."
Accusations of cheating
While Larson was running up the score, the show's producers contacted Michael Brockman, then head of CBS' daytime programming department. In a 1994 TV Guide interview commemorating the Larson Sweep, conducted at the time the movie Quiz Show was released, he recalled "Something was very wrong. 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."
The program's producers and Brockman met to review the videotape. They noticed that Larson immediately celebrated after many of his spins instead of waiting the fraction of a second it would take for a contestant to see and respond to the space he or she had stopped on, effectively showing he knew he was going to get something good. It was also noticed that Larson had an unusual reaction to his early prize of a Kauai trip, which was out of his pattern – he initially looked puzzled, smiling and clapping after a pause.
CBS initially refused to pay Larson, considering him a cheater. However, Brockman and the producers could not find a clause in the game's rules with which to disqualify him (largely because the board had been constructed with these patterns from the beginning of the series), and the network complied. Because he had surpassed the CBS winnings cap (at the time) of $25,000, Larson was not allowed to return for the next show.
The five light patterns on the Big Board were erased and replaced with five new ones for about a month. Then, to make sure no one was memorizing those, they were again replaced with five new patterns for another month. Finally in August, new software was installed which gave the Board a total of 32 patterns, effectively ensuring that no one would ever duplicate Larson's trick.
Due to its exceptional running time, Larson's appearance was split into two episodes, which aired on June 8 and 11, 1984. CBS then suppressed them for 19 years, as both the network and Carruthers at that time considered the incident to be one of their biggest embarrassments. When USA Network (and later, GSN) bought the rights to rerun Press Your Luck, CBS and Carruthers insisted that the Larson episodes must not be aired. USA took this a step further, not airing any episodes of the first Home Player Sweepstakes the episodes landed in.
On March 16, 2003, GSN was allowed to air the episodes, including a few previously edited-out portions, as part of a two-hour documentary called Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal, hosted and narrated by Press Your Luck host Peter Tomarken. The documentary was produced by and aired on GSN (in association with Lionsgate and FremantleMedia, the latter of which now owns the rights to Press Your Luck), and broke all previous viewership records for the network. The original telecast was dedicated to the memory of Bill Carruthers, producer/creator of Press Your Luck, who had died before the airing. He was also interviewed for the special, and it was his final television appearance.
The documentary featured interviews with the program's producers, Larson's family, Long, and Litras, the latter two of whom were allowed to try their hand at duplicating Larson's trick on a recreation of the original Big Board. The board replica used only one of the patterns that Larson had memorized, and Tomarken pointed out exactly what it was. Litras was able to stop the board at Square #4 only twice; Long's play was edited for entertainment purposes and it isn't clear how long he lasted.
As part of the commemoration, Larson's opponents from 1984 were invited back to be contestants on Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck playing against Larson's brother, James, with Tomarken returning to host the Question Round. Despite the fact that the board was now more random, and there was no way either Larson could have pulled off the same trick, Long and Litras (who had remarried and took the surname Litras-Dakan) still lost. In fact, when James Larson hit the Big Bank space on his first spin of the first round (and eventually missed the question that accompanied hitting the space), Long proceeded to joke with host Todd Newton that he had seen this before. At one point, when she hit a hot streak to put herself in first place, Litras-Dakan joked "I'm a Larson!" before hitting a Double Whammy shortly afterward, effectively giving James the game in which he won a Digital Grand Piano worth $6,695.
The two Larson episodes finally aired in their entirety on GSN in late 2003 and were shown in regular rotation and on special occasions until the network ceased showing Press Your Luck in March 2009. However, the Big Bucks documentary included additional footage, directly from the original master tapes, that had been edited out of the episodes for their initial broadcast. More recently, Larson's performance on Press Your Luck was featured in a July 2010 broadcast of This American Life.
Later life and legacy
After Press Your Luck, Larson became an assistant manager at local Wal-Mart stores in Dayton, Lebanon, Xenia and Bellbrook, Ohio. He also ran a promotions and marketing company, Group Dynamics Downline, out of his Lebanon home. According to his family, Larson's victory on Press Your Luck only fueled his desire to get rich quick. Part of his winnings went to taxes and another part was invested in real estate, with the remainder placed into Larson's bank account. The real estate deal turned out to be a fraudulent Ponzi scheme and Larson lost his entire investment.
In November 1984, Larson learned about a local radio show promotion promising a $30,000 prize for matching a $1 bill's serial number with a random number read out on the air. Over several days, Larson withdrew his remaining winnings in $1 bills, examined each dollar carefully, and (upon discovering that he did not have the winning number) re-deposited roughly half of the money. Teresa Dinwitty stated that this obsession consumed him.
At one point, Larson and Dinwitty attended a Christmas party, leaving approximately $50,000 in bagged $1 bills in the house. Upon returning, they found that the house had been broken into, and the money stolen. Larson angrily accused Dinwitty of some involvement; Dinwitty, already angered with Larson's antics, promptly left him, taking her two kids and $5,000 that Larson had hidden in their bedroom dresser. In an interview Larson gave with TV Guide in 1994, he said that he called the producers of Press Your Luck after losing all of his remaining money, challenging them to hold a tournament of champions to see if he could break the bank again. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the producers declined.
In 1994, the film Quiz Show was released and, as part of the renewed discussion on game show scandals, Larson appeared on ABC's Good Morning America. By this time, Larson had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and his voice was noticeably weakened.
Shortly thereafter, Larson got involved with an illegal scheme to sell part of a foreign lottery. As a result, Larson went on the run, leaving Ohio. His family was contacted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but no one knew his whereabouts until his death of throat cancer on February 16, 1999, in Apopka, Florida.
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