|Born||Paul Michael Larson
May 10, 1949
|Died||February 16, 1999
|Cause of death||Throat cancer|
|Occupation||Ice cream truck driver
Air conditioning mechanic
|Known for||Champion on Press Your Luck|
|Spouse(s)||Teresa McGlynn Dinwitty (m. 1983; div. 1994)
2 previous marriages and divorces
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 (equivalent to $254,000 in 2016) in cash and prizes, at the time the largest one-day total ever won on a game show. He was able to win by memorizing the patterns used on the Press Your Luck game board.
Originally from southwestern Ohio, Larson used his cash winnings for taxes and real estate investments. However, he also had problems with the law and was involved in illegal schemes. As a result, Larson lost all of his winnings within two years of the show's taping and moved to Florida, where he later died of throat cancer at the age of 49. Since his death in 1999, Larson's game has re-aired on TV at various times and inspired the 2003 Game Show Network documentary Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.
Larson began recording episodes of Press Your Luck shortly after its premiere on CBS in September 1983. While watching, he had noticed that the randomizer that moved the light indicator around the eighteen square "Big Board" had five patterns it followed. Larson began trying to memorize these patterns, as he believed he could predict when and where the randomizer would land. As he got the patterns down, Larson began playing along with the Big Board rounds to put his hypothesis to the test; he did this by pausing the tape at various intervals with his VCR's remote control.
Furthermore, he 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 never had a Whammy in them. In addition, square #4 always had the top dollar values in it and in the second round, both squares rewarded contestants with an additional spin if they were hit ($500, $750, or $1,000 in square #8 and $3,000, $4,000, or $5,000 in square #4). This proved crucial to Larson's theory, as he could retain control of the board in the second round for as long as he saw fit if he kept true to following the patterns.
In May 1984, Larson used most of his savings to buy a plane ticket and flew to California to audition for Press Your Luck. Contestant supervisor Bobby Edwards was suspicious of Larson's motives when he interviewed him on May 19 and was unwilling to allow him to be on the show, but executive producer Bill Carruthers overruled him (a move he said he later regretted from that day on). Larson was added to the day's taping schedule as a contestant on the fourth episode of the session, which was intended to air on Friday, June 8, 1984.
While waiting in the green room, Larson met Ed Long, a Baptist minister from California booked for the third episode of the session, and they struck up a conversation. Long recalled that at one point, Larson 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." Larson would say to Long "I really hope we don't have to play each other" before he left the green room, but they would in fact face off as Long won his match and a total of $11,516 in cash and prizes. The two men would be competing against Janie Litras, a dental assistant, in the next episode of the session.
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, while a correct multiple-choice answer earned one spin. Larson's memorization of the patterns could not help him here, and he struggled early. 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 head side". 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"; the other choice was "a nickel". He did not buzz in again, answering the last two questions multiple choice and finishing with 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; however, on his next two, he hit square #4 for $1,250 and finished the round with $2,500. Long and Litras finished the round without a Whammy and won $4,080 and $4,608, respectively, putting Larson in last place.
Larson earned a total of seven spins in the second question round. Since he was in third place, he got to play first at the Big Board and 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 four times on squares that did not follow his pattern: a trip to Kauai worth $1,636 in square #7, $700 and 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 and one spin in square #15—he chose $2,250); and a sailboat worth $1,015 in square #7.
After the sailboat, Larson's pattern play became more accurate, as he hit his target squares each time he spun. Tomarken was increasingly astounded that Larson was still spinning despite not having seen a Whammy for so long. Larson continued to press on, passing more and more milestone markers without losing any of his four remaining spins. As he passed the $40,000, $50,000, and $60,000 marks, Tomarken virtually begged Larson to stop more than once, fearing he would hit a Whammy. Larson finally decided to stop once he reached $102,851. After he announced he was passing his remaining spins, Larson raised his arms in triumph and received a standing ovation from the audience.
By rule, Larson's spins went to Litras as she had the next highest money total. However, since she was the leader after the first round she had to wait to play until Long, who earned two spins in the second round of questions, completed his turn. On the first of his two spins, a bewildered Long hit a Whammy and lost the money he earned in the first round, leading Tomarken to wonder aloud if Larson "knew that the Whammy was coming." Long would hit $5,000 and a spin on his next spin and did it again on the spin after that, but hit a second Whammy with his final spin.
Litras then took her turn. She earned three spins in the second question round, but since she had received passed spins she was required to take them first. She also hit a Whammy on her first spin, which reduced her score to zero. The three remaining spins that Larson had passed her were added to her earned spins, giving her a total of six. Litras picked up $9,385 in cash and prizes in five total spins, but because she managed to hit spaces on with extra spins she only used three.
Litras then passed those spins to Larson, who went right back to following his patterns and hit his marks with his first two spins. He hit square #17 on his last spin, which was a space that had a Whammy in it, but he stopped the board before the Whammy could shuffle into the square and won a trip to The Bahamas valued at $2,636.
This brought Larson's total to $110,237, and he had two earned spins to work with. Larson passed them to Litras, who failed to earn any additional spins with them. Thus, the game ended and Larson's runaway victory was complete. His final total included $104,950 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."
Each episode of Press Your Luck was thirty minutes in length and prior to Larson's appearance, the series had never needed to straddle games or stop during play as a match would always be completed within the allotted time frame.
However, Larson's streak of hitting his marks every time stretched the length of the episode well past the usual thirty minutes and the producers were unsure how to proceed. While the entire episode was recorded in one shot, the production staff decided that it would need to be split up for airing.
Once Larson passed $36,000, the producers cut to a freeze frame of the contestant area and Tomarken (in a chroma key shot) then tossed to a commercial. Once back from the commercial, Tomarken informed the viewers that because of the extraordinary circumstances, the match could not be completed on the June 8 episode and would instead be finished on the next scheduled airing on Monday, June 11. He then signed off with the words "To be continued..." superimposed on the screen.
When Press Your Luck returned after the weekend break, the episode started with the same freeze frame image. Tomarken (again chroma keyed over the image) then brought the viewers up to speed on what Friday's episode entailed, first by introducing Larson's opponents and then explaining what Larson had done so far, before the game resumed. Freeze frames were also used to lead into and out of the first two commercial breaks, with voice overs by Tomarken leading into and out of them.
Accusations of cheating
While Larson was running up the score, the show's producers contacted Michael Brockman, then head of CBS's 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 would immediately celebrate 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 and upset, but then recovered and celebrated after a pause.
At first, CBS 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 immediately 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 Big Board a total of 32 patterns, effectively ensuring that no one would ever duplicate Larson's trick.
Later life and legacy
After Press Your Luck, Larson became an assistant manager at local Walmart stores in Dayton, Lebanon, Xenia and Bellbrook, Ohio. He also ran a promotions and marketing company, Group Dynamics Downline, out of his Lebanon home.
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, he withdrew his remaining winnings in $1 bills, examined each dollar, and (upon discovering that he did not have the winning number) re-deposited roughly half of the money. Larson left around $50,000 in his house, which was stolen in a burglary while he was attending a Christmas party. The case still remains unsolved to this day.
Larson gave an interview with TV Guide in 1994, in which he revealed to have called the producers of Press Your Luck after losing most of his remaining money, challenging them to hold a tournament of champions to see if he could break the bank again. 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, he 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, he 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 from throat cancer on February 16, 1999, in Apopka, Florida.
After his death, a biopic was planned in 2000 with Bill Murray set to portray Larson; however, those plans fell through. Larson's performance on Press Your Luck was later featured in a July 2010 broadcast of This American Life.
After the initial broadcast of Larson's two episodes, CBS then suppressed the episodes 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.
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 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 Big Bucks documentary included additional footage, directly from the original master tapes, that had been edited out of the episodes for their initial broadcast. The original telecast was dedicated to the memory of Bill Carruthers, producer/creator of Press Your Luck, who had died before the airing.
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 (host Todd Newton calling it "Larson-proof"), and there was no way the same trick could have been performed, Long and Litras (who had remarried and took the surname Litras-Dakan) still lost. When James Larson hit the Big Bank space on his first spin of the first round, Long proceeded to joke with host Todd Newton that he had "seen this before". At one point, Litras-Dakan advanced to first place before hitting a Double Whammy shortly afterward, effectively giving James Larson the win. James Larson won a digital grand piano worth $6,695, while Newton closed the game by announcing, "The legacy continues".
The Michael Larson episodes aired on Buzzr on July 31 and August 6, 2016. The August 6 airings contained trivia and commentary added by the network.
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