Paul Michael Larson, the “Press Your Luck” winner

Paul Michael Larson
Paul Michael Larson

When I was 10 years old I went to Seattle, Washington to stay with my cousins during the long Easter break.  While my cousins were at school, I’d stay at home with our grandma and watch one game show after another.  I was fascinated by them…you didn’t need to answer difficult questions, they were slick, colourful – and literally anyone had a chance of winning.  My favourite American game show was called “Press Your Luck” – probably because it had an animated, evil little creature on it called a “whammy” that the contestants had to avoid at all costs.  There was a big, colourful game board with flashing lights and no difficult questions.  Perfect for a 10 year old from Salford.

In 1984, an unemployed ice-cream truck driver named Paul Michael Larson appeared on the show.  He got off to a weak start, hitting a whammy almost immediately.  However, his luck soon changed and he began to win large amounts of money and trips to Hawaii.  Each time he pressed his luck on the big board, he’d win thousands of dollars at a time.  The money started adding up and the producers started to get nervous. Larson’s winning streak lasted so long that the show had to be aired as two episodes.  In the end, he racked up $110, 237…the largest one-day total ever won on a game show at the time.  The producers didn’t want to pay him.

The reason the producers didn’t want to pay Michael Larsson his prize money was because at some point during the show, they realized that his winning streak had nothing to do with luck.  They suspected that Larson had figured out exactly when to press his button in order to win money on the big board, and that the big board wasn’t as random as everyone had believed.  In fact, Michael Larson had discovered that the light indicator used for the 18 square big board always moved in one of 5 looping patterns.  He spent 6 weeks, with the help of his vcr, memorizing these patterns so that he would be able to predict which squares the indicator would move to next.  He knew which squares had the most money, and he knew which squares never had a Whammy in them.

The CBS network initially refused to pay Larson his winnings, but the producers and the head of CBS’ daytime department, Michael Brockman, were unable to find a clause in the game’s rules with which to disqualify him. He hadn’t broken any rules.

Paul Michael Larson had studied the game, practised…and then used nearly all of his saved money to make the trip to Los Angeles to audition for the show.  He had taken a risk, and won.

Some of the people who I pay tribute to on my page aren’t con artists in the typical sense of the term…they just figured out how to beat the system and had the balls to go through with it.