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.

Ali Dia, the “Fake Footballer”

While Ali Dia might have had a very brief career as an imposter compared to the others on my list, he shares a common trait…he definitely has balls.

It began when George Weah (World Player of the Year) made a call to Graeme Souness (manager of Southampton), to convince him to sign his cousin Ali Dia to Southampton. Weah told Souness that his cousin was an exceptionally gifted footballer who had been capped 13 times for Senegal, played for top French team Paris St. Germain and had just scored 2 goals for Senegal a few days before the phone call.  Following the phone call, Ali Dia was signed to Southampton…

Unbeknownst to Souness, it was not actually the international superstar George Weah on the phone – and none of the information about Ali Dia was true.  In fact, the biggest club Ali Dia had ever played for was the non-league club Blyth Spartans- and even that was just one match.

Ali Dia was not George Weah's cousin
Ali Dia was not George Weah’s cousin

Then, thanks to series of good luck (or bad luck for Souness and Southampton) Dia ended up being put straight into a match against Leeds United. He had been due to play a reserve game the week he joined, but because of bad weather conditions the game was postponed. He still wouldn’t have played the match, if Matt Le Tissier hadn’t been forced off the pitch early in the first half.  So on went Ali Dia, the exciting new signing.   He managed to play for 43 minutes, during which time his playing was described by Le Tissier as “like watching Bambi on ice”.

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Graeme Souness, former manager of Southampton

He was also seen on the televised “Match of the Day” by a shocked Peter Harrison, who was Ali Dia’s former manager at Blyth Spartans. News soon spread to George Weah, who denied ever having heard of Ali Dia, let alone being related to him or recommending him as a gifted footballer.

Here is Matt Le Tissier’s hilarious first hand account of the saga:

Princess Caraboo

Portrait of Princess Caraboo
Portrait of Princess Caraboo

In 1817, a mysterious young woman surfaced in Almondsbury, a small village near Bristol, England.  She wore exotic clothes, including a turban, and spoke a language that was incomprehensible to the baffled locals.  She also appeared to be disoriented.  The woman was taken to the local magistrate, Samuel Worrall, who lived in Knole Park.  Here, she insisted on sleeping on the floor and continued to utter a few words of Indo-European descent. Worrall decided that she was a beggar and took her to Bristol to be tried for vagrancy.

However, during her imprisonment, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel surfaced and said he spoke the woman’s language.  He translated her incredible story, telling her hosts that she was, in fact, a princess from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean.  She had been abducted by pirates, and escaped by jumping overboard in the stormy Bristol Channel before swimming to shore.

The Worrall family brought the Princess  to their home.  Her story spread quickly and she quickly catapulted to fame.  Princess Caraboo was wined and dined by all the local dignitaries. Her portrait was painted, then printed in the local newspapers.  She used a bow and arrow, swam naked, and prayed to her God, “Alla-Tallah”.  Her authenticity was verified by a Dr. Wilkinson, who identified her language using Edmund Fry’s “Pantographia” and confirmed that the strange markings on the back of her head were the work of Oriental surgeons.

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However, after reading the story of Princess Caraboo in a local newspaper, a woman recognized the phony princess as her former servant.  According to the woman, this servant used to entertain her children by speaking in invented tongues. Princess Caraboo, it turned out, came from no more exotic a locale than Devonshire, England, where she was born Mary Wilcocks, the daughter of a cobbler.

The Worralls arranged for Mary to travel to Philadelphia on 28 June, 1817.

On 13 September, 1817, a letter was printed in the Bristol Journal, allegedly from Sir Hudson Lowe (the official in charge of the exiled Emperor Napoleon).  The letter claimed that Princess Caraboo’s Philadelphia-bound ship had in fact gone off course due to a large storm.  The princess had gone adrift in a life boat and rowed to the island of St. Helena, where she met the emperor. According to the letter, the emperor had become so fascinated in Princess Caraboo that he was applying to the Pope for a dispensation to marry her.  The story was unverified, and Princess Caraboo contacted the Worralls from New York in November 1817.

Princess Caraboo returned to England in 1824. She pretended to be a widow called Mary Burgess (her cousin’s surname) before eventually marrying Richard Baker and having a daughter.  Mary Baker aka Princess Caraboo died on 24 December, 1864.

 

Frank Abagnale Jr

Frank Abagnale Jr in the role of pilot
Frank Abagnale Jr in the role of pilot

Frank Abagnale Jr:  one of the greatest con men in history, who went on to become a great man.

Frank was a teenaged high school dropout and an incredible imposter.  Some of his most impressive feats include fraudulently working as a Pan Am pilot (clocking up millions of air miles while traveling around the world), as a paediatrician in Atlanta, working as a professor at the prestigious Brigham Young University, and as an assistant attorney general for the state of Louisiana (passing the state bar exam beforehand).  He had a gifted, artistic ability at making false cheques, ID cards and other legal documents.  His altered cheques made him approximately $2.5 million while he was still a teenager.  They also made him a most wanted man.  After a long and dedicated chase by the FBI, Frank Abagnale Jr was finally caught in Montpellier, France when he was still only 20 years old.

Like many con men, Frank Abagnale Jr was charismatic and gifted.  However, unlike many other con men- he eventually chose to use his charisma and talents solely for good.

Frank Abagnale Jr in a laboratory
Frank Abagnale Jr in a laboratory

Today, Frank is a motivational speaker and continues to do pro bono work for the FBI.  He advises on fraud prevention, identity theft, and document security products.  He is loved and respected by his FBI colleagues.  His gifts at spotting security loopholes have not faded…here is an example from a while ago:

A client asked Frank to try out a new ATM prototype.  After a quick glance, Frank was able to spot a flaw…the ATM machine had a door that electronically opened for users to retrieve their cash.  Frank simply took Super Glue, glued the door shut, then sat back and watched as several ATM users inserted their card, entered their PIN number, and waited for their cash.  When the door failed to open, they assumed the machine was out-of-order and moved to the next machine.  After they left, Frank walked up, broke through the glue, and there was the cash – which is why ATM machines today use open slots for cash delivery, not doors.

Frank Abagnale Jr’s incredible story was eventually turned into a highly successful film by Steven Spielberg, starring Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.  The film is called “Catch Me If You Can” and was the inspiration behind the name of my blog.

Frank with Tom Hanks, Leo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg. He had a cameo as a police officer in "Catch Me if You Can", the film based on his teenage years.  Copyright of Amblin Entertainment
Frank with Tom Hanks, Leo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg. He had a cameo as a police officer in “Catch Me if You Can”, the film based on his teenage years.
Copyright of Amblin Entertainment