Game shows and gaming the system.
Game shows are a fascinating thing to me. Ever since I watched those huge 6-to-8 hour blocks of game shows back on USA before they became “The Law and Order: SVU Network,” I’ve always loved them. Jenn Frank wrote a wonderful article on Infinite Lives about gaming the system. While largely about gaming in general, she mentions Roger Craig and his history from being a computer scientist to Jeopardy! champion, even mentioning his system on choosing subjects and categories. J.P. Grant wrote a fantastic response to her article about that incident on The Price is Right where somebody made a perfect bid on the showcases, only to find out that a former contestant gave him the exact price. (Interestingly enough, Ted, the guy who gave him the exact bid, later went on Price is Right fan site golden-road.net the day that it aired, slightly bragging about him giving the perfect bid.) These two articles made me think about the other ways game shows have been used to “game” the system.
One immediate thought of “gaming the system” on a game show came to a lesser-known example: A man by the name of Neil Bines appeared on the short-lived NBC game show Caesar’s Challenge around 1993. Caesar’s Challenge was an anagram game: A word of 7-9 letters appeared scrambled. Correctly answering a trivia question gave you a choice of a letter to place in the right spot. The player then had to guess what the word is, based on what letters are in place and the category associated with it. One of the letters was also designated “the lucky slot,” choosing the letter that fell into the lucky slot gave a chance for a player to win a jackpot that started at $500 each day and increased by $500 for each word it went unclaimed. Bines gamed the system by choosing the letter that’d go in the lucky slot, correctly guess the word, win upwards of $1,000-$2,000 for each successfully guessed word.
It’s more interesting during the bonus round. Letter balls rolled around in a cage and were chosen one letter at a time until a certifiable nine-letter word could be formed with those letters. The winner would then place one letter — more if they were a returning champion — and have 10 seconds to solve the word. Successfully solving it won you a car and retired you from the show. Naturally, Bines pulled it off. He walked away with over $38,700 in cash and prizes in a single day. Knowing his way around anagrams made him a big money winner on a simple little show. It’s a really fascinating watch, however the only video to surface is a highlight reel presumably by Bines or a friend of his.
There’s another one involving an 80s game show called “Wipeout.” (Not to be confused with the current game show with the big balls.) In the bonus round, a player had to choose six correct answers out of twelve to win a car. The player had 60 seconds to choose six of the answers they thought were correct, hit a button, and find out how many they have right. If they had all six, the car was theirs. This guy used a system of hitting six in a certain pattern, regardless of whether or not they were actually correct. He’d find out how many he had, go back and change only one, and either change it back if the number was lower or move on to the next one if it was higher. Note this wasn’t always foolproof, this guy was lucky they chose the six right answers in the right pattern. Likely if somebody tried the same strategy it wouldn’t be as perfect as this guy did it.
The last one is the famed incident on Press Your Luck featuring Michael Larson. Larson, a former ice cream truck driver, found out that the “random” board patterns on the giant board were actually predetermined, thus giving him an edge by knowing exactly when to hit the button and stop the board, on two important spaces that gave cash and an additional spin at the board. He ended up amassing $110,237, a staggering amount of cash in 1984. As a result, the producers were unsure if it was fixed or just dumb luck. They aired the episode in two parts, complete with host Peter Tomarken giving an interstitial between the two parts. Once Larson got the money however, he continued to scheme and scheme. One incident was him taking out all his money in $1 bills just to match a certain code on the bill that would award him a trip. With several bags of money in the house, someone broke in and robbed him of about $40,000. Years later, Larson got involved in illegal lotteries and thus was on the run from the IRS and the FBI. Larson died of throat cancer in 1999.
Larson’s trickery ties in very much to Frank’s article talking about “losing” the system. Larson thought he could get away with making more money after winning over $100,000. Unfortunately he lost the game when he tried again and subsequently was a fugitive of the law as a result. The episode where the incident occurs is an exciting moment to watch, but to know what happens afterwards makes it a depressing tale. Instead of a man that could be mentioned in a game show legacy in a positive light, he ends up being no better than the cheaters that Frank mentioned.
There are probably countless other incidents in game shows of people gaming the system, such as Charles Ingram, but I think what I’ve mentioned is enough. It’s really interesting to see people attempt gaming the system on a game show, and even find ways to master it. Hell, I own two books — “How to beat the Wheel of Fortune” and “How to get on Jeopardy! and Win” — that talk about professional game strategies for those respective shows. Despite the simplicity of game shows today, there is a way to use them to your advantage and basically “master” the game. But I think it’s more fun when somebody wins a car on The Price is Right by blind luck. That’s more interesting than somebody making that exact bid.