How Michael Larson hustled Press Your Luck

The story of Michael Larson, an Ice Cream Trucker driver from Ohio, who in 1983 found a flaw in the US Game Show Press Your Luck and walked away with one of the biggest wins in TV history.

In the modern digital economy, scams have become so commonplace that they barely make the news. The sad truth is that deception for profit is much easier than hard work or finding a genuine edge. So it’s worth celebrating those stories where some ingenuous soul figured out a fair and square hustle, like the story of ice cream van driver Michael Larson and his appearance in 1984 on the US TV Show, Press Your Luck.

The Story of Michael Larson & Press Your Luck

What’s so fascinating about the story of an ice cream driver from Ohio walking away with one of the biggest prizes in game show history is that there was no collusion, and he didn’t cheat.

Like a poker player or a card counter, Larson studied his opponent and realised that ‘Press Your Luck’ wasn’t as random as the name suggests. The result is an hour of TV gold, which should earn Larson a position in the hustlers’ hall of fame.

Whammy! How Michael Larson Pressed His Luck

Press Your Luck” was a daytime game show on the US television network CBS that aired in 1983. Its format wasn’t particularly imaginative, requiring contestants to answer general knowledge questions to earn spins on a giant digital gameboard. 

The board consisted of 18 flashing squares in a rectangle that mixed varying cash and prizes along with Whammy squares – to be avoided – that reset contestants to $0.

Contestants had to hit a plunger to stop a seemingly random sequencing of the squares, hoping to land on a winning square and avoid the dreaded Whammy.

For anyone casually watching the show, the gameboard appeared randomised, moving so fast between squares that it was pure luck as to where the contestant landed on pushing their button. It wasn’t, and Michael Larson’s hustle was figuring that out.

Press Your Luck’s Big Secret

Generating genuine randomness is surprisingly hard. Humans are predictable and so bad at being random.

You might think the solution to creating random outputs is to program a computer to do it for us, but a program needs instructions, which inevitably reflect the programmer’s human predictability.

This creates a Catch-22 that very smart scientists and national security experts spend a lot of time and money trying to solve with extremely complex hashing algorithms.

Yes, there is a pseudo-random function in Excel, but that wasn’t launched until 1985. So, faced with options for creating a random function to power their game board back in 1983, Press Your Luck decided to dodge the issue entirely and program into the game board five fixed alternating sequencers. The producers thought that no one would notice, but Michael Larson did.

Larson liked Press Your Luck. He liked it so much that he videotaped every show in the Winter of 1983 over a few weeks. If you’re too young to know what a videotape is, google it.

It was winter, and I wasn’t exactly selling a lot of ice cream. I was watching a lot of television.

Michael Larson, record game show winner

Watching the show repeatedly, Larson was observant enough to figure out the game’s secret. He memorised the fixed board patterns by slowing the sequence down using his VCR’s freeze frame and used it to formulate an unbeatable strategy.

Going clockwise round the 18-square rectangle, the fourth and eighth squares always contained cash and never the wipeout “Whammy!” feature. (Image below courtesy of Wikipedia and commons license).

PYL Larson

Putting the plan into action

While Larson’s discovery and memory skills presented a huge opportunity, he still had a few more significant hurdles to navigate to cash in.

Like a card counter trying to sneak into a casino undetected, he had to present himself as a genuine contestant, get on the game show and answer enough questions to take control of a board he knew like the back of his hand. 

To get on the show, Larson watched recorded episodes, learning contestant mannerisms, facial expressions and even their most often-used phrases.

I took six months out of my life and said I was going to do this, and everyone said it was silly. Until I did it and everyone said, ‘Hey, that’s pretty neat’.

Michael Larson, 1996

So, leaving his ice cream van on his driveway, Larson flew to Los Angeles to implement his plan. 

Bill Carruthers, the show’s producer/director was impressed by Larson’s audition and backstory.

He had charisma, he played the game very well. Here was this out-of-work ice cream guy who told us he loved the show so much he flew out on his own to try to get on.

Bill Carruthers, Producer/Director Press Your Luck

Other staff members, including Bob Edwards, the contestant coordinator, were less convinced. Edwards shared his concern, “There’s something about this guy that worries me,” but ultimately, Carruthers pulled rank, and the rest is history.

Larson sweeps the Board

As the live version of the event featuring Michael Larson got underway, his performance in round one would have reassured Edwards.

Larson showed no particular aptitude and was in third place with just $2,500 banked, but this is precisely where he wanted to be.

In round two, the contestant who was in last place got the first run of the game board, which is when our ice cream van driver from Ohio went from obscurity to instant fame.

Under normal conditions, contestants risk no more than six spins for fear of hitting a Whammy. With the board sequences memorised, Larson went on an astonishing 35-spin run that sent CBS into a frenzy.

This guy from nowhere…was hitting the bonus box every time. He kept going around the board and hitting that box.

Michael Brockman, CBS Head of Daytime Programming

Despite the unprecedented scenes off-screen and what was usually a half-hour show already running to close to a full hour, the decision was made to keep the tape running.

It was like everyone was waiting for me to lose it. And I was beginning to lose my concentration and discipline. But I came there to win at least $100,000, and I kept going.

Michael Larson, record game show winner

What Larson hadn’t bargained on was how the other contestants would respond realising they were going home empty-handed.

Perhaps sensing that Larson was mentally frazzled from being within touching distance of a life-changing fortune, one contestant decided to put the ball back in his court, handing their free spins over to him.

This created a fascinating cliffhanger as Larson, clearly blindsided, needed to hold himself together enough to avoid a Whammy, which would wipe away the fortune he’d banked.

Rather than melt like one of his ice creams, Larson held his nerve, pocketing two holidays, a sailboat and $110,237, the equivalent of $339,816 in 2023, breaking the readout built to display only five figures.

What everyone finally was forced to acknowledge was that what he did was legitimate. After all, nowhere in the rules did it say that you couldn’t pay attention.

Robert Noak, a game-show executive

Michael Larson’s not-so-happy ending

Having shown a remarkable ability to hustle a game show, Larson hit Whammy after Whammy as he tried to repeat his success in real life.

He gave the yacht he won to his son, lost $50,000 in a burglary, having withdrawn double the amount trying to win a Radio contest matching $1 serial numbers; he kissed goodbye to another chunk in a failed real-estate back investment in Lebanon, Ohio and then fled the state on the back of an alleged fraudulent internet scam.

Interviewed by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1994, Larson was still chasing a thrill, studying video poker, hoping to repeat his success in Las Vegas.

There was even a rumour that Larson tried to press his luck one more time, challenging the show to defeat the updated sequencing system they had employed to avoid a repeat of the debacle. It wasn’t to be. Sadly, Larson died of throat cancer in 1999.

The ice cream van driver from Ohio may have squandered his winnings, but no one can deny that Michael Larson was the only person smart enough to figure out Press Your Luck’s weakness and brave enough to beat them at their own game.

His amazing performance has created posthumous cult status, including a mention in ‘Leave the World Behind’, a 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam. The novel is the basis of a 2023 hit Netflix movie starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke.

The mention in Alam’s novel provides a fitting conclusion.

Did you ever hear about the guy who beat the game show Press Your Luck?…All he did was pay attention and learn that the Whammy wasn’t random at all. It always appeared in a certain sequence. That information was just there, but no one ever bothered to look for it.

G.H from the Novel ‘Leave the World Behind’ by Rumaan Alam

Enjoy, in full, Michael Larson’s record-breaking win on Press Your Luck

How much did Michael Larson win on Press Your Luck?

In 1983, Michael Larson won $110,237 plus two holidays and a sailboat on the US game show Press Your Luck (the equivalent of $339,816 inflation-adjusted for 2023).

No Free Lunch

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but if you’re hungry to find out why, we’re here to help.

You can learn the meaning and origin of the no free lunch concept, as well as the broader philosophy behind the idea that nothing can ever be regarded as free.

We look at our relationship with money and truth, examining all of the supposed shortcuts, life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.