Press Your Luck (CBS, 1983-1986)
I am a big fan of game shows, you might have noticed, but I don’t know much about the history of American ones. So when I was having a look on YouTube, I wondered what American game shows I might like that might be something of an institution in America, but not very well known over here, and one that I came across a while ago that I thought was interesting was an 80s show called Press Your Luck which was hosted by Peter Tomarken.
Three contestants took part and they had to answer general knowledge questions to earn spins. They then used those spins to play on the big board. This had 18 squares on it which had pictures of various prizes on them such as cash values or bonus spins that rotated, and one of the squares would be illuminated. When they pressed their button, the sequence would stop and they would win whatever they landed on, but there was something that added tension and made winning a little more difficult.
There were also what were called Whammies that would appear on the board, and if a contestant landed on one of those, their earnings from their previous spins would be wiped out so they had to beware. If a contestant landed on four Whammies throughout the game, they would be eliminated. At the end of the show, the highest scoring contestant kept the prizes that they had won, and they could return the next day as the reigning champion. But it really was just all about luck as to what you’d win… wasn’t it?
Press Your Luck is known nowadays for a remarkable scandal, it’s been well documented but I was really surprised when I found out about it. In 1984, Michael Larson, who had watched the show regularly appeared as a contestant and he exploited two flaws with the technology. He had noticed that two screens never had a Whammy appear in them, and he also noticed that the order in which the screens flashed was a predetermined sequence rather than random, so if he remembered the pattern and always landed on those two squares he could make lots of money.
His spin ended up taking so long that it had to be shown over two editions, and by the end he had made so much money that it could just about be displayed on his scoreboard in full. At some point people must have realised that his making 45 consecutive spins without hitting a Whammy was far too much of a coincidence to only be luck, and there was a debate as to whether he had cheated or not, but they let him keep the massive $110,000 that he had won. In 2003 there was also an interesting documentary made about this story called Big Bucks.
It seems that there was a British version of Press Your Luck made, but it was only shown in the HTV West region in the early-90s, and it was hosted by Paul Coia of Catchword fame. I haven’t seen any of it for myself, but I do know that contestants played for points, and the overall star prize for the winner was just £200. It wasn’t a big success, but I do think that a new version with big money on offer could be successful in this country. I’ll have a look at some more American game shows soon.