In 1984, Paul Michael Larson became well-known for a huge win on the game show “Press Your Luck.”
The $110,237 in cash and prizes that Larson won was, at the time, the most money ever won in one day on a game show.
Born in Lebanon
Larson grew up in Lebanon and graduated from Lebanon High School in 1967. For many years he drove a Mister Softee ice cream truck and he also worked as an air-conditioner repairman at Chrysler Airtemp in Dayton.
In the years following his appearance on Press Your Luck, Larson worked as an assistant manager at several Ohio Walmart stores.
The game show
“Press Your Luck” premiered in 1983 on CBS. The 30-minute show was hosted by Peter Tomarken.
The game consisted of three players and two rounds. Players answered trivia questions to earn “spins” on the “Big Board.” A correct answer earned three spins.
A spin consisted of watching flashing lights move in a seemingly random order around a square, briefly stopping over various dollar amounts or other prizes. The player then hit a stop button to determine where the light stopped and which prize amount is won. A player did not want to land on a “Whammy” which caused the player to lose all their winnings and their turn.
Larson started out poorly and finished the first round in last place.
In the second round, he started off better and earned seven spins. When it came time to spin, Larson got to go first since he finished the first round in last place.
This time, he won trips to Kauai and the Bahamas and a sailboat and various money amounts. As his total winnings went higher, the host repeatedly suggested that Larson pass on to the next contestant before landing on a “Whammy” and losing it all, but Larson kept going.
Talking about passing the $80,000 mark, Larson said in a 1994 Dayton Daily News article, “The mental strain was just terrible. I was mentally drained.”
Larson finally decided to stop after 40 spins and reaching his goal of $100,000. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Smart strategy? Or cheating?
Larson became a student of the game and was able to win big by memorizing the patterns of the blinking lights.
He learned how to do this by recording previous episodes of the show and using his VCR to start and pause during the game to memorize the various patterns used. This allowed him to hit the stop button on the best square but also how to avoid the “Whammy.”
In a 1994 Dayton Daily News article, Larson said, “Six weeks into it, it just came to me. I finally determined there were only six patterns of 18 numbers.”
What happened with the winnings?
At first, CBS didn’t want to pay Larson because they suspected him of cheating. However, there was nothing in the rules that could be used to disqualify him.
After paying $28,000 in taxes on his winnings, Larson used some of the money to buy real estate and to buy presents for his wife and three children. He also took a year off work.
The real estate deal did not go as he planned and he ended up losing all of the money in two years.
Years later, while being investigated for fraud, Larson moved to Florida, where he died of throat cancer at the age of 49.
The scandal inspired two documentaries, “Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal” in 2003, and “Cover Story: The Press Your Luck Scandal” in 2018.