When it comes to ’80s game show lore, Michael Larson is a legend: In 1984, the ice cream truck driver figured out the secret to Press Your Luck’s digital game board, which enabled him to avoid Whammies and win well over $100,000. His appearance—which aired over two episodes in June of that year—wasn’t re-aired on TV until 2003, giving his achievement the vibe of an urban myth.
Larson’s feat was real, however—and completely legal. A fascinating new Priceonomics feature delves into his gaming methods, which involved a wall of televisions (“He watched them all at once, and it got so hot, the paint peeled off the wall,” said then-girlfriend Teresa Dinwitty), 18-hour-a-day viewing marathons, and well-timed VCR pauses. This enabled him to figure out all combinations of prize options, and where they were located on the board—meaning that when he finally finagled his way onto the show, he knew just when to buzz in.
Sadly, Larson’s post-win story didn’t have a happy ending. After trying to game another contest that involved trying to match a dollar bill serial number to one announced by a local radio station, he was robbed of $50,000. Later, he bilked $3 million from investors who thought they were buying into a lottery. However, before he could be charged in the Ponzi scheme, Larson died from throat cancer.
His story has been the subject of a This American Life episode and a Game Show Network documentary, Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal. The latter unearthed Larson’s episodes as part of its narrative, meaning that the ill-fated contestant’s legend was passed on to an entirely new generation of hungry-to-win game-show fiends.