Press Your Luck



Press Your Luck was a popular American television game show during the 1980s where contestants collected "spins" by answering trivia questions, and then used the "spins" on an 18-space gameboard full of cash and prizes. The person who amassed the most in cash and prizes at the end of the game won.

The show was memorable for the "Whammy," a red cartoon creature of indeterminate species wearing a cape. The Whammy's spaces on the game board took away the contestant's money, accompanied by an animation that would show the Whammy taking the loot—but frequently being chased away, blown up, or otherwise humiliated in the process. Throughout the show's run, approximately 60 different animations were used.

The show is a cult classic and is referred to by many as one of the symbols of the 1980s decade.

Press Your Luck ran from September 19, 1983, to September 26, 1986, on CBS. Peter Tomarken hosted, and Rod Roddy was the regular announcer (John Harlan and Charlie O'Donnell substituted on separate occasions).

Press Your Luck replaced Child's Play on the CBS schedule. It ran at 10:30 a.m. EST between The $25,000 Pyramid and The Price is Right for its first two and a half years, but on January 6, 1986, it was moved to 4:00 p.m. EST to make room for Card Sharks, replacing Body Language. CBS gave that time slot back to its local affiliates after canceling the show (several affiliates were already preempting the 4 p.m. hour with syndicated programming anyway by that point). Reruns of Press Your Luck aired on the USA Network from 1987 to 1995 and on GSN since 2001, although GSN only airs a subset of the episodes from 1984, and some episodes from 1985. GSN is questionable on airing the 1983, January 1984, December 1985, and 1986 episodes.

The original incarnation of Press Your Luck was the short-lived game show Second Chance, which aired on ABC in 1977 with Jim Peck hosting.

On April 15, 2002, GSN brought a new updated version of the series as Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck; Todd Newton hosted the show, which was in production for two seasons. Peter Tomarken hosted a pilot of this version.

In 2006 Press Your Luck was among the seven game shows that made up Gameshow Marathon, which airs on CBS. Ricki Lake served as host for "PYL", the episode of which had a facsimile of the original set, and the six other classic shows. In that episode, Kathy Najimy won the game.

Republic Pictures originally syndicated Press Your Luck for USA Network. Today, all the rights for Press Your Luck are currently owned by FremantleMedia.

Three contestants competed on each episode of Press Your Luck. Each episode had four rounds: a question round, then a Big Board round, then another question round, and finally another Big Board round for larger stakes.

Each question round included four questions, read out loud by Tomarken. Any contestant could buzz in and answer the question, but was not immediately told if his or her answer was right. The other two contestants would then be allowed to guess the correct answer from three multiple choices (the buzz-in contestant's answer plus two alternative answers). If no contestant buzzed in, then Tomarken would read three multiple choice answers, and all three contestants would attempt to guess the correct answer. A correct buzz-in answer earned three spins for use in the next Big Board round; a correct multiple-choice answer earned one spin. So a player could earn up to twelve spins in a question round (by being the first to buzz in on all four questions, and answering all four correctly).

Contestants now used their spins earned in the question round on the "Big Board," which consisted of 18 spaces, each of which could display three possible values. (Each possible value was displayed by a slide projector; the pilot episode had four slide projectors for each space, but two of those projectors displayed the same value.)

Contestants took turns taking their spins. Playing last was an advantage. In the first Big Board round, the order of contestants' play was determined by the number of spins they had earned in the question round; the contestant with the fewest spins played first, and the contestant with the most spins played last. (If two players had the same number of spins, the player seated farther to the left of Tomarken's podium would spin first.) In the second Big Board round, play order was determined by the contestants' scores in the first Big Board round; the contestant who ended that round with the lowest score played first, and the contestant with the highest score played last. (Ties were broken by the number of spins earned in the second question round, and if that was tied as well, by seating position.)

The contents of each space on the "Big Board" changed just under once per second, alternating among the three possible values for each space. One space would be highlighted by lights; the highlight would jump from square to square several times per second. The contestant would press the buzzer to stop the board (and would usually yell "Stop!" as they did so). Usually, when the board stopped, the highlighted space would contain either money or a prize; that would be added to the contestant's score. (The score displayed for each contestant included both the cash and the dollar value of any prizes they had landed on.) But if the highlighted space contained a Whammy, the contestant would lose all the cash and prizes they had earned, and the contestant's score would fall back to $0. An animation would appear on-screen, featuring the Whammy "destroying" the contestant's score in one of a variety of ways, and a Whammy marker would then pop up out of the player's podium.

After any spin, the spinning contestant could choose to pass their remaining spins to another contestant (in the hope of protecting their own cash and prizes from the Whammy, or in the hope that that the other contestant would hit a Whammy and lose their winnings. Passed spins always went to the opponent who currently had the highest score; if the two opponents were tied, the passing contestant could choose who to pass the spins to. A contestant would always play any "passed" spins before playing any spins they had "earned" (in the question round or by hitting "+1 Spin" spaces on the board), and a contestant could not pass as long as he or she still had passed spins waiting to be played; so receiving a large number of passed spins was very dangerous, as it would require the contestant to play all of those spins, and probably hit a Whammy in the process. (Whenever a player did hit a Whammy, any remaining "passed" spins the contestant had not yet taken would be moved to the contestant's "earned" total; so the contestant was no longer required to spin -- of course, the contestant now had no money and no prizes, so spinning was usually the correct thing to do anyway.)

The first Big Bucks round's board had relatively low values -- cash amounts ranging from $100 to $1500, and prizes typically worth several hundred dollars. The second and final Big Bucks round's board had much higher values -- cash amounts as much as $5000, and prizes that could be worth several thousand dollars as well, including exotic vacations and small cars.

Some special spaces (mostly in the second Big Bucks round) had a money amount '+1 Spin'; the contestant would receive the money as usual, and a spin would be added to the contestant's "earned" total, replacing the one they had just used. Other special spaces included 'Go back 2 spaces", "Advance 2 spaces" (the contestant would earn whatever was at that space on the board, as if they had landed on that space in the first place), "Move one space" (the contestant could choose to move to either of the adjacent board spaces and take whatever was displayed there), and "Pick a corner" (this always appeared in the upper-right corner; the contestant could choose to take the contents of any of the other three corner spaces). In 1986, close to the end of the show's life, "Across the Board" was added to the far left side of the board; when hit, it would award the player the amount of money on the opposite side of the board (which was either $500 + One Spin, $750 + One Spin, or $1000 + One Spin).

The second round featured a "$2000 or Lose 1 Whammy" special space. A contestant landing on this space could choose either to add $2000 from their score, or to "lose 1 Whammy". Choosing the "lose 1 Whammy" option would cause one of the Whammy markers on the player's podium to disappear. This did not give the contestant back any cash or prizes that the Whammy had taken, but could still be important, because four Whammy markers eliminated a player from the game.

About midway through the show's run, an "Add-A-One" special space was added to the first Big Bucks round. This space would give the contestant enough cash to place a "1" in front of the contestant's current score (that is, $0 became $10, but $1,000 became $11,000). The second Big Bucks round had a special "Double Your Money" space, and hitting it gave the contestant cash equal to their current score. (At first, this was actually a disadvantage to the contestant if they hit it while their score was $0, since they gained nothing and still used up their spin; to correct this, the space was soon changed to "Double Your Money + 1 Spin.")

In addition, both rounds featured the legendary "Big Bucks" space. When hit, it awarded the contestant the dollar amount found directly opposite it on the board, which contained the highest cash awards in that round (hence its name). In the first round this would be either $750 (on the pilot and first few episodes), $1,000, $1,250 or $1,500 (replaced $750 from November 1983 on); and in the second round it would be either $3,000 + 1 Spin, $4,000 + 1 Spin, or $5,000 + 1 Spin. It was the existence of this space that resulted in Press Your Luck's contestant "battle cry" of "Big Bucks, no Whammies!" or some variant thereof.

If a contestant hit a total of four Whammies during the Big Bucks rounds, that player was immediately and permanently eliminated from the game. (Starting in September 1984, their were special Whammy animations for a player's fourth Whammy, such as a Whammy umpire calling the player "out".) The contestant's remaining earned and passed spins were simply discarded. If a contestant with several Whammies was lucky enough to hit the "$2000 or Lose 1 Whammy" special space during the game, they could reduce the risk of elimination by choosing the "Lose 1 Whammy" option, which subtracted one Whammy from their total (and thus meant that the player would need to hit an additional Whammy to be eliminated).

On rare occasions, two contestants were eliminated from the same game. In that case, if the surviving contestant had any remaining spins, he or she could play "against the house" and stop spinning at any time, at which point the game would simply end and the surviving player would be declared the winner. In the truly unlikely event that the third contestant Whammied out as well -- which almost happened on two occasions -- the game would simply end without a winner.

The winner of the game was the contestant with the highest score (reflecting both the cash and the dollar amount of prizes) after the last spin of the second Big Bucks round was taken. Only the winner would be allowed to keep their earnings and return for the next show. (In the rare event of a tie for first place at the end of the game, all of the tied players would receive their winnings.)

The winner(s) of each game normally returned for the next show; but any contestant who won five games would retire undefeated (similar to the format used on Jeopardy! until 2002). There was also a limit on the dollar value of contestants' earnings. During the show's first season, contestants who won over $25,000 would retire undefeated, since at that point CBS had a maximum winnings limit of $25,000 for its game shows. (Contestants did get to keep any cash or prizes won in excess of this limit, though later on, after the Michael Larson episodes, an earnings cap of $75,000 was added -- any earnings above that point could not be kept.) In the fall of 1984, the winnings limit (and thus the "retirement point") was raised to $50,000.

A contestant eliminated by four Whammies could never win the game or return for the next show, even if the other contestants ended the game with $0.

The board consisted of 18 squares, arranged in a rectangle surrounding the "PRESS YOUR LUCK" logo. Behind each square were three slide projectors, each displaying a different slide (a monetary amount, a Whammy, a prize, etc.), one at a time. Every second or so, the first projector would turn off as the second projector illuminated, changing the display on the square. Slide projectors were used to give the effect of squares "morphing" from one item to the next. A band of lights surrounded each square, illuminated one at a time to indicate which square would be selected when the player stopped the board. This was called the "spinner" by the production staff.

As the board shuffled, the spinner would jump from tile to tile in a seemingly random pattern. In fact, the spinner followed one of only five preprogrammed spinner patterns -- a flaw exploited to great effect by Michael Larson. Shortly after his appearance, the patterns were changed twice, to throw off people who might attempt to memorize them; soon after that, the number of possible patterns was increased to 32.

Although for the most part it worked, the Big Board was known to occasionally malfunction. The most common one concerned how the board shuffled. All of the squares on the board were supposed to change in unison; however, on numerous occasions, there would be instances where some frames would not change at the same time other frames did. This was due to the wiring setup of the slide projectors. The even numbered square's projectors were wired together, and the odd numbered square's projectors were wired together, and there would be instances where they were not started at exactly the same time, thus causing the malfunction. Occasionally, the board would not shuffle for the duration of a few spinner bounces, but this didn't happen as often as the out-of-sync spins. Additionally, a rarer (though on the first few episodes, a more common) but more noticeable malfunction was when an entire tile would not appear; instead, there was simply a black box. This was obviously due to a malfunction of that particular slide's projector. Generally, a round is played with the darkened square with no editing, unless the player stops on the affected square. This is seen on a few occasions; if this happened, tape was stopped while the affected projector was repaired. Also, in the event a player lands on a prize, that slide is removed and a new one is added for the remainder of the round. This shift, however, has to be made on the fly, usually during the round. Every so often, a slide changed on-camera.

Occasionally, the spinner stopped on a square just before the slide changed, and the selected square changed slides. This "shifting" action of the slides sometimes proved to be disastrous for the player if the slide shifted from a money space to a Whammy.

On the August 23, 1985 episode, the slides "blew"; all that is known at the time of this writing is that they were damaged beyond repair and were fixed by September 2.

On one game of Press Your Luck in 1984, a self-described unemployed ice cream truck driver named Michael Larson made it onto the show. Watching the show at home, and with the use of a VCR, Larson discovered that the presumed random patterns of the game board were not random; instead, they lit up in one of only five preset patterns. Larson identified two spaces on the gameboard where the Whammy would never appear and which always contained money plus a free spin, allowing him to increase his score and also retain control. Larson was able to memorize the sequences to help him stop the board where and when he wanted. On the single game in which he appeared (which was actually split into two episodes for broadcast due to its unprecedented length), Larson hit a Whammy on his first spin, but then spun 45 times without hitting a Whammy, earning a total of $110,237. His total was a record for a single appearance on a game show up to that time. The Press Your Luck board's five patterns were changed on June 20 and then a brand new set of 32 patterns debuted on September 17. This was successful in foiling future attempts at replicating Larson's feat, as such a run was never repeated on the show.

The Larson game was so long that it was split into two half-hour episodes that aired on June 8 (Friday) and June 11 (Monday) of 1984, but it was not rebroadcast for nearly two decades after that, due to CBS' and Bill Carruthers' embassassment over the incident. Game Show Network was finally allowed to air the show with un-aired footage in 2003 as part of a two-hour documentary about Larson, called Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.

The show was re-broadcast in its entirety on GSN's 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time (#13), and the two episodes are now also included in GSN's normal schedule rotation.

Occasionally, as noted previously, there are squares such as "Move One Space" or "Pick A Corner" that do offer choices on the board. A choice between '$1500' or '$750 + ONE SPIN' becomes important depending on what dollar amount a contestant has, and how many spins the opponents have. The key decision a Press Your Luck contestant can make, however, is when to spin or pass.

The 1983 version of the game, which had returning champions, allowed certain mathematical strategies to win out:

* Spin to win: Spin until you feel you are enough dollars ahead of all opponents, and pass at the point you feel no one can catch your dollar total without a Whammy or running out of spins.

* Force a whammy: After earning a dollar total that leaves you in second place, pass your spins to the leader, on the notion that his passed spins will force him to Whammy, and the leftover spins will not be enough to catch you.

Being in third place with no spins is unquestionably the worst place to be, because neither of these basic strategies works. In this position, only one strategy is open to you:

* Luck: This generally means hoping the contestants in first or second place whammy to leave you in second or first place (where the strategies above apply) - or whammy out of the game to eliminate themselves.

Although the strategies above are fairly simple and mathematically correct, emotion plays a big part in the game, and lends to the show's overall appeal. The risk of hitting a whammy, particularly after a long run of prize and money spins, can make sticking to strategy easier said than done. When dollar totals begin to run high for the first and second place contestants, and a Whammy hasn't been hit for a long time, high excitement possibilities frequently occurred:

* Spins bouncing (also referred to by some fans as "See-saw battles", "Tennis Matches", or "Spin Battles") between first and second place contestants repeatedly, as each play hit '+ SPIN' squares, and each contestant hoped the other would hit a Whammy.

* Large numbers of passed spins sent to one contestant, forcing them to spin over and over again without hitting a Whammy.

* The last spin of the game, which, depending on whether an earned or passed spin, always left the risk of hitting a whammy (ending the game outright) or a '+ SPIN' square (extending the game).

Since the revival Whammy! does not feature returning champions, in that version it is sometimes correct to risk losing the game in order to win more. In classic PYL, winning the game is the primary goal. For example, in Whammy!, if you're ahead $5,000 to $500 with 1 spin left, you probably should spin again to increase your winnings. In classic PYL, this is a clearcut pass, because your opponent is unlikely to be able to get $4,500 in one spin. (Only 1 square, plus maybe a prize or two, out of 18 squares offer a chance to get that much, mainly offering a bonus spin.) Even though you only win $5,000, the right to return the next day is valuable.

* In Australia, the show ran on Seven from 1987-88, and was presented by Ian Turpie. John Deeks was its announcer. Grundy Worldwide packaged the Australian version, with Bill Mason as executive producer.

* In Germany, the show was called Drück Dein Glück and its presenter was Guido Kellerman. It ran from 1999-2000 on RTL II. A shark called Hainz ate all the contestant's money instead of the Whammy.

* Taiwan also had a version of Press Your Luck without animated whammies.

* Turkey has a version of Press Your Luck as well.

* Roddy would go on to announce for a second show, The Price is Right, when original announcer Johnny Olson died in 1985. For the remainder of the third (and final) season of Press Your Luck, Roddy was the announcer of both shows.

* The PYL episode of Gameshow Marathon was dedicated to the memory of Peter Tomarken, who died in a plane crash, along with his wife, on March 13, 2006, after the episode had been taped.

* The pilot was basically the same as the aired version with a few changes: A stencilized logo, cash slides colors were only in shades of blue and green, a slower board, one pattern was used in the intro of the show, and maybe round one and two, different theme song, five questions were asked (a possible 15 spins could be earned, something which would be used in the one question round of the 2002 successor), and only one Whammy animation was used (the Whammy jumping up and down, then running across the screen above the score display, beating it senseless with a mallet). And the whammy slides were almost random.

* Two of the contestants on the pilot of this show, Maggie Brown and Jack Campion, had also been contestants on the pilot for Second Chance, the predecessor to Press Your Luck. Brown would become a champion on the regular show later in the run and would win on Tomarken's Wipeout several years after that. Campion appeared on several other game show pilots: Alex Trebek's Jeopardy!, the NBC version of Card Sharks, Blank Check, etc.

* Before becoming a successful stand-up comedy champion on Star Search and a talk show hostess, Jenny Jones was a contestant on the show in late January 1985. She won $18,706 over the course of three episodes. Her first time on the show resulted in a win when Terry Walker passed a spin to the leader Nancy, who hit a Whammy at the end of the game, making Jenny the champion.

* On February 26, 1985, a contestant named Jim Hess did fairly well in round 1, until the Whammy came and messed things up. After hitting his second whammy, he passed his spins to the would-be champion on this episode, Pamela Flawn. However, since Pamela still had some earned spins, she passed the spins back to Jim, and he hit a whammy, prompting him to utter a profanity under his breath after his third whammy. By the end of the game, Jim racked up a total of $7,734 to Pamela's $7,278. However, the returning champion on this episode, Sam Kehoe, passed his remaining spin to Jim. On the ensuing spin, Jim promptly screamed "No whammies, stop!" However, Jim was not so lucky, and when he hit the whammy, he could be heard spouting profanities as the foghorn which sounded after the Whammy was hit sounded. Pamela won the game with $7,278 instead. The Carruthers Company (which produced the show) did not edit out his swearing, so while watching the episode, he can be heard faintly cursing while Tomarken made the call of the Whammy being hit.

* In another 1985 episode, Peter Tomarken asked contestants which cartoon character had the catch phrase, "Sufferin' succotash!" All three contestants correctly answered, "Sylvester," but the host Tomarken said that the correct answer was Daffy Duck; thus, no spins were given. The game ended earlier than usual and before the credits started rolling, Tomarken answered a telephone call from Mel Blanc in his Sylvester voice. "Sylvester" told Tomarken that Daffy Duck "steals from me all the time." All three contestants were brought back to the show in later episodes.

* There have been two games where three players won $0 and returned the next day. This occurred during the fall of 1984 and the spring of 1986. Several other champions won their games with nothing, but this was due to at least one (if not both) of their opponents Whammying out and them deciding to stop spinning during their turn or hitting a Whammy with their final spin. (During the spring 1986 game, Tomarken remarked that this was the first time that had happened, forgetting about the 1984 game.)

* Tomarken's children made an appearance in an episode once.

* One of the show's many running gags was the "Flokati Rug", a prize offered in the first round of many episodes. Although one of the lowest-valued prizes ever offered (only $350), the Flokati rug appeared to carry a "curse" to whoever landed on it; that contestant, it seemed, would invariably lose the game, or (if he or she did win) would hit a Whammy before being able to claim the prize and thus find out what a "Flokati" rug was supposed to be. It wasn't long before Peter started making jokes about it during the show, and (even though it was eventually won by a few contestants) the Flokati rug remains one of the unofficial "symbols" of Press Your Luck to many fans. The Flokati Rug is mentioned on one of the PYL shorts from USA Network's syndication run of Press Your Luck. The Flokati Rug returned in the Gameshow Marathon version of PYL. Kathy Najimy landed on the Flokati Rug, now valued at $1799... and promptly Whammied the rug away three spins later. As for the '80s Rug, it was awarded to the contestant whose total winnings caused the show to top $6 million in total winnings.

* The animated Whammies were created and animated by Savage Steve Holland and Bill Kopp, and voiced by either Kopp or the show's executive producer/part-time director, Bill Carruthers. Chris Darley also directed the show as well.

* If a contestant got two Whammies during the first round, Tomarken frequently warned to "be careful about picking up a third Whammy in Round One," or alternately to "be careful about picking up a third Whammy for Round Two."

* The Whammy was not alone in his mission to steal away the contestants' money. He had a supposed girlfriend, Tammy Whamette (although at one point Peter assured viewers that things between Tammy and the Whammy were "strictly professional"), and a yellow dog named Fang, both of whom made frequent appearances in the short animations that would appear when an unlucky contestant hit a Whammy.

* Other Whammies were based on rock stars Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, The Beatles, Boy George and Madonna.

* At the end of many episodes, Peter would read a "Whammy poem," sent in by a home viewer; similar to the traditional poems viewers sent to NBC on Card Sharks.

* Although there was no consequence for buzzing in on a question while Peter was still reading the question, there was an instance where a player buzzed in in the middle of a question then later regretted it (actual date this occurred isn't confirmed). Peter read a question about the TV show Bonanza, but didn't say the name of the show. During the reading of the question, the female player buzzed in, thinking that Peter was going to ask what the name of the show was, and said "Bonanza". Peter responded by reading the rest of the question, which was, "what were the family's last name?" The contestant responded by a groan and hung her head. This type of situation has also happened on other episodes, including the Michael Larson episode.

* A female contestant one time buzzed in accidentally asking for the multiple choice answers, Peter said that it is against game rules to do so and they must give an answer before having the choices read to them. Peter disqualified her for the question.

* On two occasions in August 1985, the possibility existed of having all three players collect four Whammies, resulting in no winner.

The first occasion aired on August 23, 1985, the same day that the slides blew up. Champion Mark Miller took one spin after picking up his third Whammy, but landed on Move One Space, taking an $1150 trip to Mazatlan over $1000 + One Spin and immediately quitting. (This spin was the first taken after the slides blew, and taping restarted.)

The second instance occurred during the Back to School week that aired the following week. This episode was the first of SIX episodes taped that week, and it may not have actually aired. (It was shown on GSN around Labor Day of 2004.) The survivor in this episode pressed on three times with his final two spins, but avoided a fourth Whammy, netting $1000, a sailboat and a trip to Disney World totaling $3695.

* GSN ranked PYL #13 in the list of 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time, and aired the Michael Larson episodes.

* Occasionally, when a contestant hit "Pick A Corner", a Whammy would be in one of the corner spaces, although this was eventually remedied.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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