“Press Your Luck” returns Tuesday night on ABC — 35 years after its infamous “scandal” when unemployed ice cream truck driver Michael Larson, wearing a thrift-store sports coat, won more than $110,000 in a seemingly random fashion.
James Holzhauer’s recent 33-game run on “Jeopardy!” has turned a focus back onto game shows, so the timing is fortuitous for “Press Your Luck,” hosted by Elizabeth Banks and airing in prime time (10 p.m.) unlike the CBS original, which aired in daytime with host Peter Tomarken.
That version last aired in 1986 but will forever be remembered in game-show annals for Larson, who subsequently revealed the secret to his astonishing victory: he’d spent the previous year studying “Press Your Luck” episodes on his VCR, memorizing the game board’s five cash-winning patterns.
CBS thought about keeping his dough but, in the end, coughed it up — since Larson technically didn’t break any rules.
Larson’s victory was a big deal in an era when “The $25,000 Pyramid” was TV’s biggest cash prize; his unprecedented win and unorthodox methodology inspired a 2003 Game Show Network documentary, “Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal,” which dissected his one and only game down to his eye movements and how he positioned both of his hands over the show’s buzzer to strike quickly — unlike his opponents Ed Long and Janie Litras Dakin, who used one hand.
Dakin, reached by phone, recalled that fateful day. “You don’t know who you’re playing against and I thought I could beat this guy easily,” she says. “Here’s this guy who needed grooming and bought a sports coat at a thrift store on his way in [to play the game]. I just knew I could beat him. I was there to win.”
After flubbing his first spin — and landing on one of the show’s dreaded “Whammys,” which reset his score to zero — Larson was virtually unstoppable as Long and Dakin could only sit back and watch in amazement. Tomarken was nearly speechless. “[Larson] just knew the board and when it was happening we were like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ ” says Dakin. “We were like, ‘This is crazy. It isn’t real.’ I won only one consolation prize. What I do remember is that I answered all the questions correctly and got some good spins and I felt really good about it. I was really good at trivia.
“As it went on I was thinking, ‘Is this “Candid Camera” or something? There’s something wrong here, come on.’ I was just out to win money with little babies at home. Ed and I talked afterward and we were like, ‘What just happened?’ Everyone was buzzing around and [Larson] admitted pretty quickly afterward how he did it.”
Larson’s 15 minutes of fame didn’t last. In the years following “Press Your Luck” he lost most of his money in a succession of get-rich-quick schemes. When he died in 1999 from throat cancer, at the age of 49, he was being investigated for fraud by the SEC, FBI and IRS.
“When everything came out [about Larson’s m.o. on ‘Press Your Luck’] it made more sense,” says Dakin, who appeared several years later on an episode of “The Price Is Right” with Bob Barker (she didn’t win). “The VCR had pretty much just come out and he just figured it out. I guess it shocked the network but it made sense and they honored [his win] and paid him his money, which was good.
“It was a good show, a fun show and was fast, with fast players,” she says. “I’m glad they’re bringing it back.”