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Press Your Luck
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Press Your Luck

Press Your Luck was a game show that ran from September 19,1983, to September 26, 1986, on CBS. The main goal of the game was to collect 'spins' by answering trivia questions, and then use the 'spins' on a board with dollar amounts. The person who amassed the most in cash and prizes by the end of the game won.

Press Your Luck was hosted by Peter Tomarken and announced by Rod Roddy. The show was perhaps most memorable for the Whammy, a grinning cartoon red creature wearing a cape. The Whammy's spaces on the game board would take away your money, accompanied by a silly cartoon animation popular with the viewing audience (throughout the show's run, approximately 60 different animations were used, with new ones being added constantly).

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. The rules were virtually the same, only a "devil" took a contestant's money away instead of a Whammy.

How It Works

Three contestants begin every game of Press Your Luck. Every episode of the show had two rounds. A round started with a question session, each with four questions. Contestants could buzz in, and if they got the answer right on the buzz in, they earned 3 spins (none if wrong). The other two contestants could answer using multiple choice (the first contestant's answer plus two others being offered) and, if right, earn 1 spin. 20 spins maximum could be earned per question session among all three players, the maximum an individual player could earn being 12.

The second part of a round was the spinning portion. Contestants now used spins earned in the question session on the "Big Board" which consisted of 18 monitors arranged in a square. The contestants took their spins in inverse order of the number of spins they had earned answering questions (as between two contestants who had earned the same number of spins the player seated further on the left from Peter Tomarken's viewpoint would spin first). The contents of the spaces changed every few seconds (alternating among three possibilities per square), as well as the highlighted square (which bounced around at random as well). A game space might contain money, a prize (the dollar amount of which would accrue to the contestant's score), or a Whammy. Some special spaces had a money amount '+ 1 Spin' (meaning the spin being used wasn't lost), and others worked as 'go back two spaces', 'move one space' (to either side, which the contestant would then choose) or 'pick a corner'. One special space, added about midway through the show's run, was known as "Add-A-One." This space - which appeared in the first spinning round only - would place a "1" in front of the contestant's pre-existing total (i.e., $0 became $10, but $1,000 became $11,000). The second round had a space marked "Double Your Money," and hitting it did just that; to solve the obvious problem created by contestants landing on this space when they had no money at all due to a recent Whammy, this was hastily altered to "Double Your Money + 1 Spin." In addition, both rounds featured a space bearing the legend "Big Bucks." When hit, it awarded the contestant the dollar amount found directly opposite it on the board; in the first round this would be either $1,000, $1,250 or $1,500, and in the second round it would be either $3,000 + 1 Spin, $4,000 + 1 Spin, or $5,000 + 1 Spin (the existence of this space resulted in most contestants chanting "Big Bucks" or some variant thereof before stopping the board on each spin). Contestants were able to pass their spins to another contestant in the hope that the other contestant would hit a Whammy and lose their money (when passed, the spins went to the opponent of the two with the higher dollar score; if both opponents had the same score the passer could choose which opponent to which the spins would be passed); however, spins passed to one player by another could not be passed again unless a Whammy had been hit, in which case this imprimatur would be waived for any passed spins that remained. Four Whammys sustained by the same player eliminated that player from the game (and often, special animation skits were pressed into service in situations where the Whammy in question was the contestant's fourth).

As mentioned earlier, there were two distinct rounds in every episode of Press Your Luck. The first round's spinning portion had far fewer spaces which provided money plus an additional spin, and money amounts ranged from $100 + 1 Spin up to $1250 ($1500 after the first few months). Indeed, the principal purpose of the first round was to determine the sequence in which the contestants would take their spins in the second round, which was in the reverse order of the money they had won in the first round (i.e., the player who emerged from the first round with the highest money score was the last to spin in the second round). The second spinning round in the show was the one watched most closely, where dollar amounts ranged from $500 to $5000 + 1 Spin - and sometimes prizes such as cars were worth even more. The winner of the game was the contestant with the most money after the last spin of the second round was taken. In some shows, a player was determined the winner by dint of both opponents having suffered four Whammys; when this scenario arose and the surviving player had any spins remaining, the winner was permitted to spin "against the house" and stop spinning at any time, at which point the game ended as there would be no other players left in the game to pass the spins to.

That's a Lot of Money!

On one episode of Press Your Luck in 1984, a self-described unemployed ice cream man named Michael Larson made it onto the show. With the use of a VCR, Larson was able to memorize the presumed random patterns of the game board, to help him stop the board where and when he wanted to. On the episode he appeared in, Larson spun over 40 times without hitting a 'Whammy', and took away $110,237 in cash and prizes, a record by far for game shows up to that time. The Press Your Luck board's patterns were significantly reworked after this incident, and such a run was never repeated on Press Your Luck again.

The Larson episode was split into two half-hours that aired in June of 1984, but it was not rebroadcast for nearly two decades after that. Game Show Network aired it in 2003 as part of a documentary on Larson titled Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal.

See Michael Larson for more information about Larson and his performance on Press Your Luck.

Return of the Whammy

On April 15, 2002, Game Show Network debuted Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck, a revival of PYL. The show is hosted by Todd Newton and announced by Gary Kroeger.

In the revival, the first round is different. Instead of answering trivia questions for spins, the contestants take turns spinning on the board, with an option to "freeze" (i.e. stop spinning). If a contestant hits a Whammy in the first round, he's out of the round and cannot spin any more. The Whammy is now CGI, but when you come right down to it, it's still the same show.

Also, the revival features fewer chances to earn extra spins in the final round. Some of the best shows in classic PYL occurred when 2 contestants kept passing spins back and forth, because they kept earning bonus spins. (One of these runs of "spin-tag", as it has sometimes been called, ended with $30,000+ in money and prizes "Whammied" away.)

A new feature called the "Big Bank" was added for the show's second season in 2003. The "Big Bank" always begins with $3,000, and the money that contestants lose after a Whammy is hit is accumulated into the bank. If a player hits the "Big Bank" square, the host asks a general-knowledge trivia question to the contestant, who gains the money in the bank if the question is answered correctly.


The only real decision a contestant gets to make is whether to spin or pass (except for someone who cracks the board pattern like Michael Larson; that is definitely no longer possible). Occasionally, as noted previously, there are squares such as "move 1 space" or "pick a corner" that do offer a choice. Most of the time, the correct decisions is obvious. However, a description of the exact optimal strategy is difficult.

Since the revival Whammy! does not feature returning champions, in this 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 $3000 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 $2500 in one spin. (Only 1-2 out of 18 squares offer a chance to get that much, plus a few squares offer a bonus spin.) Even though you only win $3000, the right to return the next day is valuable.

More Information

Press Your Luck Information & Photos