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Press Your Luck—the good and bad

Late Thursday night when I was searching for something to watch on Hulu, I discovered a game show which originally aired during my formative years had been revived.

Press Your Luck aired for three years (19 September 1983-26 September 1986) on CBS alongside two highly-rated game shows, The $25,000 Pyramid and The Price Is Right, the latter of which begins its 48th season on CBS in September.

The premise of Press Your Luck was pretty simple. Players took spins on a computerized game board with 18 squares. They could accumulate cash or prizes with each spin, but if they hit a “Whammy”, they would lose all they had accumulated to that point. Four whammies eliminated a contestant.

To earn spins, players had to know the answers to questions asked by the host, Peter Tomarken; if a player buzzed in and gave the correct answer, he/she earned three spins, while a player who guessed the correct answer out of a list of three received one spin.

There was some strategy involved. A player could pass his or her spins at any time. Those spins would go to the player with the highest amount of winnings at that point, unless the other two contestants were tied, then the player passing the spins could choose whom to pass to. The player receiving the passed spins had to take all of the spins passed to him or her, unless he or she hit a whammy. At that point, the passed spins would transfer to the earned column (spins won by answering questions correctly and hitting spaces on the board which included an extra spin).

The winner of the game was the only player to keep his or her earnings. He or she would come back until (a) he or she won three consecutive games, at which point that contestant retired undefeated or (b) the player went over CBS’ earnings limit, which was $25,000 when PYL premiered; it was later raised to $50,000 and then $75,000. There is no cap on winnings now; if there was, Drew Carey couldn’t offer Maseratis and other ridiculously expensive cars on TPIR during Dream Car Week, nor insane amounts of cash during Big Cash Week.

A bum from Ohio named Michael Larson cheated his ass off in 1984 to win $110,237 in cash and prizes. The unemployed jerk spent his days watching tapes of PYL in order to memorize the pattern of the lights on the board. He figured it out and kept avoiding whammies so much (a) the game was aired over two shows; as luck would have it, the first half aired on a Friday, meaning you had to wait out the weekend to see the second half, and (b) Tomarken and the other players were frozen like zombies while Larson performed his robbery of CBS.

Tomarken and CBS executives were dumbfounded. One producer did not want to give Larson his winnings, thinking he cheated; but in the end, Larson got his loot, after Uncle Sam got his cut, of course. Larson went broke and died in 1994. Too freaking bad.

Game Show Network, now shortened to GSN, began airing PYL reruns in the late 1990s. In 2002, it created a semi-revival of the show called Whammy: The All New Press Your Luck.

I did not like that revival. Too many inane prizes that nobody cared about, not to mention the infamous “double whammies”, which not only took the player’s winnings, but dumped something upon him or her (water, golf balls, feathers, etc.).

Early this year, ABC and Fremantle Media announced Press Your Luck would be coming back in its original format. Sadly, Tomarken could not have hosted the revival had ABC wanted him to, because Peter and his wife died in a 2006 plane crash off the coast of California. The Tomarkens were delivering organs for transplant when they went down in the Pacific.

Less than three months after Tomarken’s death, CBS played PYL as part of its Game Show Marathon, a one-off series of classic games which also included TPIR, Match Game, Family Feud and Card Sharks. Rikki Lake hosted, while Leslie Nielsen, Tim Meadows and Kathy Najimy played for charity, with Najimy winning. Nielsen, unfortunately, hit four whammies.

Elizabeth Banks, the fabulously talented and fabulously beautiful actress, was chosen to host ABC’s PYL. Great choice.

The only knock I have on Elizabeth is she needs to stop wearing so much black. In three of the first four episodes, her wardrobe was black. However, in the third, she wore a green dress which exposed her arms, shoulders and lower legs. WOW!

The game play is faithful to the original, with one notable addition.

There is now a bonus game. The lack of a bonus game in the 1980s differentiated PYL from most game shows on the air in the mid-1980s.

The player who wins the most cash and prizes over two rounds in the main game keeps what he or she has accumulated to that point, then goes to the bonus game. The players go to the board and attempt to build their bank.

  • There are anywhere from one to six rounds in the bonus game, with each round having a set number of spins. A player must take all spins in a given round, plus any spins he or she might earn from hitting a space on the board which gives the player an extra spin.
  • Once the round ends, Elizabeth asks the player whether he or she wants to go on or stop and keep what is in the bank. Once a player commits to another round, there is no turning back; he or she must get his or her spin total to zero. Dollar amounts increase in each round, with some spaces worth $100,000 in the sixth round.
  • As an added sweetener, players have three “dream prizes” available to win on the board. Those prizes are selected by the players and range from the practical (a new car) to the strange (a week traveling on Michael Bolton’s tour bus and having VIP seats to all of his concerts) to the out of this world (pizza for life). There are other prizes out there which are not customized, like cars and vacations.
  • The best thing about PYL, both then and now, are the whammy animations. Some animations from the original series have been updated with new graphics, while ABC has added some fresh ones. To show PYL has kept up, in the original show, animations included The Supremes and The Beatles; the new show has the whammies imitating the Backstreet Boys.
  • I would love to see some celebrities play PYL for charity. Like have two shows with The Brady Bunch kids. Or fellow game show hosts.
  • Another revival taking me back to my childhood. And this one is pretty good.
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    Speaking of pressing your luck, I did it yesterday and lost big time

    I got caught in two massive traffic jams caused by construction on the eastern side of Interstate 435 in Kansas City. It took 30 minutes to travel from Missouri Highway 350 to Highway 210 due to construction at the junction of I-435 and I-70 near Arrowhead and Kaufman Stadiums, and on the bridge over the Missouri River just south of Highway 210.

    Of course, some idiots wait until the last possible second until merging, thinking getting a few cars ahead will save them time.

    IT WON’T. If anything, it’s dangerous, because it’s more likely to cause an accident.

    Yesterday was terrible, at least after my laser hair removal treatment. Let’s see:

    • I was stupid enough to attempt to handle dry ice without gloves at a grocery store in Prairie Village. My left thumb and right ring finger stung for a few minutes. I’m having other problems with my right ring finger, and it may come to an operation.
    • Larry couldn’t show up at Buffalo Wild Wings because a contracter working on a house next door parked a large truck in his yard, damaging his lawn.
    • Tina didn’t show up to work at Buffalo Wild Wings. Between her absence and Larry’s, I was lonely as hell.
    • The Women’s World Cup match. Megan Rapinoe, everyone’s favorite anarchist, scored twice as the not okay USA won 2-1 over France.
    • Bill, the human chimney who plays trivia every Wednesday and Friday without fail at this Buffalo Wild Wings, showed up at 1630, prompting my exit. Maybe it was for the best; I was exhausted from getting up at 0445.
    • I thought I had lost a cable at Buffalo Wild Wings. The search for a Pilot travel center, where I bought the cable last month, took me straight into the massive traffic jams on I-435, because I was in Kansas picking up things I ordered from Amazon.

    Add in the stifling heat, which is as bad as I remember it from Louisiana, and it hasn’t been good. With everyone I know at Buffalo Wild Wings not scheduled to work tomorrow, I might be in search of a new trivia locale tomorrow–should I want to play. The thought of coming into a place with foreign faces is not appealing.

    I want to cry. I don’t know why.