“Twenty One” may have been the first game show scandal. The out-of-work ice cream truck driver managed to play the game 35 times in a row without ever hitting the dreaded “whammy. But it's like the game where this show is based off of: The slot machine. When you play a slot machine, and you pop the coin in and pull the handle or push the button (most machines have this option), you don't know what will show up when the wheels stop. It's a game of luck, a game of chance, a game of odds.
'Something was very wrong. Here was this guy from nowhere, and he kept going around the board and hitting the bonus boxes every time. It was bedlam, I can tell you. And we couldn't stop this guy.'
~ Michael Brockman, head of the CBS daytime programming department, 1984
On May 19, 1984, before a live studio audience for the game show Press Your Luck, a squirrely-looking, gray-bearded 35-year-old named Michael Larson leapt from behind his podium and squealed with joy.
For the contestant, the show’s catchphrase, “Big bucks, big bucks, no Whammies!”, had just come to fruition: in an era where no single contestant ever won more than $40,000 — not even those competing on the ever-popular The Price In Right, or Wheel of Fortune — Larson had earned $110,237 ($253,000 in 2015 dollars).
And in achieving this, he’d overcome insurmountable odds..or had he?
While CBS executives in the control looked on in horror and disbelief, Larson harbored a secret: he’d cracked the code of Press Your Luck. For months, he’d studied the show’s game board, which lit up squares in a supposedly “random” sequence, and found that, in actuality, it was repeating the same 5 patterns over and over again.
Michael Larson Press Your Luck
What ensued was one of daytime television’s strangest moments — one that exposed the follies of both man and technology.
Press Your Luck: The Titanic of Game Shows
In September of 1983, a flashy new game show called Press Your Luck hit the daytime broadcast on CBS.
The brainchild of two veteran television producers, it was billed as the most “technologically advanced” program of its kind; utilizing cutting-edge audio-visual equipment, it tempted viewers and contestants with enticingly large payouts.
As far as rules and structure go, Press Your Luck was pretty straightforward. Each episode began with the show’s host, Peter Tomarken, asking the three contestants a series of multiple choice questions. Whoever buzzed first and answered correctly earned three “spins” on the “Big Board,” the prized centerpiece of the game show:
This Big Board was made up of 18 backlit squares, each containing a constant rotation of various cash and item prizes, as well as a selection called a “Whammy.” When a player’s spin began, a selector light rapidly bounced around the squares, lighting them up in a seemingly random sequence; the player would then choose when to slam down a big red button, stopping the board. Whichever square was lit up dictated the player’s fate for that spin. At the end of each spin, the player either had the option to “press his/her luck” (spin again) or pass any remaining spins to the next player.
The board contained a wide array of outcomes: cash amounts ranging from $500-$,5000, vacation packages, material prizes (boats, appliances, etc.), “Pick a Corner” (in which the contestant would select any corner square on the board), various instructions (“Go Back 2,” “Move 1”), and finally, the Whammy. If a player landed on this dreaded tile, an annoying animated gremlin in a red suit would come out and reap the player of every cent he/she had amassed.
Many of the cash prize squares on the board also contained an extra spin (+S). Hypothetically, this made it possible for a player to continue on indefinitely, assuming he/she consistently landed on the cash+spin squares — though the show had made certain that the odds of this occurring were nearly impossible.
Of the Big Board’s 54 outcomes (18 squares with 3 rotating options each), 9 were a “Whammy.” That meant that, on any given spin, a player had 1 in 6 odds of losing everything. What’s more, the team that had programmed the board was confident that both the speed and “random” nature of its sequences would prevent contestants from winning more than $25,000. Over the first few episodes, the average winnings hovered around $14,000.
In the words of former CBS executive Ron Schwab, Press Your Luck was “like the Titanic — it was the technological marvel of its time.” Unfortunately for CBS, and iceberg loomed, and its name was Michael Larson.
The Game Show Hustler
Michael Larson was never interested in following the rules.
The youngest of four boys, he was born in 1949, somewhere between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. By middle school, he’d established a lucrative enterprise smuggling candy bars into his gym class and selling them at a considerable mark-up. While tenacious and intelligent, he was always looking for a quick, easy way to get rich.
“He didn’t understand the value of good, hard, honest work,” his older brother, James, later bemoaned. “He thought those people were fools.”
Instead, Larson invested great amounts of time seeking out loopholes and taking advantage of them, often illegally. In one instance, he found a bank that gave out $500 for starting a new checking fund; using fake names, he opened dozens of accounts, waited the minimum necessary duration, then withdrew the money. On another occasion, he registered a business under a family member’s name, hired himself as an employee, then fired himself to collect unemployment benefits.
Throughout his 20s and 30s, Larson only intermittently found real work — first as an air conditioner mechanic, and later, an ice cream truck driver — all the while graduating to more intensive ploys. He began to spend every waking minute in front of a television, watching infomercials and game shows, in hopes of identifying some kind of opportunity to get rich quick.
“He had an entire wall of 25-inch televisions stacked one on top of the other,” recalled his then-girlfriend, Teresa Dinwitty. “He watched them all at once, and it got so hot, the paint peeled off the wall.”
After determining that more popular daytime game shows like The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune were un-hackable, Larson began to focus on a relative newcomer: Press Your Luck.
Using his VCR, he recorded episodes; for 18 hours a day, he sat perched in front of the screens, analyzing every spin of the Big Board frame-by-frame, looking for patterns.
Then, incredibly, he found one.
After six months of scrupulous examination, Larson realized that the “random” sequences on Press Your Luck’s Big Board weren’t random at all, but rather five looping patterns that would always jump between the same squares. He wrote down these patterns, memorized them, then honed his timing by watching re-runs and hitting “pause” on his VCR remote when he suspected the board would land on a given square.
Most crucially, Larson determined that two squares on the game board, #4 and #8, always contained a combination of cash and an extra spin. Since he’d memorized the patterns, he knew exactly when the board would land on each square:
Larson analyzed the board and found that each of its 18 squares contained three rotating options (54 total); then, he found that squares 4 and 8 always offered a cash prize with an extra spin (and never contained a dreaded Whammy):
Larson was ecstatic. He’d uncovered a flaw in the game, perfected his technique, and, in his opinion, possessed the ability to amass a fortune. There was just one thing left to do: he had to finagle his way onto the show.
Armed with little more than the address of CBS Television City, Larson spend the last of his ailing funds on a bus ticket from Ohio to Los Angeles, with the intention of auditioning for Press Your Luck.
Bobby Edwards, the show’s contestant supervisor, remembers feeling uneasy when Larson strutted into the audition room:
“We held daily auditions: one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, maybe 50 people in each session. [Larson] walked up right off the street, and told us he was an ice cream man from Ohio..There was something about him that I just didn’t believe. I didn’t trust him.”
Despite Edwards’ doubts, Larson, an ever-enterprising schmoozer, managed to convince Bill Carruthers, the show’s executive producer, that he was a small-town plebeian desperately in need of a chance to win some money. Always in search of a good sob story, the network agreed: Larson was slotted to appear on the fifth taping of the day, May 19, 1984.
Michael Larson Presses His Luck
On the day of filming, Larson arrived early. Dressed in a cheap suit jacket and a shirt he’d bought for 65 cents at a thrift store, he exuded the intense confidence of a man preparing to go into battle. His competitors, Ed Long (a Baptist minister) and Janie Litras (a dental assistant), were completely oblivious to their impending doom.
When the show’s host, Peter Tomarken, asked Larson what he did for a living, his response was self-assured: “I drive an ice cream truck in the summer and I hope to win enough money today not to have to do that.”
Larson got off to a rocky start. On the very first question ('You've probably got President Franklin D. Roosevelt in your pocket or purse right now, because his likeness is on the head side'), he buzzed prematurely and yelled, “$50 bill!” (the correct answer was, of course “a dime”). For the remainder of the question round, he sat silently, with a perplexed look on his face. Eventually, he finished with 3 spins, putting him in last place behind Long’s 4 and Litras’ 10.
Since he’d come in last, the rules dictated that Larson spin first. This did not go well: on his very first spin of the board, he hit a Whammy. However, he quickly recovered: hovering his hands just above the buzzer, he intently watched the light travel around the board, and, recognizing the patterns, hit square #4 ($1,250) on his second and third spins.
Still, at the end of round one, Larson sat in last place, with $2,500:
In round two, Larson came to life.
During the second question round, he managed to correctly answer three questions, bumping his total spins up to 7; since he sat in last place, he again spun first.
With his first two spins, he landed on square #4, earning him $4,000, and $5,000. Then, over 10 ensuing spins, he proceeded to rack up $29,351 in winnings without hitting a Whammy. The audience roared with excitement, yet Larson seemed unsure of himself. While he was aiming to hit squares #4 and #8, he missed his mark four times during this period of play, unintentionally landing on #7 (a trip to Kauai), #17 ($700 + a spin), #6 ($2,250), and #7 again (this time, a sailboat).
After the sailboat, with 4 spins remaining, he locked into what industry execs have since deemed to be one of the 'most absurd grooves' in game show history. Over the course of 31 consecutive spins, he persistently nailed squares #4 and #8; astonishingly, 20 of them were $1,000 or higher:
Priceonomics; compiled from archived footage
During Larson’s rally, Tomarken, the show’s host, grew increasingly nervous. His quips graduated from shock (“We’ve never seen this happen! You’re on a roll!”) to disbelief (“This is unreal”), to utter disgust (“You’ve got to be kidding me”) — and once Larson hit the $30,000 mark, he started pressuring the contestant to bow out.
“Michael, you really are PRESSING YOUR LUCK,” he warned at one point, wagging a finger in the air. “After this show, you’re going to get a special call from the president of CBS…”
Finally, 40 successful spins and $102,851 later, Larson passed his final 3 spins to Ed Long, fearing that he was beginning to lose focus. On his very first spin, Long hit a Whammy and lost all of his cash. When the spins were passed to Litras, she too hit a Whammy on her first try. In the hopes that Larson would screw up and lose his cash, she then passed the spins back to him, but Larson did not falter. Instead, he landed $4,750 and a trip to the Bahamas.
When the game ended, Larson raised his arms in triumph and emitted a primal scream: he had secured $104,950 in cash, a sailboat ($1,015), and two all-inclusive trips, which brought his total winnings to $110,237. Ed Long distantly trailed in second place with $11,516 (which he'd earned in a prior episode as a returning champion), and Janie Litras left with $0.
Larson had made a fool of CBS: He'd spun the show's board 47 times. He’d won more than any other daytime game show contestant in history. And he’d done so by finding an inherent flaw in television’s most “technologically impressive” game board.
While Larson celebrated on stage, the powers that be at CBS sat dumbfounded and deflated.
“I wasn’t there that day, but boy did I hear about it,” Bob Boden, a former executive at CBS Daytime Programming, later told TVLand. “It went through the hallways of CBS like a rocket.”
Darlene Lieblich Tipton was in the Press Your Luck control room that day. As a CBS employee, it was her job to ensure that contestants were playing by the rules. In an interview with This American Life, she recalled the mounting tension backstage:
“It wasn’t unusual for contestants to go on streaks. It was kind of the way the game was designed. But after about 10 spins of the board, it started to become obvious that he was hitting same prize in same square every time. And that’s skill — it’s not random, and it’s not luck. He could aim and hit, which we didn’t think was possible. First, the booth got very quiet, then there was an, ‘OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, what do we do?!’ People were turning to me saying, ‘Can we stop this?’”
Statistically, it was extremely unlikely that Larson had simply gotten lucky. Given the 1 in 6 odds of hitting a “Whammy,” the probability of going 45 spins in a row without hitting one was (5/6)^45, or .027%. Larson had beat odds of roughly 3 out of 10,000.
Despite this, Tipton saw nothing illegal in Larson’s play: he wasn’t visibly breaking any rules, and she could do nothing but helplessly stand by and watch him dominate the show.
The following day, CBS launched a full out investigation. Nearly every department head at the network gathered in a musty room and reviewed the tape frame-by-frame — just as Larson had done on his VCR with Press Your Luck episodes. However, even after this review, they could find no faults in his method. “He fit every criteria,” one executive told GSN. “He had not broken any rules of the game, he had played fairly, and he was an eligible contestant. We paid him his money..he was simply smarter than CBS.”
After Larson’s win, the “Big Board” was re-programmed: its 5 “random” patterns were expanded to 32, and the control panel was replaced by a PC running a far superior randomizer. Larson's streak had gone on so long that CBS had to split the airing into two half-hour segments; the network was so thoroughly embarrassed by the board's flaw that they only aired the episodes once.
In September of 1986, just two years after Larson's Press Your Luck appearance, the showwas cancelled. How to convert exe to dmg file.
The Champion’s Downfall
Newly minted with around $90,000 in post-tax earnings, Larson initially indicated that he was ready to turn his life around and be more responsible. “I tried to get him to look at some reasonable investments,” his brother, James, told a reporter. “He put it in the bank..and for some time, was doing the right thing.”
But a few months later, while listening to the radio, Larson heard about a contest he just couldn’t resist: the show read a serial number on air every day, and if a listener could match that number to a $1 bill, he would win $30,000.
Larson visited five different banks, withdrawing nearly $50,000 in $1 bills. Then, over the course of two weeks, he analyzed every bill in hopes of winning. A match never came, and Larson, who’d grown lazy by then, resolved to just leave the bills in his home. This didn’t work out too well: one night, he left to Christmas party and came home to a kicked-in back door. All the money was gone.
This was the beginning of Larson’s downward spiral. Teresa Dinwitty, then Larson’s common-law wife, recalls then that aggression mounted to such a level that she feared for her life. She fled with her children and demanded Larson leave her house.
Eventually, Larson moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he assumed a role as an assistant manager at Walmart, but this didn’t last long. He grew disillusioned with his minimal pay and, after meeting another woman, launched his next venture: a massive Ponzi scheme. Under the name “Pleasure Time Incorporated,” Larson sold shares in a non-existent American-Indian Lottery, and, by the mid-1990s, he’d managed to cheat 20,000 investors out of $3 million. With the SEC, IRS, and FBI hot on his tail, he fled Ohio and disappeared into the void.
When investigators finally tracked Larson to Apopka, Florida in 1999, he’d succumbed to throat cancer.
“Winning that game show was the start of [Michael’s] downfall,” Larson’s brother, James, would later say. “It made him think he could trick anybody, and do just about anything he pleased.”
Peter Tomarken Press Your Luck Scandal
But it was also a feat that brought out the best in a man who was otherwise a delinquent: Recognizing the board’s flaws required keen observation skills. Mastering the timing of the generator took a unique combination of patience, dedication, and can-do mentality. And performing under pressure in front of a live studio audience demanded a special breed of composure.
In many ways, “gaming” Press Your Luck was the most honest endeavor Michael Larson ever undertook.
For our next post, we explore the probability of marrying a co-worker. To get notified when we post it → join our email list. An earlier version of this post first appeared September 14, 2015.
Note: Priceonomics can help your company get better at creating content marketing that actually performs. Software, training and content creation services from Priceonomics. Starting at just $49 / month.
The production of a game show is a well-oiled machine. Built into the process are multiple safeguards and security measures to ensure that cheating doesn't occur. (Why would cheating be so bad? Because with the legitimacy of the show in question, audiences stop watching, and advertisers drop out.) Still, despite preventive measures like searching contestants for notes and isolating the host from the contestants, a few crafty individuals have found a way to beat (or cheat) the system and win big.
The basis of the 1980s CBS game show Press Your Luck was a giant, light-up game board. Filling its squares were cash and prizes, as well as an animated cartoon devil called the 'Whammy.' Each contestant would earn spins around the board, press a plunger, and wherever the spinning stopped, that was the prize—or if they hit a Whammy, they lost everything, including their turn.
In 1984, a part-time ice cream truck driver, who was later revealed to be a lifelong con artist named Michael Larson, appeared on the show and had an amazing string of good luck. After getting a Whammy on his first spin and having to wait through the two other contestants' turns, Larson just kept amassing money and prizes. He never hit another Whammy, and by the end of the episode he'd won a record-shattering $110,237. According to Priceonomics, his time at the board was so long, CBS had to split the broadcast into two separate episodes, but Larson wasn't just lucky—he'd studied. In the months before his appearance, he pored over videotaped episodes of the show until he memorized the patterns on the game board, knowing exactly when to hit 'stop' and avoid a Whammy.
While that seems like outright cheating, even former CBS Daytime Programming Executive, Bob Boden admitted to TV Land: Myths and Legends, 'There was a school of thought that because he had 'cheated,' that he wasn't entitled to his money, but the prevailing wisdom after all of these discussions was that he hadn't 'cheated,' that he was just smarter than CBS.'
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? really wants contestants to win. (It's good TV, after all, to see a regular Joe get rich.) They even provide 'lifelines' such as 'ask the audience' and 'phone a friend,' but those apparently weren't enough for disgraced Army Major, Charles Ingram, who appeared on the British edition of the show in 2001.
According to Vice, Ingram stationed his wife, Diana (who had once been a contestant on the show herself) and a friend, Tecwen Whittock, in the audience. Then, as he carefully read off each of the four multiple choice answers out loud, he'd listen for a small cough. That was allegedly signal from his plants as to which answer he'd just suggested was the correct one. With this ridiculous method pioneered by cheating high school students, Ingram won the million-pound grand prize. The scheme was ultimately discovered and all three were found guilty of 'procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception'—in other words, fraud. All three received suspended prison sentences—The Ingrams got 18 months each, and Whittock, 12 months—as well as fined. Additionally, Ingram was 'stripped of his title by the Army Board, after 17 years of service.'
And just in case you're wondering whether Ingram's dubious coughing scheme was as laughable as it sounds, here's a handy compilation of each sketchy throat-clearing in all their conspicuous glory.
In 2014, Spanish model Adriana Abenia appeared on Pasapalabra, Spain's version of Password. According to The Daily Mail, Abenia's blatant cheating scheme occurred during a segment where she had to listen to a series of song clips and identify the name and performer—and the host and other contestants noticed that she kept looking at a phone she had hidden between her legs. It turns out Abenia had been using the music identification app Shazam to, well, identify the music.
She was called out on it right on the show, but everyone seemed to just laugh it off. The host, Christian Galvez, even said, 'To be honest I think she deserves a special prize anyway because in seven years of organizing this TV contest, nobody has ever done anything like this and certainly not quite as brazenly.'
In an interview a few days after the episode, on the radio show Atrévete, Abenia said (via Google translation), 'I want people to understand that television is a spectacle. I have been many times in Pasapalabra and I want to enjoy myself, but above all that people enjoy. I do not understand that those who go there no longer use what technology puts at their fingertips.' She added, 'No one told me that they could not cheat, and in life do not take anything for granted. You also have to understand that it was to help someone else. I'm very altruistic.'
Millionaire Hot Seat is an Australian spinoff of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2014, a cocky 19-year-old law student named Khaled El-Katateny appeared on the show and racked up winnings of $100,000. But after the show aired, he told the media that he cheated—sort of. 'I didn't play the game—I played the man,' El-Katateny famously told the press after his big win. Huh?
According to El-Katateny, he claimed to nail correct answers to the questions not through knowledge, but by watching the body language of host Eddie McGuire as he read off the multiple choice possibilities. 'If you look at it, you see me working Eddie McGuire. I'm reading every single subtle thing about his face,' El-Katateny said, claiming he also watched the studio audience behind McGuire to see which choice made their faces light up.
In the end, El-Katateny got to keep his money, because utilizing a poker strategy for a trivia game technically isn't against the rules. When asked about his plans for his 'winnings,' El-Katateny said, 'I didn't win anything—I earned it.'
The Price is Right seems like a difficult game show to win because it involves guessing the 'actual retail price' of items—which never seem to be anywhere near what you'd see at an actual store. That's just a small part of why it's so remarkable that in 2008 Terry Kniess put in a bid of $23,743 during the 'Showcase Showdown'—which was the exact, perfect price. How'd he do it?
According to Esquire's lengthy profile of Kniess, the man is an analytical genius, an award-winningly accurate former meteorologist and expert blackjack player/card counter whose natural inclination is to recognize patterns. As such, Kniess observed The Price Is Right from a unique perspective, and he had actually set his sights on the show long before announcer Rich Fields told him to 'come on down.' Kneiss told Esquire that he and his wife recorded episodes of the popular daytime game show every day for four months, then memorized the prices of all the items used (and frequently reused) in the Showcase Showdown segment.
But host Drew Carey floated another theory: in the audience during taping was Ted Slauson, a regular Price attendee and one-time contestant, who, like Kniess, had amassed an encyclopedic memory of Showcase Showdown prices. Carey and show producers seemed to think that Slauson colluded with Kniess and used hand signals to tell him the perfect price, a charge both men deny. As with Michael Lawson, Kniess got to keep his winnings, because despite their suspicions, the show couldn't prove he and Slauson colluded, or for that matter, did anything wrong other than being extremely accurate.
Jack Barry, Dan Enright, Al Freedman, Herb Stempel, and Charles Van Doren
Most game show cheats are contestants, going at it alone. Not so in the scandal surrounding the game show Twenty One in 1956, which involved the show's producers rigging the game. According to Charles Van Doren's 2008 New Yorker account of the scandal, producers Al Freedman, Jack Barry, and Dan Enright colluded with both Herb Stempel and Van Doren in a carefully choreographed execution of what appeared to be high-stakes game show drama.
After around six weeks of coached-winning for Stempel, the show saw a dip in ratings which was perceived to be due to the unlikable nature of the quirky New York postal clerk. The solution? Drum up interest with a new contestant. Van Doren, a handsome English professor at Columbia University, and son of a prominent poet and academic was the perfect choice. He was similarly coached, and after some staged episodes that ended in ties, Van Doren eventually overtook Stempel. Both Stempel and Van Doren walked away with a bunch of cash, and ratings were up. Win-win, right? Wrong.
News of the true nature of Twenty One broke in 1957 when Stempel, after blabbing to a bunch of New York newspapers, eventually testified to a grand jury, making him the first domino to fall in what eventually led to congressional hearings. According to Boston.com, Congress even passed 'an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, making it officially illegal to fix quiz shows,' but it didn't much matter, because the networks were so spooked that they abruptly cancelled many of their primetime game shows. The whole filthy affair was later dramatized in the 1994 Robert Redford movie, Quiz Show.
Kerry Dee Ketchum
In 1988, Kerry Dee Ketchum won $58,650 on NBC's Super Password, making him 'the largest one-game winner in the history' of the show, according to The Orlando Sentinel. Unfortunately, his victory would be short-lived when instead of walking away with a prize check, Ketchum was taken into custody by Secret Service agents when he returned to the show's offices to collect his winnings.
Not only did Ketchum use the alias Patrick Quinn on the show—the name of a former college professor, according to The LA Times—but he was also on the run from fraud charges in Alaska and Indiana. After his arrest, Ketchum pleaded guilty to 'two counts of mail fraud,' out of what prosecutors described as 'a virtual tornado of deception.' He was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. Though no one ever accused him of unfairly gaming Super Password, it's unclear whether Ketchum was able to keep his prize money, but we highly doubt it.
As for how this makes him a cheater? What are the chances NBC would have cast a guy that was wanted in two states for crimes including allegedly staging 'an elaborate hoax in which he faked his wife's death to collect on a $100,000 insurance policy?' Probably not good.
Lauren and Frank Cleri
Moment of Truth was a game show in which contestants answered extremely personal questions while hooked up to a polygraph, then wagered against their results live in front of family and friends. One deceptive response, no matter how many painfully true revelations before it, meant zero cash. With that kind of precarious set-up, it's kind of amazing that the only real scandal to come out of the show is when married couple Lauren and Frank Cleri basically colluded to make it look like they were revealing huge and terrible secrets about their marriage.
The biggest bombshells, according to the couple's interview with The New York Post, was that Lauren wished she'd married her ex-boyfriend instead of Frank, and that she'd been unfaithful to him. Except in that same interview, the Cleris admit that they talked about all of the questions beforehand, and were more taken aback at the national headlines generated by their appearance than they were at their supposed marital problems. Their supposed plan was to do what they said they thought was going to be a little-known TV show, then split whatever cash they made from it.
But it's even murkier than that, because in another interview with People, Lauren further admitted that she never physically cheated on Frank, despite answering 'yes' to whether she'd 'had sexual relations with someone other than' him. 'I didn't actually sleep with someone but I thought about it,' Lauren said, claiming that she and Frank 'believe that infidelity includes the physical and emotional.' Okay. The good news is that they didn't actually win a single penny from the show. The better news is that happened as a result of Lauren answering 'yes' to the question of whether she thinks she's a good person, which means the polygraph basically said, 'Nope. No you are not.'
Our Little Genius
This one comes with a bit of an asterisk, because the whistle got blown on Our Little Genius before a cheater ever got the chance to scandalize the series. According to The New York Times, the show that would have supposedly given 'real child geniuses a chance to put their incredible knowledge to the test and win cash for their families,' hit a permanent roadblock when a contestant's parents filed a complaint letter to the FCC, alleging that 'the program's production staff reviewed with the contestant and his parents a list of potential topics and gave specific answers to at least four questions that the child either did not know or about which he was unsure.'
In a surprisingly swift and dramatic reaction to the complaint, which was received by the FCC on December 22, 2009, show creator Mark Burnett issued a statement (via Variety) on January 7, 2010—just six days ahead of the show's planned premiere—that indicated his series wasn't about to become the modern day Twenty One. 'I recently discovered that there was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production of Our Little Genius. As a result, I am not comfortable delivering the episodes without re-shooting them. I believe my series must always be beyond reproach, so I have requested that FOX not air these episodes,' Burnett's statement read.
FOX also issued a statement, saying that the show participants would be paid the prize money during the shows they recorded, but they would not air the episodes in question. Although Burnett's statement seemed to leave the door open for a revision of the show's policies and eventual airing, Our Little Genius ended up never happening.
We should say right off the bat here that while The Biggest Loser may not fall into the traditional category of a 'game show,' it is a television program that features contestants competing for prize money, so we're counting it. That said, one of the most notorious contestants in show history, Neil Tejwani, gained infamy during the fourth season when he intentionally gained 17 pounds of water weight just before a weigh-in, with the goal of sabotaging an opponent. It worked, getting competitor Jez eliminated, but it eventually came back around to Tejwani in his long-awaited elimination in the final week of competition.
Speaking with People, however, Tejwani clarified that his dastardly plan wasn't for his own benefit, but rather to help keep his original blue team members around as long as possible. 'When you are on campus for four months, you don't realize how close you can get to these [people], and the thought of not having Nicole, Kae, or Ryan around for another week at that point just killed me. They brought out the best in me every day and we brought out the best in each other,' he said.
The trainers weren't particularly impressed with the maneuver either, according to Reality Blurred, who quoted Bob Harper as saying, 'I am so f***ing mad that I cannot even see straight right now,' and Jillian Michaels describing it as 'f***ing disgusting.'
First things first, we're applying the aforementioned Biggest Loser exception here as well, so just deal with it. In 2011, the NYC-based food truck, Korilla BBQ, was eliminated from The Great Food Truck Race—a reality show competition in which hopeful street chefs compete for a grand prize of $50,000—for allegedly 'adding their own money to their truck sales,' according to The Orange County Register. Most of the challenges on the show involve food trucks competing in different locations around the country in an attempt to rack up the highest sales within a set period of time. The team with the lowest sales gets eliminated, hence Korilla's desperate, if not ill-conceived attempt at staying alive with some bogus profit.
But the owners of the Korean-Mexican fusion truck maintained their innocence, despite an apparent confidentiality agreement that barred them from speaking out in too much detail. Per Food Network management's decision, the team was eliminated from the show after making 'an unfortunate decision.'
It wasn't until a 2016 interview with KoreanAmericanStory.org that Korilla BBQ owner, Eddie Song, finally cleared up what really happened. Apparently, the team decided to get creative when facing the challenge of not being able to sell meat while competing in Memphis. Thinking they were slick, Song and his crew 'formed a little partnership with one of the top Memphis-style BBQ' joints, and ended up selling 'two tortillas for $8,' and telling customers they could 'get the protein from their Memphis-style BBQ partner.' It's unclear how that ever translated to them 'adding their own money to their truck sales,' but either way they bent the rules and got busted.