Game Show Memory Feats

Published on Thursday, July 22, 2010 in , ,

Michael Larson on Press Your LuckOne of the attractions of a trained memory is the fantasy of using it to win lots of money. Today, we're going to talk about 3 men who did just that on TV game shows!

Michael Larson

Who better to start off with than someone who was always looking for a way to make a quick buck? Michael Larson was an unemployed ice cream truck driver who, while dreaming about lots of money and watching daytime game shows, noticed a pattern to the seemingly random lights and prize spots on a 1984 game show called Press Your Luck.

After watching to get a detailed understanding of the patterns used on the board, he then memorized them, got on the show, and won roughly $110,000. That may not sound like a lot in game show prize money now, but in the days where the top game show champions usually left with $40,000 in prizes and cash, it was an astounding amount of money.

While you could watch Michael Larson play the game itself, you'd be missing much of the story. Back in 2003, GSN produced a 2-hour documentary containing the full story, narrated by the show's host, Peter Tomarken. The entire fascinating story is shown below:

Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings, best known for his stint as Jeopardy!'s longest running contestant, is hailed today as a trivia legend. His knowledge of trivia and his ability to recall it when needed is the cornerstone of his fame.

The big question is, how did he prepare for such a long run on such a notoriously difficult game show? For that matter, why not that show instead of another one? In his book Brainiac (free preview available here), Ken delves into those questions.

If you're looking for brief background on what led him to Jeopardy!, check out this Ken Jennings interview from current employer mental_floss magazine. For a more detailed look, however, check out the hour-long Authors@Google interview, shown below:

For those who wonder what he's been up to since his Jeopardy days, he's written several books (including the aforementioned Brainiac and Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac), has his own website, and has even released a board game called Can You Beat Ken?.

On its 25th Anniversary, Jeopardy! caught up with Ken Jennings, and gave a brief look into his life since his championship run:

Terry Kniess

Terry Kniess isn't as well known as Ken Jennings, or even Michael Larson, perhaps because he's the most recent of the three game show contestants mentioned in this post.

Terry Kniess put his memory to work on The Price Is Right on a show that was broadcast on December 16, 2008.

Like Michael Larson, Terry noticed patterns in his game show of choice. In the case of The Price Is Right, he noticed that the same products were used over and over again (which makes sense due to the same sponsors), and were always priced the same. He studied the program, obtained all the prices he could, and used his knowledge to get up on stage, win his games up on stage, and eventually win the Showcase Showdown at the end!

In Esquire's article TV's Crowning Moment of Awesome, they detail the whole story from preparation, through a conclusion so surprising that not even Terry Kniess himself expected it.

Carey announced Sharon's bid first. Actual retail price, $31,019. She had missed by just $494 — a remarkably close bid, since trips were notoriously difficult to figure. Trips were budget savers.

Then came Terry. "You bid $23,743," Carey said through his teeth.

Today, at his kitchen table, Terry says he'd seen all three prizes before. The karaoke machine was $1,000. The pool table, depending on the model, he says, went for between $2,800 and $3,200. Terry went with $3,000. The rule of thumb for campers, he knew, was about $1,000 a foot, plus a little more; he says today he'd actually misheard the length of the trailer, thought Rich Fields had said it was nineteen feet long — so, $19,000. That gave him $23,000. And then, he says, he got lucky. He picked 743 because that was the number he and Linda had used for their PINs, their securitycodes, their bets: their wedding date, the seventh of April, and her birth month, March. Here's their wedding certificate, he says, and here's her passport: $23,743.

"Actual retail price, $23,743," Carey said. "You got it right on the nose. You win both Showcases."

Yep, Terry did something no one had ever done before, hit the price of a Showcase Showdown right on the nose! Behind the scenes, the show became very subdued. The price was so exact, that the feeling was that Terry had somehow cheated. As a result, most people on the crew figured that the show would never air. When it was discovered that there was no cheating, the prizes were awarded and the show was aired.

In the following footage, watch after the bids are made and the show comes back from the commercial. Notice how subdued Drew Carey is? He's just walking through it because he believes he has to complete the show, but doesn't believe it will air:

After the show aired, but before the full story was finally told, there were many people who believed that the show was rigged. He was able to get his story out in this radio interview, not too long afterwards:

The fact that both Michael Larson and Terry Kniess were accused of cheating, despite their legitimate approaches, shows you just how powerful a trained memory can be. Even though it wasn't on a TV game show, I've had the same experience myself of using my trained memory and being accused of cheating.

It just shows you that the use of a well-trained memory is so unbelievable to most people that other explanations are more readily accepted.

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1 Response to Game Show Memory Feats

7:22 PM

Great post! I loved learning about Michael Larson and the 'scandal' from a previous post you did, and the other two were logical extensions of that post. Good moral, too. Indeed, memory is amazing, and people often underestimate the power that is right inside their own head.