Everyone knows about the so-called “quiz show scandals” of the 1950s, when TV programs like Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question got tons of press for rigging or tilting games in favor of popular contestants, which led to President Eisenhower getting involved and Congress making rigging quiz shows a federal crime. Robert Redford in his 1994 film Quiz Show dramatized this little piece of history for America.
To the credit of the government and the major networks, no similar scandal has made headlines since those laws were passed. Still, game shows are not without controversy. Any time there’s a ton of money at stake, people will be tempted to find ways to skirt the rules and beat the system, one way or another—and the controversy over whether these ways are ethical or fair is one reason we watch.
Here’s a list of scandals from recent history when someone made the news for flouting the rules or breaking the system—the true anti-heroes of game show history.
1. Michael Larson // Press Your Luck, 1984
Let’s start with the most famous and epic win in game show history, one that inspired a whole documentary by the Game Show Network in 2003. And one that didn’t, technically, involve any cheating—even though it certainly felt like cheating when the story came to light.
The many write-ups of Michael Larson’s life following his rise to infamy chronicle a man with a genius-level intellect and a bizarre aversion to “normal” methods of earning a living. His wife describes him watching 12 different TVs at once, all day, constantly scanning informercials, news reports, and game shows for get-rich-quick schemes. And he found one, in the form of Press Your Luck—a show built around squares that “randomly” lit up on a large board, some of which earned you money and prizes, some of which took all your accumulated winnings away - called a "Whammy." It was supposed to be about taking a calculated risk about whether to pass your turn and play it safe, or try to get more prizes and risk a Whammy.
The problem? The squares weren’t all that random; there were only five preset patterns that the squares could appear in, patterns that Larson figured out just by going frame-by-frame with a VCR. After studying the light-up square sequences for a while, he was able to visually tell when it was safe to press the button to stop the light and never, ever get a Whammy.
Larson effectively found a way to get free money out of the game show, using only information that anyone who watched the show and had a VCR could obtain. He did so to great effect, winning $110,037 in cash and prizes—in 1984 money!—and setting the one-day winnings record for a game show, which wouldn’t be beaten until 2006 by Vickyann Chrobak-Sadowski on The Price Is Right.
Predictably, the producers freaked out, but after endless reviewing of the tapes of Larson’s performance, they couldn’t find a single thing that qualified as cheating—so they increased the complexity of the algorithm that generated the patterns on Press Your Luck and resigned themselves to having made history.
And Larson? Sadly, getting taught that get-rich-quick schemes sometimes work out wasn’t a good thing for him. He lost his winnings in various Ponzi schemes and died in 1999 on the lam from the SEC, an ignoble end for a giant of the game show world.
2. Charles Ingram // Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (UK), 2001
The version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? filmed across the pond bears the dubious honor of sparking one of the only court cases that required a jury to listen carefully and painstakingly to a recording of someone coughing.
Charles Ingram, a British Army major, won one million pounds sterling in a game tainted by controversy. Accusations flew that Ingram's friend, Tecwen Whittock, sat in the studio audience and coughed audibly after the correct answer was read by the host. Whittock responded that his loud, distracting cough was simply due to hay fever, and coughing after the answers that happened to be correct was a coincidence.
After hours of carefully listening to recordings of Whittock's coughs again and again, the jury finally ruled Ingram guilty of deception. He forfeited his million-pound grand prize, was fined an additional £115,000, and was forced to resign from the Army. Later that year, an insurance fraud conviction pushed him into bankruptcy.
Although besmirching the honor of Millionaire has made Ingram the greatest game show villain in UK history, debates have raged for years since over the actual guilt or innocence of the “Coughing Major.” High-profile written defenses of Ingram have appeared in the Daily Mail and The Guardian. If he is in fact innocent, all we can say is that Ingram is a victim of truly bad luck (a notion furthered by the news that he accidentally sliced off three toes while using a lawnmower in 2010). Advice for aspiring game show contestants: If your buddy is prone to really loud coughing, maybe don’t invite him to the taping.
3. Kerry Ketchem a.k.a. Patrick Quinn // Super Password, 1989
In 1988, Kerry Ketchem—a con artist and fugitive on the run from the cops in Alaska, California, and Indiana for forgery, insurance fraud, and credit card fraud—appeared on NBC’s Super Password under a fake name. As “Patrick Quinn,” Ketchum legitimately won the largest single-game payout in Super Password history: $55,000 in one 60-second round and $58,600 total. But Ketchem was recognized on TV by a bank manager he’d swindled, and the feds got the producers of the show to cooperate in taking him in. When he arrived at the office to pick up his winnings check, an officer stood by with handcuffs.
The $58,600 he won didn’t pay back what he’d stolen, either. NBC withheld the payout, claiming that although he didn’t cheat, giving a fake name to the studio constituted winning under false pretenses. Ketchem, sentenced to five years in prison, claimed that he’d wanted to use his intellect to win money legitimately for once. Advice for any con artists looking to go straight out there: Maybe find a way to do this that does not involve appearing on national television.
4. Terry Kneiss // The Price Is Right, 2008
In Drew Carey’s first year after taking over for Bob Barker on The Price Is Right, for the first and only time in the show's history, a contestant made a “perfect” bid on the Final Showcase, accurate to the dollar: $23,743.
Terry Kneiss, a former weatherman and veteran blackjack card-counter, applied his pattern-recognition skills to The Price Is Right. The show is a slave to tradition, and Kneiss noticed that for each season, The Price Is Right’s final showcase used the same prizes over and over for familiarity’s sake. By watching the show religiously, Kneiss claims to have memorized their individual prices.
Others claim that Ted Slauson—an audience member who had attended live tapings of The Price Is Right since 1989 and appeared on the show in 1992—was the one with the memorization skills, and that he hand-signaled the final showcase total to Kneiss from his seat in the audience.
Of course, part of The Price is Right's bustling, lively atmosphere is allowing audience members to shout out possible answers, and so, even if this is true, Slauson did nothing illegal—even though any game show greenlit today enforces a ban on any unauthorized “audience participation” to avoid this kind of controversy.
In any case, no one from the show was able to prove that Kneiss or Slauson had any external help from the show’s crew or from a wireless phone. Drew Carey still smarts from the backlash to his unenthused response to Kneiss’ amazing achievement—a reaction he claims to have offered because he was certain that the episode would be pulled (once Kneiss was proved to be cheating).
5. Richard Hatch // Survivor, 2000
Ah, Survivor Season One, the most talked-about season, arguably the best, and still the second-highest rated ever. And who can forget archetypal “game show villain” Richard Hatch?
There was no intimation that Hatch somehow cheated on the show, nor, with the show’s ever-shifting series of new rules and challenges, was it clear how that was even possible. But it certainly felt like cheating when a game focused on building popularity was being dominated by a defiantly and deliberately unpopular contestant who openly boasted about how he intended to screw everyone else over.
In the end, it was an ingenious piece of social engineering. When you’re the unpopular jerk who can’t possibly win the final vote, you sit and watch as the popular contestants turn on one another. Then, in the final vote, the popular contestants are no longer popular because they’ve all been betrayed. You never betrayed anyone—because you were never anyone’s friend in the first place—and you win by default. The tactic has been copied many times since on other reality shows.
Hatch demonstrated that the notoriety of a villain can be a good thing, parlaying his Survivor success into appearances on other shows, like Dog Eat Dog and The Apprentice. But then the IRS caught up to Hatch in 2006 about unpaid taxes on his $1 million winnings, leading to a three-month prison term. Lesson from Richard Hatch: Playing the villain both on- and off-camera can pay off, but don't mess with the U.S. federal government.