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Friday, August 26, 2011

"Press Your Luck"

The ice cream man,
in from the heat,
balances in his chair,
squinting into his stack
of secondhand televisions.

Into a notebook
he strategizes,
numbers and diagrams,
divining the patterns
over weeks of work.

He will soon make more money
than he has ever known,
green peeking out
of plywood dressers,
pushed into cups and shoes.

Insulating himself
against his wife
with a turned-up radio
promising more cash.
He just needs one match.

Scanning every serial number
when they read them
over the air.
Thirty thousand ones
from five or six banks.

It's become a blur, this story
passing through his hands,
and every page is
every Washington
that cannot tell a lie.


I wrote this after hearing the story of Michael Larson, an Ohio man who won more than $100,000 after beating the game show Press Your Luck in 1984. He won by carefully memorizing the patterns on the prize board by pausing and unpausing the action on a VCR and stack of TVs at home. He discovered that the so-called random movements of the board were actually five or six patterns cycled through again and again. Armed with this knowledge, he flew out to California and made game show history. His winnings on the show were considered the largest single-day payout in the history of game shows at the time.

Despite his historic win, he soon started losing his money (and his family) as he took part in hare-brained scheme after hare-brained scheme to make even more money. It crossed into illegality when he took part in a national lottery scam. Michael Larson, who no doubt thought of himself as a pretty intelligent guy for figuring out the way the game was run, seemed to have trouble really understanding the rules. In the end, it destroyed him. Diagnosed with throat cancer, he died in 1999 in Florida, still on the run from authorities and estranged from his family. He was 49 years old.

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