Thursday, November 11, 2010

TV Puzzle Solver

Last week, Caitlin Burke solved a "Wheel Of Fortune" puzzle and won a lot of cash and prizes. That's not usually a big deal, except that Caitlin solved the puzzle when only one letter was exposed...


How did she do it so quickly and with so little information? It turns out that Burke is a both a "Wheel" fan and an inveterate puzzle-solver.

Anyone who's a regular viewer of game shows knows not just the basics of how they work, but the systems underlying the puzzles, prices, or questions. That's why my wife and I love "Jeopardy!" and sometimes guess the answers just from seeing the category names. We know the rhythms the writers use, how to spot the key words in the clues, and that we'll never be able to answer anything about Shakespeare or opera (although I've been known to randomly shout out "Pagliacci!").

Even with our knowledge of how "Jeopardy!" works, we're not good enough to go on the show. That honor in our family still belongs to my mother, who was a four-day champion back in 1967 when Art Fleming and Don Pardo did the show (the Final Jeopardy answer she didn't know: "T stands for this in Booker T. Washington's name"). The cash she won is long gone, as is the "Jeopardy" home game she received, but I think she still has the other prize, Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia, on a shelf upstairs in my old bedroom.

As for Burke, what she did goes way beyond a "good feeling" or being familiar with the tricks of the "Wheel Of Fortune" puzzles. As a viewer since childhood (she's now all of 26), she looks for patterns and applies word-recognition tricks when she's playing at home, so once she was on the set, all she had to do was wait for her opportunity -- and hope that the contestant next to her didn't beat her to it.

That's how Terry Kniess beat "The Price Is Right" with a perfect Showcase Showdown bid, and how Michael Larsen won so much on "Press Your Luck" that the network changed its rules!

None of them did anything illegal or immoral -- they're not Charles Van Doren, and they didn't rig the game. They just studied and studied until they and nailed it.

Of course, none of them had to ask, "What is Taliaferro?"

Here's more on how Burke stunned Pat Sajak and solved her puzzle.