Friday, March 21, 2014

Game Show Scandal

I found myself watching two documentaries on two of the most famous game show scandals in history. In fact, besides the "original" exposure (which prompted the making of the movie Quiz Show) these two are arguably two of the biggest and most memorable.
They were both novel in the fact that no one had ever tried to cheat these systems before.

Press Your Luck was a game show that required minimal trivia knowledge and a whole lot of luck. The modern equivalent is something like Deal or No Deal or something of that nature. There was very little strategy involved (mostly with the passing of turns and what-not, but nothing to effectual to the gameplay) and the Big Board was a seemingly random amalgamation of scrolling screens and roving light box.

Or so it seemed.

Michael Larson. An ice cream truck driver. A sinister looking version of Orson Welles and Marlon Brando. He had a plan. He realized the Big Board was not as random as it appeared. Like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, he saw the patterns. He learned the timing. He spent everything he had to get on the show, and dominated the Board, racking up over $110,000, at the time (1984) the largest payout of a game show, ever.

This documentary, Big Bucks, gives background on Larson, as well as the production crew responsible for the backstage happenings of Press Your Luck.
It tells of the aftermath of his landmark run, the reactions of his fellow contestants and the host years later, and features re-enactments and interviews with his then-common law wife explaining Larson's character.
Whether this is the documentary's intended effect on me or if I just get the same creep factor as his fellow contestants did when they first met him all those years ago, but I could see Larson was not a well-balanced guy. Something was off about him. I also watched his interview from Good Morning America, and there's something really strange about the guy. I'm no expert in behavioral psychology, but I do know weirdos. And Larson was a weirdo.
He was a smart weirdo.
Some of the comments on the documentary on YouTube seem to feel Larson is persecuted by the presentation of this documentary. They feel it's antagonistic toward him and they heatedly defend that he did nothing wrong. I agree and disagree.
First of all, like I said, I don't know exactly the documentary's intended effect, because for me, I don't feel Larson is presented negatively. He's not hyped up as some sort of hustler or a cheat. I do agree it's slightly biased, because they probably wanted him to seem cut off from normal society. But the retrospective segments with host Peter Tomarkin and contestants Ed Long and Janie Litras show people who are completely in awe of what Larson was able to accomplish. The producers and crew that are interviewed throughout seem to have nothing but grudging respect for it.
I do agree that Larson did not cheat.
I find nothing dishonest about what he did. And it's also quite remarkable.
Cheating implies that he altered the system to suit his needs. What Larson did was figure out the system and gamed it to his advantage. He altered nothing. He played by the system's rules. The only difference was he found that the system was governed by more rules than everyone thought, and he had to learn those new rules: patterns, timing, and recognition.
And then he took them for all they were worth.

Does this mean I have fewer scruples about card counters at casinos and what-not? Well, first of all, I think casinos are money-making machines so any hit they take is well worth it to me, if it's come by honestly.
I find no problems with card counting. It's a fantastically difficult skill. There is a flimsy argument that comes from grade school where we say, "Well, if he gets to do it, then everyone's gonna do it, and what fun is that?" But the pure and simple fact is, no. Not everyone's gonna do it, because not everyone can do it. These are all acquired skills. People may have a natural tenacity for math, or for rhythms, or intense focus, but this is not something everyone can do or acquire.
I equate it to people being not allowed to play professional basketball either because they can or cannot dunk, depending on which fits the context of the argument more. It just doesn't make sense.
Again, cheating is only cheating if someone is knowingly altering the system in order to give themselves an advantage.
Larson didn't break into the lightboard, set his own pattern, or fix the light box. He played by the Board's rules. He meticulously memorized several different patterns of movement and played with absolutely perfect timing.
I don't necessarily stretch it to every casino game, but if someone is going to walk in armed with the knowledge of counting cards, then you can put in as many preventative measures as you would like, but you can't accuse him of cheating afterward if all you used was one deck the whole time.

On the other end of the spectrum is this video.
Major Fraud - Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
(I can't embed it here, but it is presented in its entirety in this video, and there's also a playlist where the documentary exists in 5 or 7 ten minute chunks.)

Former British Army Major Charles Ingram had already seen both his wife and brother-in-law walk away with $32,000 each on the British version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and somehow, this dimwitted doofus was determined to walk away with the 1,000,000, by any means necessary.
The plan was so simple, it almost sounds like a joke. It sounds like the premise for a sketch you would write making fun of the terrible ideas people have come up with to scam a show like Millionaire.
The plan was to cough when the right answer was mentioned.
That's it.
Ingram and his wife enlisted the help of one of the Fastest Finger runners-up (who remained seated behind the hot seat throughout the contestant's run) and with his help, Ingram made it much farther into the game than he ever should have been allowed to. He had used his lifelines far earlier than he should have, and he was a blathering idiot throughout the entire run.

Now, the documentary is a Martin Bashir-hosted affair, so take it with a grain of salt. I personally find Bashir dangerously misleading, dishonest, and manipulative of facts presented to him. I disagree with his controversial style and find him far too invasive to be a fair journalist.
I also find a lot of the documentary, along with the first documentary, to be seriously lacking in any sort of behavioral analysis (light as it may be) and any more concrete scientific analysis. They both consist of people saying, "I had a bad feeling," and the latter consists of Bashir interjecting, "Listen for the cough!" (Cough) "There." when the audio has already been manipulated to isolate the cough.
Bashir is making a scandal out of a mole hill and I find it surprising.
I don't disregard this in the way that I disregard Larson's Larsony.
This was clearly cheating. And it was cheating on one of the worst levels imaginable. It was idiotic. It's the equivalent of taping the answers to a test somewhere on your desk or something like that. It's just stupid. But nobody had ever attempted something like this before, and Ingram made it all the way to the million dollar question and won.
Is Ingram an idiot? Yes. Greedy? Absolutely. But is this a documentary exposing what is arguably the laziest attempt at cheating that succeeded anyway, or the unimaginably gross oversight of a terrible production team? I pick the latter.
They had no probably cause? You don't need probable cause to stop the filming of your TV show. You're not the cops. You can do whatever the hell you want. They can stop taping because they don't like what a contestant is wearing, but they couldn't ethically stop them because a ridiculous majority of people thought they were cheating? Please.
The documentary paints the Ingrams as terrible people. By no means are they victims. But the production crew doesn't get off Scott-free. Whereas in the Larson case, all up and down the production team seemed bewildered, but afterward celebrated him, everyone in the Ingram case seems paralyzed by damning evidence right in front of them. And they don't have the slightest reason to be.

Both videos are absolutely mesmerizing, though. Larson is one of the most compelling characters ever, and the infinite depths of Ingram's stupidity is like watching a magnificent trainwreck. In both movies, you'll be asking yourself, "How did he get away with that?" but with two very different, emotionally-charged inflections.