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Vanna-ty Fare

The confessions of a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ fan.

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By JOHN SIMON
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Let me say, remotely alluding to Robert Frost, that something there is that loves a puzzle. Any kind of puzzle, as long as it makes the solver feel good. His conquest cannot compare with Genghis Khan’s or Napoleon’s, but conquest there is, and the glow of satisfaction.

‘Wheel of Fortune’ on location in Las Vegas (2013)

‘Wheel of Fortune’ on location in Las Vegas (2013)

Tom Donoghue / Polaris / Newscom

How much more so when monetary gain is involved! That’s what’s at stake with Wheel of Fortune. As you may know, the show’s title alludes to the Roman goddess Fortuna, to whose wheel our ancestors were attached, like it or not. At the top, everything went their way; at the bottom, they might as well have been up the proverbial creek—assuming the phrase had already been coined.

That clever fellow Merv Griffin (1925-2007), whose eponymous television show you may have been born too late to enjoy, invented two television shows that still follow each other: Jeopardy! is on at 7 p.m., Wheel of Fortune at 7:30 (or vice versa in some locales). Both shows have passionate fans. Jeopardy!, to be sure, is for persons with intellectual aspirations. There, the contestants must pose in question form the response to clues such as: “Chris Christie is the governor of this state”—which, of course, is important. Or, less important: “This famous English writer is buried on the island of Samoa.” (The latter, by the way, stumped them all.) Clues about the arts are harder for contestants than those about, say, sports. Given the clue “He won the Heisman Trophy in 1947,” the contestants would have no problem responding, “Who is Johnny Lujack?” Their memories are fabulous, and their expertise with obscure facts, ditto.

But not every TV viewer is intellectual enough for that program. Wheel of Fortune, however, is for everyone, whether one is a contestant or merely a viewer at home. What the contestants on Wheel of Fortune are confronted with is a screen with rows of small empty boxes, like a fresh crossword puzzle. They are given a clue, such as “Person” or “Thing” or “Phrase” or “What Am I Doing?” In front of them is a large wheel that they spin: It bears various monetary or other awards—exotic trips or half a car (you must get the other half later)—on cards, and also several punitive cards. They must pick a consonant, and if it occurs in the correct answer, they get what is on offer—say $450 or $900, or a luxury hotel stay on an island other than Samoa. And if there are, for instance, three of the same consonant, they get thrice that sum.

When a contestant picks a letter not in the correct answer, the next contestant gets his or her turn to spin, and some contestants amass a tidy sum. There is one pitfall, however: When the wheel lands on BANKRUPT, the unhappy contestant loses whatever he had gained. The beauty of it all is that anyone can win on the picked letters—the only prerequisite being familiarity with the alphabet—or better yet, by coming up with the full solution when there are enough letters in the boxes.

I won’t go into the various details of how and what one wins, but if you win $100,000, like a recent contestant, or gain a good trip, say, to France or Greece (Hawaii and Las Vegas strike me as somewhat less desirable), you are not Fortune’s fool (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1) and can giggle, laugh, and jubilate with the best.

Here I must point out that Wheel contestants are carefully chosen. Some of them have a husband who proposed on a sailboat or while riding on an elephant. Some have 11 siblings rooting for them back in Alaska. Some are from a deserving minority—black, Hispanic, Canadian—or have various odd jobs in unlikely places, allowing Pat Sajak, the dapper host, to display his whimsical wit. Quite a guy that Sajak, equally capable of offering heartening quips for losers (along with a consolatory gift of $1,000) and a pat on the back, with empathetic gusto, for winners, as he ushers them toward a bonus round at another wheel, where they may win a further prize of anything from tens of thousands of dollars to a gleaming new car standing by on the sidelines.

But what’s in it for us home viewers? All sorts of things. Many contestants carry on like jumping jacks, letting out unearthly squeals of triumph, terrific for earning viewer empathy. (This includes cheers from their partners, when they are playing in pairs, either conjugal or collegial.) But there is also the chance, during Sajak’s questioning, for the contestants to tell wonderful stories about things that have befallen them or what they and their wonderful spouse will do with their winnings. 

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