The biggest game show cheaters

The production of a game show is a well-oiled machine. Built into the process are multiple safeguards and security measures to ensure that cheating doesn't occur. (Why would cheating be so bad? Because with the legitimacy of the show in question, audiences stop watching, and advertisers drop out.) Still, despite preventive measures like searching contestants for notes and isolating the host from the contestants, a few crafty individuals have found a way to beat (or cheat) the system and win big.

Michael Larson

The basis of the 1980s CBS game show Press Your Luck was a giant, light-up game board. Filling its squares were cash and prizes, as well as an animated cartoon devil called the "Whammy." Each contestant would earn spins around the board, press a plunger, and wherever the spinning stopped, that was the prize—or if they hit a Whammy, they lost everything, including their turn.

In 1984, a part-time ice cream truck driver, who was later revealed to be a lifelong con artist named Michael Larson, appeared on the show and had an amazing string of good luck. After getting a Whammy on his first spin and having to wait through the two other contestants' turns, Larson just kept amassing money and prizes. He never hit another Whammy, and by the end of the episode he'd won a record-shattering $110,237. According to Priceonomics, his time at the board was so long, CBS had to split the broadcast into two separate episodes, but Larson wasn't just lucky—he'd studied. In the months before his appearance, he pored over videotaped episodes of the show until he memorized the patterns on the game board, knowing exactly when to hit "stop" and avoid a Whammy.

While that seems like outright cheating, even former CBS Daytime Programming Executive, Bob Boden admitted to TV Land: Myths and Legends, "There was a school of thought that because he had 'cheated,' that he wasn't entitled to his money, but the prevailing wisdom after all of these discussions was that he hadn't 'cheated,' that he was just smarter than CBS."

Charles Ingram

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? really wants contestants to win. (It's good TV, after all, to see a regular Joe get rich.) They even provide "lifelines" such as "ask the audience" and "phone a friend," but those apparently weren't enough for disgraced Army Major, Charles Ingram, who appeared on the British edition of the show in 2001.

According to Vice, Ingram stationed his wife, Diana (who had once been a contestant on the show herself) and a friend, Tecwen Whittock, in the audience. Then, as he carefully read off each of the four multiple choice answers out loud, he'd listen for a small cough. That was allegedly signal from his plants as to which answer he'd just suggested was the correct one. With this ridiculous method pioneered by cheating high school students, Ingram won the million-pound grand prize. The scheme was ultimately discovered and all three were found guilty of "procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception"—in other words, fraud. All three received suspended prison sentences—The Ingrams got 18 months each, and Whittock, 12 months—as well as fined. Additionally, Ingram was "stripped of his title by the Army Board, after 17 years of service."

And just in case you're wondering whether Ingram's dubious coughing scheme was as laughable as it sounds, here's a handy compilation of each sketchy throat-clearing in all their conspicuous glory.

Adriana Abenia

In 2014, Spanish model Adriana Abenia appeared on Pasapalabra, Spain's version of Password. According to The Daily Mail, Abenia's blatant cheating scheme occurred during a segment where she had to listen to a series of song clips and identify the name and performer—and the host and other contestants noticed that she kept looking at a phone she had hidden between her legs. It turns out Abenia had been using the music identification app Shazam to, well, identify the music.

She was called out on it right on the show, but everyone seemed to just laugh it off. The host, Christian Galvez, even said, "To be honest I think she deserves a special prize anyway because in seven years of organizing this TV contest, nobody has ever done anything like this and certainly not quite as brazenly."

In an interview a few days after the episode, on the radio show Atrévete, Abenia said (via Google translation), "I want people to understand that television is a spectacle. I have been many times in Pasapalabra and I want to enjoy myself, but above all that people enjoy. I do not understand that those who go there no longer use what technology puts at their fingertips." She added, "No one told me that they could not cheat, and in life do not take anything for granted. You also have to understand that it was to help someone else. I'm very altruistic."

Khaled El-Katateny

Millionaire Hot Seat is an Australian spinoff of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2014, a cocky 19-year-old law student named Khaled El-Katateny appeared on the show and racked up winnings of $100,000. But after the show aired, he told the media that he cheated—sort of. "I didn't play the game—I played the man," El-Katateny famously told the press after his big win. Huh?

According to El-Katateny, he claimed to nail correct answers to the questions not through knowledge, but by watching the body language of host Eddie McGuire as he read off the multiple choice possibilities. "If you look at it, you see me working Eddie McGuire. I'm reading every single subtle thing about his face," El-Katateny said, claiming he also watched the studio audience behind McGuire to see which choice made their faces light up.

In the end, El-Katateny got to keep his money, because utilizing a poker strategy for a trivia game technically isn't against the rules. When asked about his plans for his "winnings," El-Katateny said, "I didn't win anything—I earned it."

Terry Kniess

The Price is Right seems like a difficult game show to win because it involves guessing the "actual retail price" of items—which never seem to be anywhere near what you'd see at an actual store. That's just a small part of why it's so remarkable that in 2008 Terry Kniess put in a bid of $23,743 during the "Showcase Showdown"—which was the exact, perfect price. How'd he do it?

According to Esquire's lengthy profile of Kniess, the man is an analytical genius, an award-winningly accurate former meteorologist and expert blackjack player/card counter whose natural inclination is to recognize patterns. As such, Kniess observed The Price Is Right from a unique perspective, and he had actually set his sights on the show long before announcer Rich Fields told him to "come on down." Kneiss told Esquire that he and his wife recorded episodes of the popular daytime game show every day for four months, then memorized the prices of all the items used (and frequently reused) in the Showcase Showdown segment.

But host Drew Carey floated another theory: in the audience during taping was Ted Slauson, a regular Price attendee and one-time contestant, who, like Kniess, had amassed an encyclopedic memory of Showcase Showdown prices. Carey and show producers seemed to think that Slauson colluded with Kniess and used hand signals to tell him the perfect price, a charge both men deny. As with Michael Lawson, Kniess got to keep his winnings, because despite their suspicions, the show couldn't prove he and Slauson colluded, or for that matter, did anything wrong other than being extremely accurate.

Jack Barry, Dan Enright, Al Freedman, Herb Stempel, and Charles Van Doren

Most game show cheats are contestants, going at it alone. Not so in the scandal surrounding the game show Twenty One in 1956, which involved the show's producers rigging the game. According to Charles Van Doren's 2008 New Yorker account of the scandal, producers Al Freedman, Jack Barry, and Dan Enright colluded with both Herb Stempel and Van Doren in a carefully choreographed execution of what appeared to be high-stakes game show drama.

After around six weeks of coached-winning for Stempel, the show saw a dip in ratings which was perceived to be due to the unlikable nature of the quirky New York postal clerk. The solution? Drum up interest with a new contestant. Van Doren, a handsome English professor at Columbia University, and son of a prominent poet and academic was the perfect choice. He was similarly coached, and after some staged episodes that ended in ties, Van Doren eventually overtook Stempel. Both Stempel and Van Doren walked away with a bunch of cash, and ratings were up. Win-win, right? Wrong.

News of the true nature of Twenty One broke in 1957 when Stempel, after blabbing to a bunch of New York newspapers, eventually testified to a grand jury, making him the first domino to fall in what eventually led to congressional hearings. According to Boston.com, Congress even passed "an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, making it officially illegal to fix quiz shows," but it didn't much matter, because the networks were so spooked that they abruptly cancelled many of their primetime game shows. The whole filthy affair was later dramatized in the 1994 Robert Redford movie, Quiz Show.

Kerry Dee Ketchum

In 1988, Kerry Dee Ketchum won $58,650 on NBC's Super Password, making him "the largest one-game winner in the history" of the show, according to The Orlando Sentinel. Unfortunately, his victory would be short-lived when instead of walking away with a prize check, Ketchum was taken into custody by Secret Service agents when he returned to the show's offices to collect his winnings.

Not only did Ketchum use the alias Patrick Quinn on the show—the name of a former college professor, according to The LA Times—but he was also on the run from fraud charges in Alaska and Indiana. After his arrest, Ketchum pleaded guilty to "two counts of mail fraud," out of what prosecutors described as "a virtual tornado of deception." He was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. Though no one ever accused him of unfairly gaming Super Password, it's unclear whether Ketchum was able to keep his prize money, but we highly doubt it.

As for how this makes him a cheater? What are the chances NBC would have cast a guy that was wanted in two states for crimes including allegedly staging "an elaborate hoax in which he faked his wife's death to collect on a $100,000 insurance policy?" Probably not good.

Lauren and Frank Cleri

Moment of Truth was a game show in which contestants answered extremely personal questions while hooked up to a polygraph, then wagered against their results live in front of family and friends. One deceptive response, no matter how many painfully true revelations before it, meant zero cash. With that kind of precarious set-up, it's kind of amazing that the only real scandal to come out of the show is when married couple Lauren and Frank Cleri basically colluded to make it look like they were revealing huge and terrible secrets about their marriage.

The biggest bombshells, according to the couple's interview with The New York Post, was that Lauren wished she'd married her ex-boyfriend instead of Frank, and that she'd been unfaithful to him. Except in that same interview, the Cleris admit that they talked about all of the questions beforehand, and were more taken aback at the national headlines generated by their appearance than they were at their supposed marital problems. Their supposed plan was to do what they said they thought was going to be a little-known TV show, then split whatever cash they made from it.

But it's even murkier than that, because in another interview with People, Lauren further admitted that she never physically cheated on Frank, despite answering "yes" to whether she'd "had sexual relations with someone other than" him. "I didn't actually sleep with someone but I thought about it," Lauren said, claiming that she and Frank "believe that infidelity includes the physical and emotional." Okay. The good news is that they didn't actually win a single penny from the show. The better news is that happened as a result of Lauren answering "yes" to the question of whether she thinks she's a good person, which means the polygraph basically said, "Nope. No you are not."

Our Little Genius

This one comes with a bit of an asterisk, because the whistle got blown on Our Little Genius before a cheater ever got the chance to scandalize the series. According to The New York Times, the show that would have supposedly given "real child geniuses a chance to put their incredible knowledge to the test and win cash for their families," hit a permanent roadblock when a contestant's parents filed a complaint letter to the FCC, alleging that "the program's production staff reviewed with the contestant and his parents a list of potential topics and gave specific answers to at least four questions that the child either did not know or about which he was unsure."

In a surprisingly swift and dramatic reaction to the complaint, which was received by the FCC on December 22, 2009, show creator Mark Burnett issued a statement (via Variety) on January 7, 2010—just six days ahead of the show's planned premiere—that indicated his series wasn't about to become the modern day Twenty One. "I recently discovered that there was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production of Our Little Genius. As a result, I am not comfortable delivering the episodes without re-shooting them. I believe my series must always be beyond reproach, so I have requested that FOX not air these episodes," Burnett's statement read.

FOX also issued a statement, saying that the show participants would be paid the prize money during the shows they recorded, but they would not air the episodes in question. Although Burnett's statement seemed to leave the door open for a revision of the show's policies and eventual airing, Our Little Genius ended up never happening.

Neil Tejwani

We should say right off the bat here that while The Biggest Loser may not fall into the traditional category of a "game show," it is a television program that features contestants competing for prize money, so we're counting it. That said, one of the most notorious contestants in show history, Neil Tejwani, gained infamy during the fourth season when he intentionally gained 17 pounds of water weight just before a weigh-in, with the goal of sabotaging an opponent. It worked, getting competitor Jez eliminated, but it eventually came back around to Tejwani in his long-awaited awaited elimination in the final week of competition.

Speaking with People, however, Tejwani clarified that his dastardly plan wasn't for his own benefit, but rather to help keep his original blue team members around as long as possible. "When you are on campus for four months, you don't realize how close you can get to these [people], and the thought of not having Nicole, Kae, or Ryan around for another week at that point just killed me. They brought out the best in me every day and we brought out the best in each other," he said.

The trainers weren't particularly impressed with the maneuver either, according to Reality Blurred, who quoted Bob Harper as saying, "I am so f***ing mad that I cannot even see straight right now," and Jillian Michaels describing it as "f***ing disgusting."

Korilla BBQ

First things first, we're applying the aforementioned Biggest Loser exception here as well, so just deal with it. In 2011, the NYC-based food truck, Korilla BBQ, was eliminated from The Great Food Truck Race—a reality show competition in which hopeful street chefs compete for a grand prize of $50,000—for allegedly "adding their own money to their truck sales," according to The Orange County Register. Most of the challenges on the show involve food trucks competing in different locations around the country in an attempt to rack up the highest sales within a set period of time. The team with the lowest sales gets eliminated, hence Korilla's desperate, if not ill-conceived attempt at staying alive with some bogus profit.

But the owners of the Korean-Mexican fusion truck maintained their innocence, despite an apparent confidentiality agreement that barred them from speaking out in too much detail. Per Food Network management's decision, the team was eliminated from the show after making "an unfortunate decision."

It wasn't until a 2016 interview with KoreanAmericanStory.org that Korilla BBQ owner, Eddie Song, finally cleared up what really happened. Apparently, the team decided to get creative when facing the challenge of not being able to sell meat while competing in Memphis. Thinking they were slick, Song and his crew "formed a little partnership with one of the top Memphis-style BBQ" joints, and ended up selling "two tortillas for $8," and telling customers they could "get the protein from their Memphis-style BBQ partner." It's unclear how that ever translated to them "adding their own money to their truck sales," but either way they bent the rules and got busted.