The lights glare in the ABC studio in February 2022, and the audience is hushed. Bree Yokouchi has made her way to the bonus round of long-running TV game show Wheel of Fortune and host Pat Sajak is posing the final puzzle. Then the extraordinary happens, and the audience goes wild.
Sajak is astonished. This cannot be happening! It’s unprecedented in the show’s long history. For once, the loquacious game show host is lost for words.
He throws down the card he has just opened and marches straight off the stage. The crowd are stunned. What an amazing turn of events!
You’d have thought that Sajak had seen it all. After all, he’s been the host of Wheel of Fortune for more than four decades.
And he’s really good at it: he’s scored three Daytime Emmys out of 19 nominations, reflecting how beloved he is. It’s a long way from his previous job as a DJ in Vietnam, where he entertained U.S. forces.
Guess to win
If you’re not familiar with the program, it works on a similar principle to the game of hangman. Players guess puzzles with missing letters to win prizes.
Those prizes are decided by making a huge wheel spin. It’s hugely popular: in fact, there’s no game show that’s had as long a life.
The wheel in question looks something like the one used in roulette, except it’s sliced into 24 segments. Most of the slices have amounts in dollars inside them, with the top amount rising with each round. Players can also win prizes, including holidays abroad.
The last section of the game is the bonus round, where the leading player can try to win a huge cash prize, which is fixed by the spin of a smaller wheel.
The show that featured Yokouchi was part of its 39th season, which began in September 2021. That represents a huge run on TV. Sajak himself is a fixture, the host who’s been in charge of a show for the longest.
The previous record-holder was Bob Barker: you may remember him if you’re a fan of The Price Is Right, which he helmed for 35 years.
When Yokouchi’s show rolled round, Wheel, as it’s often affectionately nicknamed, had already been having an amazing week. It had started when Lisa Kramer had taken out the $100,000 bonus round.
Only one other person had managed that feat in the entire season. But she wouldn’t be the last person to take out the top prize.
Nope. The very next day, Mark Baer repeated the dose. That gave Sajak a shock! He shook his head, saying, “Huh, that’s never happened.” The host has seen all sorts of things, but this was unprecedented.
The thing we should note here is that the prize is hidden inside an envelope, so neither Sajak nor Baer knew he was playing for so much money.
Sajak showed his surprise to the viewers when he revealed the prize. Announcer of the show Jim Thornton said, “Mark, it’s like déjà vu; it’s all starting again.”
Sajak laughed and retorted, “You wouldn’t know; I just sold out my entire stock of confetti.” He observed, “Even after almost 40 years, new things are happening here.”
Of course, some people suggested that skullduggery had been involved in what had transpired. But Sajak took to Twitter to put those people right, writing, “A quick reminder to conspiracy theorists: thanks to the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, fixing a TV game show is a federal crime.
I really like our players, and I’d like them all to win, but I draw the line at serving prison time.”
No robbing either
The host went on to say, “Anyone silly enough to believe in things like that cannot be convinced of anything. It would be a total waste of time. I love how one day we’re ‘robbing’ players of their winnings, and then we’re ‘allowing’ them to win.”
He noted that some viewers loved the idea of a conspiracy even when there no evidence to support it, adding, “Best to ignore.”
So the day after Baer, it was the turn of Yokouchi. She’s an accomplished educator, working in an elementary school. Living in Portland, Oregon, she comes originally from the island of Maui, Hawaii.
Not that she’s a stranger to Hawaii these days, regularly returning. Certainly, she was hoping for a few bucks from the show, given that she’s preparing to get married.
Keen to take part
Yokouchi explained how she got onto the show. She said in a statement, “All this started in my dining room with my family every night.”
When a tour bus for the show called looking for people who wanted to take part, she didn’t hesitate to get involved. She explained, “When I heard about the Wheelmobile event in Lincoln City, I thought, ‘This was my chance.’”
Once on the show, Yokouchi started doing well. She got on the board with “complimentary upgrade” to win $1,000. “Schools of colorful fish” won her a holiday in St. Lucia. And she just kept on winning.
Finally, she guessed “Fill in the blank” to score her place in the bonus round, having already won more than $20,000 in a combination of cash and prizes.
So the bonus round rolled round, and as usual the audience was wild. Sajak quipped, “After the last two nights, we had to send out for an emergency shipment from Confetti R Us in order to film.
So we’re back; we’re reloaded; that $100,000 is back out there.” In the spotlight, Yokouchi trembled. Would she be able to guess the last puzzle?
Before the teacher could try the puzzle, she had to spin for the bonus.
The night before, Sajak had explained, “There are 24 (spaces), which means you have a 4 percent chance of landing on the $100,000, just over 4 percent and of course the chances are even higher because you have to solve a puzzle.” So she spun it, and Sajak held the closed envelope, waiting to see whether she won.
The deal with the bonus round is that the contestant picks a category from three choices. Then all the letters E, L, N, R, S, T are shown, and the contestant chooses another vowel and three further consonants.
Yokouchi had the choice of selecting from this trio of topics: a phrase, a thing, or “what are you doing?”
The Oregonian chose “a phrase”, and the blank spaces came into view. Four-three-four, but would the free letters help? Well, maybe. The answer was now --ST --- ---T. The audience was hushed, and you could hear a pin drop. Yokouchi chose D, H, M, A as her letters.
An A turned up in the last word: it looked like a hard one. No one on set or in the audience murmured or moved — there wasn’t so much as a rustle.
But a huge smile was creeping over Yokouchi’s face. She glanced over at Sajak. He said, “This looks troublesome. But I don’t know. With her, who knows? It’s a phrase. You have ten seconds.”
Yokouchi was almost jumping out of her skin, though. This was no problem for her. “Just you wait,” she sang out.
Leaping with joy
“How are you doing it?” asked Sajak as he revealed that the educator had struck gold. To say that Yokouchi was happy is understating it! She started leaping with joy.
The audience flipped out too, loving the winning moment. But the question remained: what exactly had she won? All eyes turned to Sajak.
Sajak went to open the envelope to reveal what Yokouchi had won. Not that she really seemed to care. She was just so delighted to have won at all! The teacher popped up and down like a corn kernel in a hot pan.
The host demanded, “Who’s going to book my trip to Vegas?” and revealed that it was the third $100,000 bonus round in consecutive days!
“I’m outta here”
Yokouchi let loose an almighty shriek. No wonder! What an amazing moment! Confetti fell from the sky, confirming that jokingly prior-mentioned delivery had been needed. Sajak seemed entirely incredulous. He said, “I’m outta here.
That’s it; I’m through.” And off he went! The host just split the scene, vanishing from the stage.
“Heck of a solve”
Now, Sajak did come back! Thankfully, he wrapped up the show, saying, “It’s not just landing on that. That’s amazing enough… But that was a heck of a solve.
Because I looked at you like, you know, this is daunting — and you’re looking at me like, ‘I got this pal, don’t worry.’”
Later on, Sajak chatted about this amazing moment with his daughter Maggie, who also works for Wheel as a social correspondent. She asked him what he thought of the three-in-a-row shock. He said, “I’m running out of words to describe my reaction.”
And he genuinely was wowed by the whole thing. He gave describing it a go, saying, “Stunned, surprised, I don’t know. It’s all inadequate.”
At this point, one question begs to be asked, and Maggie was certainly willing to put it to him.
She said, “So this leads, dear father, to the following question: could it happen again tomorrow?” Sajak had no doubt. He said, “You mean four in a row, Maggie? That would be ridiculous, virtually impossible.”
But Maggie sharply noted, “You mean like three in a row was virtually impossible?” The chances of landing on a particular slice are 23 to 1 — for every $100,000 there are 23 other slices to land on.
Doing it three times in a row is simply 23 x 23 x 23, which works out at 12,167 to 1. That’s a big number, but the show’s been running for more than 40 years! Time enough for a rare lucky streak.
But the three who took out $100,000 are not actually the show’s biggest money-winners. No, it’s actually possible to win $1 million. It’s been done three times. Michelle Loewenstein was the first, scoring big in 2008 with the answer “Leaky faucet.”
Sarah Manchester then won her million with the puzzle answer “Loud laughter,” which was also how she responded to the big win.
The biggest winner, though, came in 2013, when Autumn Erhard took out a massive $1.03 million. Not bad! She told broadcaster NPR that she’d spent evenings giving the answers to Wheel puzzles from her couch.
The practice clearly helped when it came to the real deal. No one has topped her win since.
As for Yokouchi, she was very happy with her $100,000, especially since just taking part in the show was a dream come true.
The lucky winner told the world, “I [was just] excited to be right here this morning. However, to be the third $100,000 winner in a row is simply wonderful!”
So… did the $100K go the next night too? Sadly not. Retired nurse Donna Maine battled through to the bonus round, but she wasn’t able to solve it.
Still, she did manage to win prizes to the value of almost $28,000 including holidays in Texas and Curaçao, so we imagine she would also say her time on the game show was a success.