Spinning the wheel of fortune, winning big bucks

    “”Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!””

    “”That’s correct!””

    Cheers went up from the 3,000-strong audience watching the “”Wheel of Fortune”” taping at the San Diego Convention Center. It was my crowning achievement. The apex of my 15 minutes of fame. It was one of the longest puzzles of the day, and I solved it.

    Though I got through a couple more puzzles after that, it was basically downhill from there.

    A couple weeks earlier, I saw the “”Wheel Mobile”” at the bottom of the Geisel Library snake path. Employees from the local NBC station were holding auditions for “”Wheel of Fortune’s”” College Week, and UCSD was one of the audition sites. I had an hour until class, so I filled out one of the postcard-sized entry forms. One after another, people went on stage to play a mock game on “”Wheel of Fortune,”” after saying their names and briefly introducing themselves.

    The host asked each contestant, “”So, what do you like to do in your free time?””

    Responses varied from “”I watch ‘Wheel of Fortune’ all day!”” to “”I tutor third graders”” to “”I like to get drunk!””

    After the introductions, a short game of “”Wheel of Fortune”” was played, during which the contestants were supposed to act thrilled out of their minds that they had just won such phenomenal prizes as a belt pack, T-shirt or a pie from Coco’s.

    The secret to getting picked for the next round of auditions was threefold. First, enunciate the letters clearly during the game. Second, act really excited when you win a Coco’s pie. Third, pick something more original than “”I like to get drunk”” when asked to say something “”interesting”” about yourself.

    The next round of auditions was held at The Marriott hotel downtown. About 70 contestants from a half-dozen colleges filled the room where we played some more mock games, calling out letters and giving more introductions. Then we took a five minute written exam consisting of 16 “”Wheel of Fortune””-style puzzles. Apparently accuracy didn’t count, since I only got three correct and yet I made the cut to the final round of auditions. My hypothesis is that the show’s producers want the viewers at home to feel smarter than the people on TV, so they intentionally pick some of the low-scoring contestants to be on the show.

    Half of the room was sent home, and the remaining 30 people played yet more rounds of “”Wheel of Fortune”” and introduced themselves one more time. Some really strange people showed up to the audition. There were some cool people from UCSD, but some absolutely bizarre characters from San Diego State. One guy kept yelling “”busted!”” every time someone missed a letter. Another fell on the ground during his game, when he pretended to spin an imaginary wheel.

    I got a call a few days later letting me know that I was selected to be on the show. I momentarily forgot the second secret of being on “”Wheel of Fortune”” — act really excited when nothing much has happened yet. The woman on the other end of the line felt compelled to ask, “”Daniel, you’re excited, right? I just told you you’re going to be on TV. You’re excited?”” She probably thought she’d made a mistake and accidentally called one of the people who didn’t jump up and down like psychopaths during the auditions.

    At the taping itself, we were explicitly told to follow the second secret of being on “”Wheel of Fortune.”” Evidently, it is very important to the show’s producers that the contestants never stop clapping and “”celebrate”” after every puzzle solved. The bigger the celebration, the more pleased the show’s operators are. That’s why I leapt in the air and cheered maniacally after every spin.

    Although the actual taping wasn’t until 5 p.m. or so, the contestants had to arrive at the San Diego Convention Center at 9 a.m. We were forbidden to bring outside reading material, lest we glean some unfair advantage from reading a phrase in the newspaper that could later be used on the show. The contestants were also forbidden to communicate with any noncontestants until after they had competed. Sony, the corporate owner of “”Wheel of Fortune,”” had hired outside security and independent investigators to ensure that no contestant would come into contact with unauthorized persons.

    In the hours before the show, we were mostly kept upstairs in a holding area where the crew explained the rules of the game and gave us free food. We toured the set and got to practice spinning the wheel, which is smaller than it looks on TV, but also much heavier. Pretty much everything on the set is smaller than it looks on TV, including Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

    Pat and Vanna changed clothes five times that day — once for each episode, so it would look like they were spending a whole week in San Diego. “”Wheel of Fortune’s”” College Week, broadcasted during the second week in May, was filmed over the course of five hours on a Sunday in March.

    My episode was the second-to-last, broadcast on May 15. I won most of the puzzles and advanced to the final bonus round. There, I screwed up royally and missed the phrase “”Enjoy the Show.”” But I still walked away with $11,300, so I wasn’t exactly a failure. Every one of the contestants got at least $500. Plus, we got on national television. A lady in the audience asked me for my autograph as she left the convention center, and people honked their car horns and waved at me and the other contestants in the parking lot. For about 20 minutes, 3,000 people knew our names.

    More than a couple UCSD students watched College Week. Some of them greet me with a loud “”Enjoy the show!”” when I walk through campus. That’s fine by me; I return the salutation and call out, “”Eleven thousand dollars! Have a nice day!””

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