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A Wheel Watcher's Dilemma
Chico Alexander

Recently, I got an e-mail from a regular reader wondering how it took so long for a contestant on Wheel of Fortune to finally, after eight tries this season, get a Bonus Round puzzle right. I e-mailed him back, saying that it probably had to do with the luck of the draw more than anything else, but after mulling this over and talking with a few of the guys at the site about it, there's probably more to it than that.

Take the puzzle itself, first off. A short phrase/thing/title/etc. The shorter, the better. Preferably one with not as many repeating letters. "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams" would not make a good Bonus Round puzzle. "TV Guide" would make a perfect puzzle if we were to apply this idea.

Then throw in the letters. Ever since 1988, you have been given R, S, T, L, N, and E - both the six most common letters in the English alphabet and the six most common letters asked for by contestants up until that point - for free. If we apply our previous example, that would mean that you are now given this: T_ ____E. Unless you call the right letters, you're pretty much screwed out of 100 large or that Benz you had your eyes on. More on that later, though.

Now take into account that there are three different Bonus Round layouts. Any one, or a combination thereof, can show up to trip you, so keep these in mind.

1) The single word with not too many letters. This is the hardest of the three, because with fewer letters, you have a decreased chance that there are repeating or given letters.

2) The multiple words with one stand-out letter. Either the letter stands out because it repeats itself so much that if you choose it, you've pretty much sewn up the puzzle, or it stands out because you know what it is, then you can eliminate it from the rotation (i.e. the H in T _ E).

3) The puzzle with only so many unique letters. "Survivor" has six alone. Of those, two are given. That leaves four to choose from. Of those, three are vowels. Choose the right consonant and vowel combo... Boom. You're in like sin.

Those are the things that the writers in all their brilliance can control, manipulate, and basically play with you with. They're sneakier than a great majority of reality show contestants, truth be told.

The rest is on the player to recognize these patterns, and, if they can't, then basically spout letters and hope for the best. Just don't hold out for hope with C, D, M, or A either. The writers are hip to that game, too. So it goes back to that old game show standby dilemma: "Either you know it or you don't." If you know it, then you know how to work the puzzle to your favor, as one person proved by launching a WEB BROWSER earlier last week. If you don't... at least take some time to think about it before you start calling out letters that aren't there.

Let's take the last week's worth of puzzles for example.

Monday: H_L_-___E_. This was after a contestant called CHP and O. She knew that the writers shunned CDM and A, but other than that, she didn't know much. If she did, though, she would probably get _AL_-_A_ED. More help, but not much. Seems like the writers pulled an end-run here.

Tuesday: __OR_ SO__. Same case with Monday, but with KMW and O, you could tell that she was pretty much paddling without a boat. But still, it beats ___R_ S_A_. Almost no further help.

Wednesday: the big sigh of relief. With _EB BRO_SER, she could've gotten it if she replaced C with W, but still, more than enough to secure a win. A sign of good things to come?

Thursday: you tell me. _ALE  __ HA_. Another winner. Seemed like the champ was able to discern "OF" and go from there. Way to play with the puzzle.

Friday: M____ _EAT_ER. She said "Moist feather". First of all, the S isn't even in there. With CDMA... Nothing more aside from an M and an A.

Which goes back to the original question of why people aren't getting the bonus right. Simple answer: they just don't know the puzzle, AND they don't know how to play around with it to get to a solution, which is a real crying shame, because after 30 years (of which Sony will only readily take credit for 23 for some reason), you think that everyone and their mother would get it. It's why night after night, millions are shouting at their screen... and spouting expletives after the buzzer goes off.

Why aren't these "long time friends of the Wheel" getting the patterns? That's another question altogether, but basically, for the half of the players who don't get it, it comes down to this, first said by someone who thought he was Kurt Vonnegut: "Your choices are only half chance. So are everyone else's."

Famous last words, until Pat opens up an envelope and I get another e-mail from a disgruntled Wheel Watchers Club member.

Chico Alexander's a Wheel Watcher from back before every season brought a new gimmick. You can reach him at


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