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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Was the Wheel of Fortune One-Letter Solve Really a Miracle?

By Chris Jones

Caitlin Burke knew she was right, because she knew there were no other possibilities. She didn't need Pat Sajak to confirm it; she didn't need any other letters, any more time to cycle through her truncated alphabet. With just an innocuous-seeming apostrophe and a single L, she was as sure as she's ever been: I'VE GOT A GOOD FEELING ABOUT THIS.

There have been other great solves on Wheel of Fortune — a contestant recently managed CHARLESTON SOUTH CAROLINA after being spotted only the Ts, and long-time show staffers seem to remember someone solving GREEN EGGS AND HAM BY DR. SEUSS with only one or two letters and that telltale period.

But something about Burke's moment — the mean-girl giggles in the audience when she asked to solve the puzzle; Sajak's speechlessness after she did — better captured the imagination. People watching her clip as it crackled across the Internet responded the same way the stunned contestant standing next to her did. Like that poor guy named Rick, they looked at her, and back at the puzzle, back at her, and back at the puzzle, trying to figure it out: How did she do that?

"There are a million things I'm not good at," she told me on Tuesday. "But Wheel of Fortune, I can do."

On the surface, Burke seems an unlikely gamebreaker: a 26-year-old fashion editor for Hearst Magazines International (Esquire is a Hearst magazine) with a deep love for designer bags. But she was born with a particular talent, and she has sharpened that skill since she was a little girl who watched Wheel of Fortune every night, without fail, with her dad back in Jersey.

Caitlin Burke is an eliminator. And Wheel of Fortune, at its heart, is a game built on the process of elimination.

Earlier this year, I wrote a story about Terry Kniess, a former weatherman who cracked The Price Is Right — a story about the weaknesses built into our popular culture, about the locks that are out there, just waiting to be picked. Burke's boyfriend sent her that story when she was taking aim at her chosen target. He knew that she could find the holes in Wheel of Fortune the way Kniess saw the patterns in The Price Is Right. He knew what every avid game-show watcher keeps tucked away in the back of his mind: They're simple systems, and they're made to be broken.

"I really believe that luck is preparation meeting opportunity," Burke says. "Gymnasts might be naturally talented, but they can always make themselves better. I wondered what I could do to improve my own ability."

When Burke first sees a puzzle, she immediately begins breaking it down into smaller pieces — "chunks," she calls them. Each word becomes its own miniature puzzle. In Burke's case, she was given a couple of leads during the Prize Puzzle of last Friday's episode. The third word was a single-letter word, which had to be either A or I. And more important, there was that apostrophe in the opening three-letter word, between the first and second letters.

Of the few hundred thousand words in the English language, only two — I'VE and I'LL — fit that construction. Which meant the single-letter word was almost certainly A. The first phrase that popped into Burke's head while she hoped for her turn at the wheel — I'LL HAVE WHAT SHE'S HAVING — didn't come close to fitting the puzzle, but it made I'LL seem an unlikely starting point. Because HAVE is the word that probably follows I'LL, and here, Burke was searching for a three-letter word.

I'VE... A... I'VE GOT A...

Part of the art of designing a game show is making the basic and routine seem chaotic and unpredictable. The trick is, most people watch a show like Wheel of Fortune, and their heads begin swimming with the nearly endless possibilities: twenty-six letters and those hundreds of thousands of words. Burke's strategy, her puzzles-within-puzzles way of thinking, is designed to narrow the range. That's why she started with the smallest words first.

For instance, according to the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, there are exactly 101 two-letter words in the English language, but only about twenty of them might be found in something like a Wheel of Fortune puzzle. Nearly all of them, except for MY and BY, contain a vowel. And even on the Scrabble list — which includes words like "ai," a type of South American sloth — there are no two-letter words that contain the letters C or V.

At a remarkably fast rate — "I wanted to show everyone what I've got," Burke says — she can cycle through her shortened lists of possibility. As more letters are guessed and either lit up or discarded, she can permanently drop those from contention, too. Her brain has a one-way valve built into it. Eventually, everything gets distilled, each puzzle boiled down to its most likely combination — two-letter words, three-letter words, and so on. Burke has trained her brain so that the impossible falls away, never to return, and eventually, out of the crowded ether, only a handful of solutions emerge.

A phrase. I'VE GOT A...


She was maybe three or four seconds into her blistering cull. Everything fit except FUNNY. Only a four-letter word would do. While Rick took his opening spin, she frantically searched for that four-letter word. BAD? No. I'VE GOT A... I'VE GOT A... I'VE GOT A GOOD FEELING ABOUT THIS!

She was positive she was right. "There was no doubt in my mind," she says.

And then her heart sank.

Burke thought that if she could solve the puzzle so quickly, Rick probably could, too. Wheel of Fortune contestants have to pass a number of tests during the audition process, including mock games and a "really hard" written quiz, Burke says. Generally speaking, the survivors are good at the game. She decided Rick would pick a couple of letters, fill in a few of the blanks, and then he'd solve it.

"R," he said.

Burke felt a surge run through her.

"Well you'd think there'd be an R in there somewhere, wouldn't you?" Sajak said.

I wouldn't, Burke thought, leaning over to spin the wheel.

She landed on $900 and picked L. "I'm not sure why," she says. "I should have picked G or T, but I think because it was in the middle of the biggest word, I got stuck on it."

She would have made $1,800 more with G or T. But had she picked G or T, she wouldn't have solved the puzzle with just a single letter. She would have solved it with three. She probably would have still gone on to crush the game — Burke ended up taking it for more than $53,000 in cash and prizes — but she wouldn't have become the miracle contestant.

Only it wasn't a miracle at all.

"Still haven't gotten over Friday's one-letter solve," Sajak tweeted on Monday. "Spooky."

Sometimes, people who don't understand any better confuse the mundane with the divine, mistake hard work for lightning bolts. They couldn't pull off that same stunt, and so they convince themselves that nobody else could, either. Her brain can't possibly work that way, that fast. There's no way she solved that puzzle on her own. The game must be rigged.

Or Burke has a gift, and she improved it with study. She practiced. She found the little edges and secrets that make large-size success possible; she did every last bit of the math. She earned her way to her place behind the wheel, and then, on that fateful day, in that particular pattern of rectangles and lights, she saw all that she needed to beat it.

The truth is, she didn't even need the L.

For someone like Caitlin Burke, a tiny apostrophe is opening enough.


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