Winning on the wheel
February 23, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah man banks big on game show
The centerpiece on “Wheel of Fortune” — the famous disk decked out like a pack of Fruit Stripe gum and divided into wedges for cash and prizes — is a two-ton behemoth. So, when it was time for Issaquah resident Steve Pelikan to spin the wheel last month, he was told by stagehands, “Pull as hard as you can and then push as hard as you can.”A month later, as he settled into his living room to watch the Feb. 16 broadcast, Pelikan reminded the 20 or so friends who had joined him to watch the show: “It’s a lot harder doing it under the lights than it is on your couch.”
He had no reason to lower expectations. During the next 30 minutes, Pelikan wracked up prize money and a trip to Ireland — $51,050 worth of loot. Not bad for a longtime “Wheel” watcher who auditioned for the show on a whim.
Games are familiar territory for Pelikan. He’s a writer and technical analyst for Wizards of the Coast, a Renton-based gaming company known for producing “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Magic: The Gathering.”
Back in July, a couple of friends asked Pelikan if he would join them at a “Wheel” audition in Tacoma. When they arrived at the tryout, hundreds of hopefuls packed the Emerald Queen Casino.
“I figured it would be good blog fodder at the least,” Pelikan said.
He was realistic about his chances. The earliest phase of the months-long audition process is based on luck. After his application was dropped into a hopper with hundreds of others, he was selected to play a barebones version of the game against other “Wheel” wannabes. From the clue “fictional character” and 14 spaces, Pelikan solved the puzzle with “The Michelin Man.” Prizes were less than grand: key chains, mouse pads and the like. But the win afforded Pelikan an opportunity to move to the next round of auditions.
Jason Burrows, of Seattle, and Rachel Barsness, of Lynnwood, who invited Pelikan to the tryout, figured he was a shoo-in.
“We were pretty sure he’d get it,” Barsness said. “He’s so charismatic and he’s such a good guesser.”
They were right. Pelikan was selected for the second round, an afternoon-long audition at a Seattle hotel. Only 150 applicants had been picked from the hundreds at the Emerald Queen. Hosts led the applicants through mock rounds of “Wheel.” Then, contenders were given a written test in which they had to complete several puzzles. All in five minutes.
Before the end of the day, producers cut the number of candidates to 50.
The invitation from “Wheel” producers came in a phone call in December. Pelikan and his wife, returning from a doctor’s appointment in Seattle, were merging onto Interstate 5 when his phone rang. When he answered, a producer asked if he could make it to Culver City, Calif., for a mid-January taping.
“We made the arrangements and the rest is TV,” he said.
To prepare for “Wheel,” Pelikan logged long nights at his Mac, playing an online version of the game.
His wife, Victoria Pelikan, recalled “hearing the same sound effects over and over again” as he practiced.
On Jan. 16, Pelikan arrived at the “Wheel” studio at 7 a.m., hours before his episode was to be taped. After some final paperwork, some makeup and a few practice spins of the wheel, it was show time.
“Let’s give away some money,” host Pat Sajak said at the start of taping. “Why else would we be here?”
To mark “Great Outdoors” week, the set was decorated in a lodge motif with a crackling fireplace, rustic log beams and gobs of fieldstone. Vanna White wore a floor-length coral gown.
“Vanna White has the hardest job I’ve ever seen,” Victoria Pelikan said. “She has to smile naturally for six hours a day.”
Watching the episode in the living room of their Squak Mountain home with their friends, the Pelikans described the taping as surreal.
“It really is such a blur,” Victoria Pelikan said. “We got out of there and it was like, ‘Huh, did that just happen?’”
From her perch in the audience, Victoria Pelikan said she was most worried about her husband being rattled by nerves. He hit a bump early on, when he accidentally asked for the letter T after another contestant had done so.
“I’m already rooting against you,” Burrows cracked.
After solving the puzzle “Searching for a four leaf clover,” Sajak announced that Pelikan had won the Ireland trip. At the end of the show, when Pelikan pocketed a $30,000 bonus prize, his wife and mother joined him and Sajak onstage.
As for the prize money, the Pelikans expect taxes will lop off about half of the total. They plan to save some of it. Otherwise, they have no firm plans for the “Wheel” windfall.
“Truthfully, I did not care if he walked out with nothing,” Victoria Pelikan said.
Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.