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 something happens that is extraordinary, 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, no. Retired nurse Donna Maine battled through to the bonus round, but she couldn't solve it. Still, she won prizes to the value of almost $28,000, including holidays in Texas and Curaçao. But she marked the end of Sajak's surprises at work that week. However, that's not to say he hasn't been stunned by a player before. He and the rest of the audience had visceral reactions to the moves of one constant — Nura Fountano.
When Nura started acting strangely, her behavior stumped Sajak, Vanna, and the audience. People wondered why she'd seemingly sabotaged her own game despite proving herself as a skilled player. Did she not know the rules? Had something happened behind the scenes? Or was this just another instance of comically bad guesses?
Odd guesses are highlights of the series, most of the time. During one episode, a contestant faced an almost complete board and the art-based conundrum "S_LF-PO_T___T." Instead of going for the obvious answer of "self-portrait," the contestant blurted out the puzzling "self-potato." You can imagine the audience's reaction to that!
Contestant gone rogue
Sometimes it's not even a case of a guest saying the first thing that comes into their head. For example, during one Wheel of Fortune episode, a contestant mispronounced the Arthurian figure "Merlin the Magician" as "Marvin the Magician." Then, minutes later, their competitor gave the same answer — even though it had been called wrong not long before. But the strangest game of all has to be Nura Fountano's during Veterans Week.
A special week
That week’s episodes featured only current and former members of the armed forces as guests. And it was a cause that may have been dear to the heart of the host. That's because Sajak had served in the U.S. Army before rising to small-screen fame. During the Vietnam War, he’d spent time as an Armed Forces Radio DJ. He was happy, therefore, to welcome Nura to the show.
It started so well
The special Veterans Week shows received Sajak’s full support, and the host said as much in a promo video leading up to the event. The presenter told reporter Krista Knaus, “I think our audience appreciates the fact that these people come on and have a chance to supplement their income.” But neither Sajak nor co-host Vanna White could have anticipated what would happen during that show run.
Let the strangeness begin
The audience had no clue, either — and they certainly couldn't have guessed from how the show started out. You see, the episode began much like any other. Sajak started off by introducing the contestants — Steve Jostes, Troy Smith, and Nura Fountano — and the game proceeded as normal. Viewers at home also got to know a little about the veterans.
Getting to know you
Troy — who hailed from Mount Zion, Illinois — had previously been a member of an armored division that had seen combat in the First Gulf War. Steve, meanwhile, had spent almost 25 years in the Air Force, and now his son was training to follow in his footsteps. And Nura had similarly seen combat during her six years in service.
Wise words before the game
As a system maintainer of Bradley fighting vehicles, the veteran had been deployed to Iraq twice. Since then, she’d moved on from maintaining tanks to providing medical care and had even moonlighted as a makeup artist. Speaking in the build-up to her appearance on the show, she told interviewer Knaus, “Veterans do so much for this country, and you don’t realize it. I’m grateful to [have been a part of] that.”
On a roll
And Nura seemed to be a good Wheel of Fortune player to boot. At the episode’s start, Sajak and White introduced the first Toss-Up challenge for a prize of $1,000. Then, one by one, the letters on the board began lighting up: _ _UR-_T_R _ _ _E_A_ became visible. Catching on to the military theme, Nura buzzed in and correctly guessed “four-star general.”
The going gets tough
Next up came another Toss-Up round — this time for double the amount of the last. Once more, the board began to fill out until Nura again pushed down on her buzzer before her fellow contestants. Making her guess from the letters _ORL_ H_S_ _RY, the combatant cried out “world history” and added $2,000 to her pot.
Top of the leaderboard
With $3,000 already locked down, Nura was sitting pretty in the game’s opening moments. And as the wheel round started in earnest, she seemed all set to continue her winning streak. The medical assistant struck out with her letter choices, though, and this led Troy to win the round with the guess “doing a double loop-the-loop.”
A slight setback
And yet Nura would overcome this slight setback and go on to win the next couple of rounds. With her successful guesses “wind tunnel of love” and “ideal spot for a getaway,” the guest regained her killer game. She even earned a special prize along the way — a spa vacation in Belize. Nice! The audience had no reason to suspect that anything strange would happen.
Within a few rounds, then, it became clear who was going to win the show. Just before the episode’s penultimate round, Nura had swept the board and secured $13,970 in the bank. In contrast, Troy had bagged $4,300, while poor Steve hadn’t managed to win anything at all. Steve was probably hoping Nura would soon win and put him out of his misery!
One last round
So, as the episode entered its last speed round, Nura was the definite fan favorite. And after Smith correctly guessed “T” in the two-letter clue word, audiences turned their attention to Nura — expecting another sensible play. What she said next, though, left folks at home more than a little confused. That was a feeling they were going to have to get used to.
With complete assuredness, Nura uttered the least likely letter possible: “Z.” Naturally, audience members and fellow contestants alike were baffled. For example, Steve — smiling for the cameras just a minute earlier — furrowed his brow and stared at Nura in utter disbelief. He perhaps wondered just what was going on at the other end of the podium.
The host lost for words
Sajak also couldn’t believe his ears, asking, “Say that again for me.” But rather than realize her apparent mistake, Nura instead repeated her original answer. The host asked once again, “Did you say ‘Z?’” But the contestant remained completely unfazed. Nura said firmly, “As in Zulu: ‘Z.’” It really seemed to come out of nowhere.
“You did say ‘Z.’ Okay,” the host said. Still visibly shocked, Sajak turned to face the board. Then — to nobody’s surprise — the board failed to light up any Zs. Brushing off this answer as a momentary lapse of reason, the host turned to Troy, who rightly guessed the letter “R.” Troy also correctly called “S” before it was Nura’s turn again.
Curiouser and curiouser
This time, instead of offering up another bizarre letter, Nura simply declined to answer at all. However, she was at least able to come up with a letter in the next round. As a bemused Sajak turned to face her, Nura decided upon another bewildering choice. The contestant cried out, “Q.” That was another blackout, of course.
By now, Nura’s antics had started to catch on with viewers, and the Twittersphere was full of fans expressing their disbelief. One user wondered, “Is Nura drunk?” Meanwhile, after the contestant made another weird choice, a confused Breanna Sooter asked, “Why is this lady guessing ‘Z,’ ‘X’ and ‘Q’ for this puzzle?” It was a puzzle in itself.
A classic Sajak putdown
However, the best quotes of all were reserved for host Sajak, who responded to Nura’s strange guesses with barely contained mock-frustration. Before the guest’s penultimate round, the seemingly exasperated host muttered, “I wonder what letter Nura will call?” And she certainly didn’t disappoint, answering with the unlikely “X.” Yes, Nura had guessed with Z, Q, and X.
A dramatic fall from grace
As with her previous guesses, Nura subsequently failed to see a single letter light up this time around. Her final turn yielded nothing either, as she stood awkwardly in silence waiting for the timer to run out. All in all, it was a curious performance from someone who had been playing so well just moments earlier.
An unlikely victor
In the end, it was Steve who walked away as the round’s victor. Having correctly guessing the phrase “following footprints,” he claimed his first win of the night as well as $6,400 to take home. But while Steve may have been the eventual winner of the round, it was Nura who gained the biggest reaction. And it wasn't for the reason you might think.
Getting to the truth
Following the eventful segment, Sajak grilled his guest about her intriguing picks. And Nura cryptically replied, “That’s what I saw.” However, the host was clearly unconvinced by her explanation, stating, “That was an unsatisfactory answer, but she’s not under oath.” But Nura wasn't done surprising Sajak, the live audience, or the audience eagerly watching at home.
The final round
Though she’d lost the round, Nura had still done well enough in the early parts of the game to proceed to the final. Her poor performance in the previous round had also allowed Steve to leave the show with some sort of consolation prize. And fans began to wonder if she had been playing a different game entirely.
The game becomes clear
While she didn’t confirm anybody’s suspicions, Nura — knowing that she had already won — seemed to be playing tactically. Yes, in the spirit of Veterans Week, she appeared to be sharing the spoils with her fellow service people. By stepping back from the round, she had let another contestant go home with money in his pocket.
A legion of fans
Almost immediately, those who’d been following the show expressed their admiration via social media. One user tweeted, “Just saw the classiest move on Wheel of Fortune. Nura threw the final puzzle to let a fellow military person win it. Much respect.” As a result, the episode turned into a particularly memorable installment of the long-running show — and the surprises weren't over yet.
A charitable act
And for many viewers, this was the first time that they’d witnessed such a charitable act on a game show. Another well-wisher tweeted, “Way to go Nura! Never saw someone throw a round so everyone could win some money.” Yet even though Nura had seemingly allowed her fellow contestants to win some cash, it was she who was in with a shot at the big prize.
The final puzzle
Despite her sketchy performance in the preceding segment, Nura was back to her best when it came time for the last round. To some people's surprise, however, even with her full attention, the veteran was unable to guess the final puzzle: “by appointment.” Consequently, she lost out on the $33,000 grand prize. But the star player was happy with the near $14,000 she’d already won.
Clapping and smiling, Nura exclaimed, “I’m going to Belize!” Sajak congratulated his guest before saying, “You made us all happy.” Nura’s unselfish actions resulted in one of the most surprising episodes in the show's history. But it had nothing on a February 2022 episode where Bree Yokouchi made a move in the bonus round that threw Sajak so much he physically walked off the set.