Last night, a “Wheel of Fortune” contestant named Emil shocked viewers — and, apparently, a bemused, head-shaking Pat Sajak — when he correctly guessed the inane phrase “new baby buggy” on his first try.
Bloggers quickly pronounced it “absolutely incredible.” “The Wheel of Fortune equivalent of a Hail Mary touchdown.” Sajak even called it “the most amazing solve in my 30-plus years on the show.” But while it is legitimately amazing that Emil came up with the phrase in the 10-second time frame — and that, moreover, he came up with it on his very first try — linguistics were in his favor. There simply weren’t that many other phrases to pick.
Tonight’s ″Wheel of Fortune” features most amazing solve in my 30 years on the show. No kidding.— Pat Sajak (@patsajak) March 19, 2014
Here’s a quick Wheel of Fortune primer, for those of you who forgot it survived the ’80s. The contestant gets a category and a mystery phrase to determine, with six common letters — R, S, T, L, N and E — already filled in. He also gets to guess three additional consonants and one vowel; in this case, Emil guessed H, M, D and O and ended up with this:
NE_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
… which looks like an impossible puzzle. But in fact, the first word is a dead giveaway: The only three-letter word besides “new” that starts with “ne” and doesn’t end with one of the ruled-out letters is the obscure “neb.” (“Noun: a projecting part of something, in particular.” Not exactly game show material.)
Once he had “new,” Emil needed only guess which four- and five-letter words contained his unused letters. This task — while requiring a great deal of mental dexterity — isn’t exactly impossible. For one thing, unbeknownst to viewers, contestants get to see a “Used-Letter Board” that shows them what letters remain. (“YES, there is a Used-Letter Board, so everyone knows which letters have been called … it starts with all 26 letters, and they drop off once they’ve been called,” a past contestant explained on the official Wheel of Fortune blog.)
Emil’s Used-Letter Board would’ve looked like this:
ABC FG IJK PQ UVWXYZ
For our purposes, half those letters are useless; Q, J, Z, X, V, K and W all occur in less than 1.5 percent of English words. So essentially, Emil needed to make a four- and five-letter word out of A, B, C, F, G, I, P, U and Y — which no longer looks like quite a tricky puzzle, does it? (Particularly when you already have the first word, new.)
In fact, even when you include Q, J and all the rest, there are only 53 five-letter words that Emil could’ve guessed — and most of them either border on gibberish or are not “things.” Check it out:
None of this should detract from Emil’s victory, of course. Working through those permutations in a couple seconds — on national TV, moreover — is both savant-level brilliant and kind of insane. But let’s give Emil credit for savvy play with the Used-Letter Board, and not for making a wild guess. To quote Chris Jones, writing in Esquire about Caitlin Burke’s similarly “miraculous” Wheel of Fortune win in 2010, “Sometimes, people who don’t understand any better confuse the mundane with the divine, mistake hard work for lightning bolts.”
After all, as far as guesses go, it wasn’t even that wild; other valid options included “New wavy byway,” “new waxy wicca.” “new icky kayak” … and “new cava guava.”
New baby buggy? That just makes good sense.