Fort Huachuca Soldier wins big on TV game show
December 18, 2009
The combination of spinning a wheel, luck at guessing, good spelling skills and a sharp mind helped a Fort Huachuca Soldier land a cash windfall.
On Tuesday evening, Sgt. 1st Class David Kienzl, an Advanced Individual Training platoon sergeant with Company F, 309th Military Intelligence Battalion, hit the jackpot and won $41,480 on the TV game show, Wheel of Fortune, beating out competitors from the Coast Guard and Marine Corps.
This week's, "Heroes Week," featured military contestants, with three appearing as show contestants each night. After 10 years of being registered as a potential contestant on the Wheel of Fortune Web site, in May Kienzl received an e-mail inviting him to the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Ariz., in August, to audition as a potential contestant.
Competition against 99 people and receipt of a notification letter led to his on-camera appearance Tuesday night, and to his big win. "I was more excited than nervous," Kienzl said about his appearance, which was pre-taped Oct. 16 in Sony Studios in Los Angeles, Calif.
"My family was even more excited than I was."
At 7 a.m. that morning, the contestants, in military dress uniform, were shuttled to the studio from their hotel. Prior to filming, contestants were given only four instructions. The first two were to pronounce words clearly and speak loudly so game-show hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White could hear. This explains the contestants' tendency to yell out their chosen letters during the show.
"I yelled, too, according to my wife," Kienzl said.
Their third and fourth guidelines were, be motivated and excited. The game show involves contestants spinning a wheel, landing on a dollar amount and guessing letters to complete a word or words in one of several categories.
For every filled-in blank containing the letter chosen by the contestant after a successful spin, the contestant gets credit for the total dollar amount.
As long as the player continues to land on a dollar amount and guess correctly, he or she has control of the wheel and continues to add to their total unless their spin lands them on 'bankrupt,' 'lose a turn,' or they fail to guess a letter appearing in the puzzle.
When that happens, control of the wheel passes to the next player. Players with cash can also 'buy' vowels. While this reduces their potential winnings, there is no risk unless they guess a vowel not appearing in that puzzle.
Then, the next player gets to spin. The first player who has control of the wheel and who correctly states the word or words wins their accumulated amount of cash or prizes. During the toss-up round, which opens the game, all three players are given a buzzer.
Show hosts name a category, and vowels and consonants randomly appear in the empty blanks on the screen. The first player who depresses the buzzer and states the correct answer wins the toss-up round. There are three toss-up rounds, during the half-hour show, with each one being $1,000 higher than the previous round.
Their purpose is to prevent one player from dominating the game, and giving other players a chance to win money and to gain control of the wheel for the next game. Kienzl buzzed in on the first toss-up, but made a premature guess based on the vowels in the filled-in blanks. While the words fit, there were not enough consonants for a correct answer.
"Leading the way" was the correct phrase.
He said, "Wearing the wig," causing the audience, Sajak and White to dissolve in peals of laughter. The Soldier got his first break during the prize puzzle.
The prize is an all-inclusive vacation in addition to the cash a contestant has won. The category was 'phrase,' and answers typically provide clues to the travel destination. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Barrick of St. Petersburg, Fla., almost guessed the answer.
Given the letters in the blanks, she said, "Ho, ho ho, and a bottle of rum." That answer was incorrect. It was Kienzl's turn. He had $950 and decided to solve.
The Soldier said "Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum," the correct answer.
He won a vacation to Palm Island, a tiny island off the coast of Florida in the Grenadine Islands, worth $7,930, in addition to the cash he'd accumulated.
The Kienzls plan to travel in March. During a later game in the 'before and after' category, his response, "Keeping a stiff upper lip balm," netted him about $5,000, enough to win. "I thought the woman next to me would be the big winner," Kienzl said.
"She had solved a couple of toss-ups and a few other puzzles. I turned to congratulate her.
"Pat [Sajak] came up to me, shook my hand and said I was the big winner. I was shocked."
This meant Kienzl made it to the final, bonus round, during which the player is escorted to another part of the studio and spins another wheel following a commercial break. Before the final spin, the contestant introduces guest supporters. His wife, Cathy, was in the studio audience along with his brother and two friends.
Each contestant is allowed to invite four guests. The Soldier's support group was admitted only a few minutes before taping began, Cathy explained, so she was excited and nervous.
"I did not see my wife during the game, but only afterwards when they shined the spotlight up and I introduced everyone," Kienzl said.
He said during the game, all contestants could see was the used letter board containing the already called letters, Vanna White and the puzzle.
Since the stage was brightly lighted and the audience viewing areas were darkened, contestants could not see the audience. During the bonus round, the winning contestant spins the wheel. An arrow lands on either a letter or a symbol.
The player is instructed to pick up the envelope next to the letter or symbol, and hand it to Sajak, who opens it when the round concludes.
Then, Sajak escorts the player to the game area, and names the puzzle category. In Kienzl's case, it was 'thing.' The contestant is automatically given the most popular five consonants and a vowel contestants typically called by WoF players: r, s, t, n, l and e. If these letters are contained in the puzzle, they automatically pop up on the puzzle board. In Kienzl's case, the only letter programmed to appear was a 't.'
Next, the player chooses three consonants and a vowel. The Soldier chose 'f, d and c' as his consonants, and 'o' as his vowel.
The only letters he had correctly chosen were 'f' and 'o.' He had 10 seconds to solve the puzzle. Just before the buzzer sounded, his guess, "gift box," netted him $30,000, the amount revealed when Sajak opened the prize envelope.
The audience went crazy, especially his supporters, who raced to the game area to join him. Kienzl said they were as excited as he was, all joyfully jumping up and down.
At the end of the show, the Soldier 'coined' Sajak and White, giving them military coins he received from his first sergeant, coins specifically created for Company F, 309th Military Intelligence Battalion.
"Vanna was so happy; she said it was her first coin and that Pat [usually] got them all," Kienzl said. The episode went so quickly, and things blurred together; Kienzl confessed he is still remembering events from October's pre-taping.
He was excited to see the show on air. The Soldier and his group did not stick around after the game. Kienzl quickly signed papers and all left to celebrate. When he told his unit, they were as surprised as he was by his good fortune.
Kienzl has no immediate plans for his winnings. However, after seeing himself on television, with a chuckle, he said he plans to purchase some hair.
When asked if he'd do anything differently when getting ready to appear on the show if he had to do it again, he said, "I would not change a thing."
The Soldier advises contestants arrive early the day before, to get rest and be on time.
"There were three military personnel on standby as back-ups," he explained. "Sometimes contestants get caught in traffic if they drive up [to the studio] the same day as taping and are late for the show.
They have alternate contestants, if needed." Kienzl told would-be military contestants who want to be on the show to register on the WoF Web site and keep their e-mail addresses updated, explaining there are far fewer military than civilians.
"Like me, they should eventually get called," he said.