When Craig Plante, standing behind the trademark wheel on Wheel of Fortune and watching letters appear on screen, correctly guessed “Breaking the ice,” cheers rippled across Crazy Woman Liquors lounge, where around 50 of Plante’s friends, family and — well, whoever else wandered in — gathered to watch his game show debut.
As his friends and family looked on, cheering on his victories and groaning at every mistake, Plante relived the game, which in reality occurred about a month ago.
When Plante landed on bankrupt, losing that round’s winnings, and then when the two other contestants also landed on bankrupt, he cried out, “Three bankrupts in a row!”
When Plante missed what was an obvious answer to most of the people in the room, he grimaced, pulling his cowboy hat over his eyes.
“I couldn’t see it,” he said as his friends guffawed.
For Plante, it was a night years in the making. Ever since he was a kid he’d watched Wheel of Fortune. He can still remember when the host was Chuck Woolery, who strolled on stage with moppish hair and gaudy ties.
Watching from his living room, he’d see contestants freeze or whiff on an easy answer, and he’d think, well, that’s not so hard. After nearly 40 years, he finally decided to throw his name in.
“I finally did,” he said. “I’ve wanted to for years, and I finally decided, you know, I’m going to do it.”
In his application, Plante assumed the attitude of a ticked-off Wyoming cowboy.
“I thought, well, they probably want somebody with some kind of, I don’t know, character,” he said coyly. “And so I said, ‘You know, I watch every night and I see that Wyoming is vastly underrepresented in contestants.’” Plante sat up a little straighter in his chair as he remembered his indignance. “And I take offense to that, because we have smart people here. And I win every night when I’m playing. So I don’t know why I wouldn’t win down there.”
“It was kind of smart aleck-y,” he said, laughing.
Just a few weeks later, he was signing on to a Zoom meeting to show off his skills in mock competitions with other applicants, and a few weeks after that, he got the call.
Plante has always enjoyed word puzzles, and, he said, he’s pretty good at them. He does the New York Times Crossword every day, and it’s rare that he doesn’t solve it.
Why does he like these puzzles?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It just fits me.”
In preparation for Wheel of Fortune, Plante switched from crossword puzzles to the Wheel of Fortune app. In his free time, he googled “long adjectives,” familiarizing himself with the unusual words that could show up in one of the clues. He admitted the preparation was probably over the top.
Yet when he landed in California (alone — his wife was too nervous to watch), Plante didn’t feel any butterflies. He was more nervous about the Lyft ride to the studio than appearing on national television.
“What if there’s some glitch or there’s no one available?” Craig worried before his first time using the ride-share service. “I said, ‘I doubt it. This is LA. There’s got to be a zillion Lyft drivers.’”
When he successfully arrived at the studio (a full hour early), he immediately began making friends — and sizing up the competition.
“I like you a lot,” Plante said he told the other contestants, “but if we’re facing each other, I’m going to try and crush you.”
The contestants didn’t have much time for trash talk, though. They were whisked away for training, then down to hair and makeup, then back up to the studio to practice. All the while, Wheel of Fortune staff attended to the contestants’ every need, ensuring that they looked and felt good.
“All these minions are running around taking care of everybody,” Plante said, remembering almost in disbelief that he’d had scallops for lunch. “I mean, I really felt like — it was kind of neat — it was like I got the star treatment.”
Staff also drilled the contestants on the litany of rules the show has, right down to how many fingers you can use to spin the wheel (it’s three) or how to enunciate when solving a puzzle (walkin’ and talkin’ ain’t it — say “walking and talking” or lose your turn).
Even though the rules were intense, the staff went above and beyond to make sure the contestants were prepared, Plante said. Four people hovered nearby, constantly offering tips and tricks, correcting the contestants when they made mistakes, offering them encouragement when they were nervous or water when they felt faint.
“I was just so stunned by how much coaching and how much they did not want you to fail,” Plante said. “They wanted you to win. They would have loved to have given away millions and millions of dollars is the impression I got.”
Wheel of Fortune films six episodes in a day, about 45 minutes for each 23-minute show. Plante played in the third game, which turned out to be perfect for him, he said. He had enough time to get the lay of the land but not enough time to worry himself out of contention.
The stakes were higher than usual. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Wheel of Fortune was filming “XL Week.” Everything was bigger, including the potential winnings. A lucky spin could net you $1 million.
As his game approached, Plante tried to breathe normally.
“I remember most of the second game, but that’s still a little blurry, because it’s like I’m starting to focus in on me,” he said. “It’s like, take a deep breath. Be natural, have fun. This is just for fun. It’s for some good money, but it’s really just for fun.”
When the game began, Plante quickly found out it wasn’t quite like playing in his living room. Plans to try to manipulate the wheel or choose a certain letter quickly went out the window. With hundreds of lights, a handful of cameras, screens in every direction, a studio audience of around 100 people, dozens of staff rolling in and out, it was “system overload,” Plante said.
Plante started the game hot, winning several of the early rounds. Despite landing on bankrupt twice, he racked up $6,350.
The next rounds weren’t his rounds though, with the two other contestants gaining momentum and money. In the end, Plante fell to third with his $6,350. Second place received $12,500 and first place received $15,000.
Still, Plante said he wasn’t disappointed in his performance or the amount of money he’d won.
“I’m retired, I’ve got money. I make money and I’ll make more money,” he said. “And if I won a million dollars, let’s say, it wouldn’t change my life. I would just — I’d be a bigger spender at the library fundraiser.”
After the game, Plante headed back to his hotel for a beer and a nap. When he later found some of his fellow contestants in the hotel bar, they debriefed.
“We were just venting. It was just like we’d survived this ordeal,” Plante said. “It was just incredible how we were just like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m spent.’ And it was like we all survived something almost traumatic.”
In the weeks after Plante returned home, he couldn’t even watch Wheel of Fortune. It made him nervous, and he started to go over all the little things he could have done differently during his game. But by the time the episode aired, he was back to normal, watching the game again, leading a “Wheel of Fortune” chant to kick off the episode.
“I’d do it again if they let me,” he said.