Competitors on game shows are generally in it to win – especially when there’s a big cash prize on offer. So, when Nura Fountano made peculiar plays in Wheel of Fortune’s final speed round, her behavior left viewers stumped. Why the heck would she sabotage her own game? Did she want the social media blowback or a snarky comment from Pat Sajak? Well, no. And, eventually, fans of the show realized the heartwarming reason for the army veteran’s weird letter picks.
Yes, Fountano knew what she was doing – even if it didn’t seem like it. And you probably know how to play Wheel of Fortune, too. After all, the hit series has been a staple of NBC’s lineup for 45 years now. It’s even been recognized as the U.S.’ longest-airing game show in syndication.
And considering its creator’s track record, Wheel of Fortune was almost guaranteed to be a sure-fire ratings winner. You see, Merv Griffin had already created the mega-hit Jeopardy! for the network just 11 years beforehand. That’s right: both shows were launched by the same guy. Quite a legacy!
But perhaps Wheel of Fortune’s popularity can be partly chalked up to its simplicity – meaning anyone from kids to seniors can play along at home. Even Fountano recognized how it all worked before she started going off the rails. Basically, in case you didn’t already know, each episode features three contestants calling out letters in an attempt to fill out blanked-out words or phrases. And the player who correctly guesses a saying wins the round.
Still, there is some element of strategy to the game. That comes by way of the eponymous wheel, which is placed in the middle of the playing area. Before their turn, a contestant must spin the wheel roulette style, and the segment the arrow eventually lands on determines how much prize money they will receive for a correct guess. The player lucky enough to win the episode will also earn their accumulated cash total.
The rules sound simple enough, right? Well, over the many years that Wheel of Fortune has been on the air, the show has seen its fair share of strange guesses – much like the ones Fountano made. And whether it’s down to the high stakes or the pressure of being on television, some guests have found it remarkably difficult to pick logical answers.
In many cases, these odd guesses have become highlights of the series. And here’s a real doozy of an example. On one show, a contestant was faced with an almost complete board and the art-based conundrum “S_LF-PO_T___T.” Instead of going for the obvious answer of “self-portrait,” though, the contestant blurted out the puzzling “self-potato.”
Sometimes it’s not even a case of a guest saying the first thing that comes into their head. 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 – despite the fact that it had been called wrong not long ago.
These blunders and others like them have inspired a litany of parodies. South Park even based an entire episode around one of its characters making an offensive incorrect guess on the show. And then there’s a segment on Family Guy that sees Peter Griffin give obviously wrong letters – including a Z, three Qs and a Batman symbol – before going on to correctly guess the answer anyway.
But though Wheel of Fortune has its fair share of hilarious moments, it’s not afraid to get serious. A special April’s Fool Day episode in 1997 replaced the show’s usual hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White with none other than Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek. In place of their regular guests, both presenters played the game for charity.
And that’s not all the show has done for good causes. As part of Veterans Week 2015, Wheel of Fortune’s producers decided to embark on something special. In honor of the contribution made to America by its servicemen and women, the show would have a military theme. The week’s episodes would feature only current and former members of the armed forces as guests, too.
And it was a cause that may have been dear to the heart of the host. Yes, before rising to small-screen fame, Sajak had served in the U.S. Army. During the Vietnam War, he’d spent time as an Armed Forces Radio DJ.
The star has since gone on to work with the National Vietnam Veterans Committee. And it’s clear that he holds a lot of respect for those who served in the conflict. “The reality is that the Vietnam veterans compiled an outstanding record of courage, service, and patriotism,” he wrote on the American Veterans Center’s website in 2014. “They should be proud of their record, and we should be proud of them.”
The special Veterans Week shows received Sajak’s full support, then. 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.”
Co-host White was similarly humbled by the opportunity to help some heroes. The star explained of the Veterans Week specials, “I think it’s a tribute to our veterans. They do so much for our country, and it’s our way of giving back, shall we say. Thank you so much for all that you do. We are just so grateful.”
But neither Sajak nor White could have anticipated what was going to happen during that run of shows. The audience had no clue, either – at least, to begin with. You see, the November 10, 2015, episode started 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 got to know a little bit about the veterans, too. Smith – who hailed from Mount Zion, Illinois – had previously been a member of an armored division that had seen combat in the First Gulf War. Jostes, meanwhile, had spent almost 25 years in the Air Force, and now his son was training to follow in his footsteps.
And Fountano had similarly seen combat during her six years in service. 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.
It was also clear that Fountano’s time in the U.S. Armed Forces had meant a lot to her. 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.”
And Fountano 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 before the letters __UR-_T_R ___E_A_ became visible. Cottoning on to the military theme, Fountano buzzed in and correctly guessed “four-star general.”
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 Fountano 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.
With $3,000 already locked down, Fountano 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 Smith to win the round with the guess “doing a double loop-the-loop.”
And yet Fountano 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!
Within a few rounds, then, it became clear who was going to win the show. Just before the episode’s penultimate round, Fountano had swept the board and secured $13,970 in the bank. In contrast, Smith had bagged just $4,300, while poor Jostes hadn’t managed to win anything at all.
So, as the episode entered its last speed round, Fountano was the definite fan favorite. And after Smith correctly guessed “T” in the two-letter clue word, audiences turned their attention to Fountano – expecting another sensible play. What she said next, though, left folks at home more than a little confused.
With complete assuredness, Fountano uttered the least likely letter possible: “Z.” Naturally, audience members and fellow contestants alike were baffled. For example, Jostes – smiling for the cameras just a minute earlier – furrowed his brow and stared at Fountano in utter disbelief.
Sajak also couldn’t believe his ears, asking, “Say that again for me.” But rather than realize her apparent mistake, Fountano instead repeated her original answer. The host asked once again, “Did you say ‘Z?’” Nonetheless, the contestant remained completely unfazed. She said firmly, “As in Zulu: ‘Z.’”
“You did say ‘Z.’ Okay.” Still visibly shocked, Sajak turned to face the board, which – to nobody’s surprise – failed to light up. 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 Fountano’s turn again.
This time, instead of offering up another bizarre letter, Fountano 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, Fountano decided upon another bewildering choice. The contestant cried out, “Q.”
By now, Fountano’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?”
However, the best quotes of all were reserved for host Sajak, who responded to Nura’s strange guesses with barely contained frustration. Before the guest’s penultimate round, the exasperated host muttered, “I wonder what letter [Fountano] will call?” And she certainly didn’t disappoint, answering with the unlikely “X.”
As with her previous guesses, Fountano 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.
In the end, it was Jostes 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 Jostes may have been the eventual winner of the round, it was Fountano who gained the biggest reaction.
Following the eventful segment, Sajak grilled his guest about her intriguing picks. And Fountano 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.”
Though she’d lost the round, Fountano had still done well enough in the early parts of the game to proceed to the final. Her poor performance had also allowed Jostes to leave the show with some sort of consolation prize. And fans began to wonder if she had been playing a different game entirely.
While she didn’t confirm anybody’s suspicions, Fountano – 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 between her fellow service people. By stepping back from the round, she had let another contestant go home with money in his pocket.
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. [Fountano] threw the final puzzle to let a fellow military person win it. Much respect.”
As a result, the episode had turned into a particularly memorable installment. 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 [Fountano]! Never saw someone throw a round so everyone could win some money.”
Despite her sketchy performance in the preceding segment, Fountano was back to her best when it came time for the last round. 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 at the end of the show, Fountano exclaimed, “I’m going to Belize!” As the episode reached its end, Sajak congratulated his guest before telling her, “You made us all happy.” Thanks to Fountano’s unselfish actions, his words couldn’t have been more appropriate.
And there was another kind gesture on a game show in November 2019. Instead of answering the question put to him, you see, one Jeopardy! contestant instead wrote a message for host Alex Trebek on his board. And upon seeing it, Trebek was almost brought to tears. Yet it wasn’t just the contestant who believed in the note he had written – all the show’s viewers stood behind it too.
To grasp the full power of the contestant’s message, however, you need first to understand Trebek’s history. Before Trebek passed away in November 2020, he had hosted Jeopardy! for 36 years – ever since he had taken over presenting duties from his friend Art Fleming. And the game show’s rules are simple: contestants compete to solve problems, and their answers must be in the form of questions. Yet Jeopardy! has proved to be so popular that it’s won no less than 33 Daytime Emmys.
Trebek, however, made a saddening announcement in March 2019. In a video message to the public, the host announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the pancreas – a very serious affliction indeed. And though Trebek admitted that “the prognosis for this is not very encouraging,” he said he planned to battle the disease as hard as he possibly could.
Trek said in his video, “I’m going to keep working, and with the love and support of my family and friends, and with the help of your prayers also, I plan to beat the low survival-rate statistics for this disease. Truth told, I have to, because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”
So the game show icon clearly seemed to be in a good frame of mind, despite the terrible blow. And people immediately came out in support of Trebek. For instance, his friend and fellow game show host Pat Sajak wrote on Twitter, “There is no one I know who is stronger and more determined, and I would never bet against him. We, and the entire country, are pulling for you, Alex.”
Other people phrased their support for Trebek in the form of a Jeopardy! answer. Ana Navarro-Cárdenas of CNN and The View wrote on social media, “Who is an extraordinary human being, gracious, a consummate professional, a gentleman, a kind soul? Final Answer: #AlexTrebek.”
Then in April 2019, after completing season 35 of the show, Trebek updated his fans and supporters on how he was doing. He said in a new video, “Despite what you may have heard, I’m feeling good, I’m continuing with my therapy, and we – by we, the staff, is already working on our next season: the 36th year of Jeopardy!”
Trebek went on, “So here, on the last day of taping for our 35th anniversary season, I wanted once again to thank you for your continuing messages of encouragement and support, particularly the many cards I’ve received from young people. I’m touched beyond words.” But the star’s battle was really only just beginning.
The following month, you see, Trebek spoke about his prognosis on Good Morning America. He told host Robin Roberts, herself a survivor of cancer, “People all over America have been sharing their good thoughts, their advice, their prayers, and I feel it is making a difference in my well-being.”
Trebek spoke candidly about his battle, telling Roberts, “My oncologist tells me I’m doing well, even though I don’t always feel it. I’ve had kidney stones. I’ve had ruptured discs. So I’m used to dealing with pain, but what I’m not used to dealing with is these surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness, and it brings tears to my eyes.”
Trebek went on, “I’ve discovered in this whole episode, ladies and gentlemen, that I’m a bit of a wuss. But I’m fighting through it.” Yet he remained optimistic, saying, “My platelets, my blood counts are steady, my weight is steady… The cancer indicators, those are coming down. So I’ve got another chemo next week, and then we’ll do a review to find out where things stand.”
Regarding his chemotherapy, Trebek said, “I go in and I sit down; I joke with the nurses. And I’m there for an hour-and-a-half while they inject all of this stuff into me and then I go home and I have a good day, and then the next day, for no reason that I can fathom, it turns south on me. But that’s okay. You have to deal with it. What am I going to do?”
Trebek also mentioned in the Roberts interview that he was very grateful to be “considered an inspiration to other people.” He said, “I’ve had so many contacts from people who have survived cancer for ten years, 12 years, 14 years. I am now a 30-day survivor… I’m going to catch up to those other people.”
Trebek went on, “They have been an inspiration to me, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s drawing attention to this particular type of devastating cancer, making people aware of it, telling them that they should take certain precautions beforehand to find out because we never discover pancreatic cancer until it’s too late, unfortunately.”
Sadly, you see, pancreatic cancer is a terrible condition, and sufferers generally have a low chance of survival. In fact, the statistics reveal that a quarter of people will likely live for only one year after diagnosis. The faster the cancer is diagnosed, though, the better prospects a person has. But even then the five-year survival rate is only 20 percent, and overall, sufferers’ chances of still being alive 60 months after diagnosis stand at about 8 percent.
So, in May, Trebek shared more details of his treatment during an article on CBS Sunday Morning. There, he said that at one point while filming Jeopardy! he was “on the floor writhing in pain” because of stomach cramps. He explained, “It happened three or four times a day while we were taping. So that was a little – little rough on me.”
And the stomach problem actually turned out to be a tumor “the size of a small fist.” But no matter what, Trebek refused to stop working on the show. He said, “The producers were very kind. They said, ‘Look, if you don’t want to do the show, we’ll just cancel taping.’ I said, ‘No. We’re here. We’re doing the shows.’”
Trebek lost his hair thanks to the chemotherapy, too. He told CBS Sunday Morning, “On air I’m told that there were times when the hairpiece looked better than my real hair. So we’ll see how people react to that.” He added, “We have the summer months off. So hopefully my own hair will grow back, because I like my own hair.”
Before too long, then, the treatment appeared to be working. At the end of May 2019, for instance, Trebek told People in delight, “It’s kind of mind-boggling. The doctors said they hadn’t seen this kind of positive result in their memory… Some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than 50 percent.”
Trebek thanked the people who had sent him well wishes, saying, “I’ve got a couple million people out there who have expressed their good thoughts, their positive energy directed towards me and their prayers. I told the doctors, this has to be more than just the chemo, and they agreed it could very well be an important part of this.”
Yet this optimism was perhaps short-lived. Because it soon became clear that the treatment hadn’t worked as well as it had maybe first seemed. In October 2019, in an interview with Canadian TV network CTV, Trebek said he “went all the way down to numbers that correspond with a normal human being without cancer. Then all of a sudden, it blew up and went 50 per cent higher than when it was first diagnosed. Go figure.”
In the interview, the 79-year-old Trebek revealed, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life… if it happens, why should I be afraid of that? One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral, as a part of a eulogy, is, ‘He was taken from us too soon.’”
Trebek’s attitude to his condition understandably impressed many people. And on a November 2019 episode of Jeopardy!, one contestant revealed his feelings for the host in an unmissable way. Yes, Dhruv Gaur – from Gainesville, Florida – decided to use up the money he’d banked on the show in order to send a message to Trebek.
The question posed to Gaur was, “In the title of a groundbreaking exposé of poverty in New York City slums, these three words follow ‘How the?’” The correct answer would have been, “What is, ‘Other Half Lives?’” But instead of writing that, or indeed any answer, Gaur wrote, “What is, ‘We love you, Alex.’”
Trebek asked Gaur, “Did you come up with the right one? No?” and then suddenly saw what he had actually written. “That’s very kind, thank you,” he told the young man. “Cost you $1,995. You’re left with five bucks.” But while Trebek was saying that, he appeared to be trying not to outright cry.
In fact, all the contestants on that episode of the show had been wearing purple ribbons in order to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. Gaur was even wearing one while he showed Trebek his message. All the contestants in 2019’s Tournament of Champions will also be donating money to pancreatic cancer charity the Lustgarten Foundation.
And after his message went viral, Gaur took to Twitter to discuss it. He said, “I’m really glad I got the opportunity to say to Alex what everybody at the tournament was thinking. For context, Alex had just shared with us that he was re-entering treatment for pancreatic cancer. We were all hurting for him so badly.”
Gaur went on, “When Final Jeopardy came up, I could’ve tried to puzzle it together, but really, just kept thinking about Alex, and thought he should know. I’m just very grateful I got the opportunity to say what I know everyone was thinking. Sending all the love.” He tagged his post with #weloveyoualex.
The #weloveyoualex tag quickly took off on social media, too. One person described the video of Gaur’s message, saying, “The instant welling up of tears and emotion no viewer expected to have tonight.” A reply to that post read, “I was in the audience for this moment. Felt it then and feel it now.”
Gaur also shared something else on Twitter. He wrote, “With all the attention coming my way, I want to also re-up this play-along for pancreatic cancer on Thursday and Friday. Many of us are donating $1 for every question we get right when playing along at home to the Lustgarten Foundation for pancreatic cancer research. Join along!”
Later on that month, too, Gaur appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about his viral moment. The episode of Jeopardy! had actually been recorded in September, he explained, and Trebek had just been told that he would have to undergo more chemotherapy to hold back the cancer.
Gaur said, “[Trebek] had come back to the green room and talked to all the contestants who were on the tournament, and we could really tell that it was tough for him. So when I got up there, obviously I wasn’t going to win the game or anything, so I was like, ‘I could try to figure out the right answer, or I could do something for this person who might need it right now.’”
DeGeneres brought up that Gaur had actually been on Jeopardy! before and had won a lot of money. The host asked him what he did with it, and he answered, “I go to Brown [University], which costs a lot of money, so I spent a good amount of it on tuition, and another thing I decided to do is I took like 20 friends out to eat and paid for all their meals.”
DeGeneres asked, “What has the response been like since you’ve been on the show?” Gaur told her, “I was at the launch party for this episode with my friends, and my mom texted me, and she was like, ‘You’re trending on Twitter.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, Mom, eight tweets isn’t trending.’” But as soon as he checked, he was amazed.
Gaur said, “Since then, like, it’s been really crazy. Like, I’m here. Also like Ryan Reynolds, Chrissy Teigen, like all tweeted this moment. And there’s just been like a lot of energy around this.” But there was more to come – as DeGeneres had some special gifts for Gaur hiding behind the scenes.
DeGeneres told Gaur, “I don’t know how you’re going to be watching along at home, because you don’t own a television. So I’m going to give you one so you can watch at home.” She then brought out a massive 75-inch TV for him – and also a $25,000 donation to the Lustgarten Foundation for pancreatic cancer research.
And after that exciting experience, Gaur spoke to The Brown Daily Herald student newspaper about everything that had gone on since his Jeopardy! appearance and kind message. He said, “I definitely did not expect everyone to pick up on it on social media. The world really values that, which I didn’t expect.”
But the young man said he planned to simply resume his studies after his brush with fame. The whole thing had been “completely surreal,” he told The Brown Daily Herald. He added, “I still think I haven’t entirely processed that I flew to LA, went on the show, talked to Ellen… and that I just came back home and went to class the next day.”
Gaur concluded, “Looking back, it’s been a really cool, extremely unique journey. I learned a lot about what it’s like to have a lot of attention on you for something you did… Over this past couple weeks, [I’ve] just been really grateful for the number of people who have kind of showed up to support me.”
And true to his word, Trebek still hosted Jeopardy! despite the cancer. Talking to USA Today at the end of November 2019, he said, “[Gaur’s message] surprised me on the show, obviously. I was thrown for a loop there. I started to tear up, but that’s okay; I tear up over a lot of things.” Hopefully, then, Trebek saw many more touching moments of kindness before his passing.