Wheel of Fortune is a relatively simple game, which is likely why it’s been on TV in one form or another since 1975. Originally spun out from creator Merv Griffin’s games of Hangman on the road as a kid, it’s a word-guessing game broken down into individual letters. What matters most in Wheel of Fortune, beyond getting good spins, is extrapolating full words and phrases from a few scattered letters.
Or so contestant Charlene Rubush thought. Rubush had made it through the initial competitive rounds, where three contestants try to spell out words against each other. Rubush had come through them smoothly, moving into the Bonus Round with $16,500.
In the Bonus Round, the competition is eliminated and the rules change. While the history of these changes is documented quite thoroughly on the Wheel of Fortune History fan wiki, the basics are: The contestant spins a wheel for a potential prize. Contestants are given the letters R, S, T, L, N, and E, are allowed three more consonants plus a vowel, and then 10 seconds to give the answer. These are the rules to which Charlene Rubush agreed.
And yet, that’s not what happened.
Rubush’s somewhat-meta category was “What are you doing?” which is a little like Jeopardy! having a category called “Answer in the form of a question.” She picked up on “Choosing the right” quickly, leaving her only with the last word, “-__rd.” After first going with “card,” she uttered the first half of the phrase and paused. And then, just before time ran out, she put everything together. Mr. Policeman gave her all the clues.
“Word!” she blurted out, just before her buzzer rang out after the 10-second clock expired.
The correct phrase. But, in what turned out to be a surprise for Wheel of Fortune viewers, that was not all that Rubush needed for her victory.
“This one’s tough because you said all the right words, including the word ‘word,’ but as you know, it’s got to be more or less continuous,” said Pat Sajak, who has hosted Wheel of Fortune since 1981. “We’ll allow for a little pause, but not four or five seconds. I’m sorry. You did a good job in getting it, but we can’t give you the prize and it was the Audi.”
An Audi Q3, to be precise, which has a starting price of $39,500 and is described by Car and Driver as having “sharp styling, plentiful tech features, [and] spunky driving demeanor.”
It’s a spunky demeanor that Rubush will never know, much to the outrage of game show fans across Twitter. A search of #WheelofFortune brings forth mostly rage at the moment, complaints about Rubush’s pause. In what world, many felt, are four or five seconds a long pause?
Alex Jacobs, a former Jeopardy! champion, began sending messages to both Wheel’s and Audi’s respective Twitter accounts, and the German car company responded by saying it was “reviewing this situation internally.”
Some have defended the show, noting that this is a rule Sajak has enforced in the past. Robert Santoli, who was a contestant on Wheel of Fortune in 2016, noted that Sajak has in the past encouraged contestants to say the full phrase in order to get the win, although he did not do so with Rubush.
But even if it’s a consistently applied rule, it’s one that doesn’t seem fair to many: to come so close, to utter the right phrase, and be denied because of a rule that seems secondary to the actual challenge. Perhaps, in the spirit of the holidays and a swarm of free publicity it would never have if Rubush had won the car in the first place, the company will give her the SUV.
Update (Dec. 23): It seems Audi agrees with the rest of the internet — the car company is looking to award Rubush the prize that many believe she was robbed of.
On Dec. 22, Audi USA quote-retweeted a complaint from Alex Jacob, a Jeopardy! all-star. “Come on @WheelofFortune,” Jacob had written on Twitter. “The woman literally chose the right word. Give her the car.”
Audi echoed Jacob’s sentiment, saying Rubush deserved a prize. The company later retweeted itself, confirming that the “Audi community” had helped it track her down. While Audi’s use of the word “prize” does leave some wiggle room for what the company plans to award Rubush, both tweets include the hashtag #GiveHerTheQ3, giving viewers hope that Audi will right Wheel of Fortune’s wrong.
Update 2 (Dec. 23): Rubush will indeed receive a silver 2021 Audi Q3 directly from Audi, the company confirmed to Polygon on Thursday.
“In the spirit of the holidays, we are thrilled to gift Charlene with an all-new Audi Q3,” Tara Rush, Audi of America’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “It is the season of giving after all and, technicality or not, we are always eager to share a bit of Audi magic and cheer!”