What’s the Best ‘Wheel of Fortune’ Strategy? Play and Find Out. (2024)

What’s the Best ‘Wheel of Fortune’ Strategy? Play and Find Out. (1)

Eric McCandless/ABC, via Getty Images

By Ben Blatt
Produced by Ben Blatt, Aatish Bhatia, Francesca Paris and Rumsey Taylor

Ben Blatt analyzed over 6,000 bonus-round puzzles from “Wheel of Fortune.” He has also written about strategy on “The Price Is Right” and “Jeopardy!”

For 40 years, contestants on “Wheel of Fortune,” the TV game show staple, have hoped to reach the final puzzle, called the bonus round. A correct guess can mean a new car, $40,000 or even $1 million.

Pat Sajak, who will retire as host after this season, has also remained a constant for four decades, as has Vanna White, the show’s co-host.

But the strategy of the bonus round is still evolving. To understand how, we’d like your help.

Will you play a few bonus rounds?

Great! First, we’ll reveal the category of a bonus-round puzzle.
Then we’ll reveal
R, S, T, L, N and E …
… and a few bonus letters, just like in the show. (To keep it simple, we’ll pick them for you.)
Then you’ll have 10 seconds to indicate if you know it — no typing required.
You can begin in 3 …
You can begin in 2 …
You can begin in 1 …

That’s it! Now we’ll give you five more (you can quit anytime). Tap “Next” to continue.

I don’t want to play

Round 1 of 6

We’d like you to play a simpler version of the game.

Now that you’ve seen the bonus round, it’s time for your prize: data-driven strategic insights.

Based on the results from our little experiment and thousands of real bonus-round puzzles, we’ve found some trends that we hope will give you a leg up if you ever find yourself on the soundstage — or just a sense of superiority when you’re watching at home.

‘Wheel’ Tip No. 1

Every extra letter makes a difference. Yes, it’s obvious, but it’s also the biggest factor in winning.

If you watch the show today, you know the bonus round’s basic rules. A contestant faces a blank set of tiles and has to guess a hidden word or phrase. The player is given the letters R, S, T, L, N and E and is invited to guess three additional consonants and a vowel before the attempt to solve.

You can have a good guess, or a bad one, as we’ll see. But luck plays a role, too, in determining whether it will be a cinch, as with FROZEN W_FFLES, or something more head-scratching, like _L__N_ __ (You can press here to reveal that one.)

Lucky or unlucky, the best predictor of contestants’ success is simply how many letters their guesses reveal.

This chart shows just how strong that relationship is:

Bonus-round success rate, by how many letters are revealed

10%

20%

30%

40%

50%

60%

70%

80%

90%

20%

40%

60%

80%

100%

Percent of letters revealed before solving

Naturally, this means that contestants hoping to win it all should aim to reveal as many letters as possible. And the biggest advantage available — more valuable than any particular combination of letters that a contestant might select — is the “Wild Card.”

This mini prize, which contestants can win during the normal course of the show, is worth one additional consonant in the bonus round, if they eventually make it there. This extra chance to reveal more letters increases a contestant’s chance of winning by about six percentage points, to 43 percent from 37 percent.

If you played our mini game, you also participated in a version of this. Everyone solved a similar set of puzzles, but some of you had more letters revealed than others, including some who received the equivalent of a bonus letter.

Playing our game is obviously not the same as being on the show, and in our simulation we assumed you were correct when you told us you knew the answer. But the relationship held here, too.

“BABY HIPPOS” solve rate among Times readers

Puzzle Percent indicating they knew solution
____ _____S <1%
_A__ _____S <1%
_A__ H____S <1%
BAB_ _____S <1%
BAB_ H____S <1%
BAB_ __PP_S <1%
BAB_ H_PP_S <1%
BABY H_PP_S <1%
BABY H_PPOS <1%

Based on responses from more than 0 Times readers

Unfortunately, contestants have little control over whether they win a Wild Card (it requires a lucky spin of the wheel). So what can they do with the control they do have?

Tip No. 2

Know that the best letters to pick can change over time. The producers, like contestants, are part of the show.

The bonus round of “Wheel” is not a single-player game but a multi-player one: Your opponent is not the other contestants, but the producers behind the puzzle. And they are reacting to trends in the game, just as you might be.

Over 40 seasons of the show, the most popular four-letter combination chosen by contestants in the bonus round has been C, D, M and A. That is a perfectly good guess — the letters are relatively common in English, and in bonus-round puzzles.

But in 2015, Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post dug through the data and found that a different combination of letters — GHPO — would have yielded a higher success rate than CDMA.

Contestants quickly took note. Before Mr. Ingraham’s article was published, almost no one used GHPO. In the season after his article, more than 10 percent of contestants did, suddenly making it the most popular letter combination.

Percent of contestants who guess GHPO

15

20

25

30

35

40

5%

10%

WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE
RECOMMENDS GHPO

‘Wheel of Fortune’ season

Our data suggests Mr. Ingraham’s recommendation has held up: GHPO remains an excellent guess, slightly outperforming CDMA and other combinations of letters in recent years.

But what was once a more clear advantage has declined. Before Mr. Ingraham’s article was published, picking GHPO gave contestants significantly better odds of revealing more letters than picking CDMA. Last season, picking GHPO would have given contestants no edge over CDMA, on average.

Percent of bonus-round letters revealed by …

15

20

25

30

35

40

5%

10%

15%

20%

25%

GHPO

CDMA

GHPO
Advantage

WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE
RECOMMENDS GHPO

‘Wheel of Fortune’ season

The erosion of this advantage could just be random. But it’s quite possible that “Wheel” producers read Mr. Ingraham’s article and changed their solutions accordingly.

In fact, the contestants and the producers have been circling one another from the beginning. In early seasons, contestants were not given any free letters and were instead allowed to select five consonants and a vowel. Most picked R, S, T, L, N and E, which are some of the most common letters in English, revealing about half of the letters on average.

What’s the Best ‘Wheel of Fortune’ Strategy? Play and Find Out. (3)

Pat Sajak and Vanna White in the 1980s. They’re still there.

ABC, via Everett Collection

When the show switched its rules — giving everyone RSTLNE and inviting contestants to pick additional letters — it also changed the puzzles it gave contestants. “Wheel” watchers know that bonus-round puzzles now de-emphasize those common letters, forcing contestants to try to make up the difference with their additional selections.

Percent of letters revealed in the bonus round, by season

1

5

10

15

20

25

30

35

40

10%

20%

30%

40%

60%

Revealed overall

With just RSTLNE

RSTLNE ADDED TO BONUS ROUND

‘Wheel of Fortune’ season

The net effect of all this basically left the success rate … unchanged. On average, about half of the letters are revealed before the timer starts.

Tip No. 3

Even if there’s no one best choice, some letters are safer bets than others. Pick from among established letter combinations, even if they aren’t GHPO.

There have been well over 600 different letter combinations picked in the show’s history. It’s certainly possible to solve with a unique choice — only one person has ever guessed VFZO, for example, and it led to a successful solve of VALIANT EFFORT. But there are safer options available, and we recommend sticking to them.

While GHPO would have hypothetically revealed more letters on average than any other combination of letters, the difference between the best and next best is almost negligible. Other combinations, particularly those that include at least G and H, would have been within a single percentage point:

Average percent of puzzle revealed by the best letter selections (and CDMA)

GHPO 21.6%
BGHO 21.6%
BGHA 21.5%
CGHO 21.4%
GHPA 21.4%
CGHA 21.3%
DGHO 21.2%
DGHA 21.1%
CDMA 18.1%

That said, if we study only the letter combinations that contestants actually picked on the show, it can be hard to compare how well different letter strategies translate to winning. Even 6,000 bonus rounds is not quite enough puzzles to say with certainty which letter combination is best, because most puzzles appeared on TV only once, with one letter combination selected by one contestant.

In our simplified bonus round, we had you and other readers test letter strength a bit more systematically. For some of the puzzles, readers were randomly given CDMA, GHPO or JXZI as bonus letters. The results of that experiment are below.

Reader solve rate with different letter combinations

Letters Percent indicating they knew solution
CDMA 30%
GHPO 40%
JZXI 70%

Based on responses from more than 0 Times readers

The results so far give us even more confidence to recommend GHPO as the optimal choice for bonus-round contestants.

Tip No. 4

Choose your category wisely. It’s probably the most important pick you can make.

OK, so you can’t guarantee a Wild Card, and there’s no particular letter combination that stands leagues above the rest. But there is one clear difference-maker.

Starting in Season 35, the show began to offer contestants a choice of the category the bonus puzzle would be drawn from. It’s now one of the best opportunities to give yourself a boost.

Our recommendation: If you have the option, always choose “Phrase” over “Thing” (or its plural counterpart, “Things”). These are the two most common bonus-round categories, and while each has come up close to 1,000 times in the last 20 years, players have won “Phrase” 40 percent of the time but “Thing” only 33 percent of the time.

Percent of bonus rounds won by category

Category Win Percentage
Food & Drink 43%
Phrase 40%
Event 39%
Living Thing 39%
Person 37%
Place 36%
Thing 33%
What Are You Doing? 31%

This strategy is far from a guarantee. Consider a challenging “Phrase” puzzle from last year, THAT WAS A PIVOTAL FACTOR, which tripped up the contestant, Cesar Redaja, and denied him a $100,000 prize. But on the whole, “Phrase” is the category that will give you a fighting chance. (Other categories, like “Food & Drink,” have slightly higher win rates, but they are uncommon.)

Tip No. 5

Don’t expect the puzzles to make sense. Forty seasons have pushed producers toward stranger and stranger constructions.

Even without reading through all the archival recaps on “Wheel of Fortune” forums (as we have!), you may have noticed that the bonus-round puzzles have changed in other ways.

Back in Season 15, for example, more than half of all bonus puzzles were one word, with solutions like PIANO, WHALE and BRAIN. Last season, only 2 percent of answers were, including SOCIALIZING, IMPROVISING, AUDITIONS and YOUTUBER.

Today, bonus-round puzzles are about as long as they’ve ever been; typical ones are about 15 letters, almost twice as long as those 20 years ago.

And the answers themselves are getting, well, weirder. While THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX (Season 22) is a common saying, puzzles in recent years have been much more distinct, with constructions like A BOX OF GOODIES (Season 36) or WOODEN FLOWER BOXES (Season 37).

One puzzle from Season 36, YUMMY FIGS AND OLIVES, is so obscure that, before publication of this article, a Google search for the exact phrase turned up only results referring to the “Wheel” episode it appeared on.

Google search results aren’t a perfect reflection of how common a phrase is, but they can give a rough estimate for how often something has been written or said. HUNGRY JACKAL from Season 39 has less than 10,000 results, while BODY LANGUAGE from Season 23 has tens of millions.

Using this measure, it’s clear how obscure the show’s puzzle constructions have become.

Median number of Google search results for bonus-round solutions

1

5

10

15

20

25

30

35

40

40

80

120 million

Solutions like “AIR FORCE” or “THUMBS UP”

Solutions like
“QUALITY BAKEWARE”
or “PINK DAFFODIL”

‘Wheel of Fortune’ season

Includes two-word solutions only

On the show, unusual phrases were harder for contestants to solve than more common ones, but the other factors — the puzzles’ specific length, the letters revealed — made it hard to make more definitive conclusions.

Our experiment adds some additional clarity to this relationship. Everyone who played got one very obscure puzzle and one very common-sounding one. On average, more common-sounding puzzles were more likely to be solved by Times readers, too.

Percent of bonus rounds won by category

With “common” phrases: 52% solve rate

Puzzles like:

BEAUTY PRODUCTS FROZEN YOGURT HIGHLY QUALIFIED HOUSE PARTY PAYING GUEST PUBLIC FIGURE PROJECT MANAGER WALKING AROUND WORKING HARD YOUNG KIDS

With “uncommon” phrases: 50% solve rate

Puzzles like:

CUTE JACKRABBIT EMPTY HAYLOFT FINICKY PUPPY HOMEMADE TAFFY JUBILANT GALA PLAYFUL FOXHOUND QUIRKY AUTHOR SWIFT JACKRABBIT THICK GUMBO YUMMY TAFFY

Based on responses from more than 0 Times readers

Tip No. 6

If there are a few words to memorize, these are the ones. The show’s producers love them.

There may be little you can do as a contestant to combat the show’s increasingly uncommon word combinations. The best general advice we can offer is not to be afraid to blurt out a solution even if it seems like an unfamiliar string of words.

A passing familiarity with previous answers might also help. Last season eight of the 200 puzzles had been used before. And certain words are also used more than you’d expect. Between Seasons 35 and 40, KOALA appeared in the bonus round five times (FLUFFY KOALA, WOMBATS AND KOALAS, BABY KOALAS, YOUNG KOALA, CUDDLY KOALA).

Other patterns are also curious. Double letters (other than the letters in RSTLNE) appear in bonus-round puzzles about 2.5 times as often as they do in standard English. Words like FLUFFY, PUFFY, BUFFALO and BLUFF all contribute to the appearance of “FF” three times as often as usual. Contestants are slightly less likely to solve puzzles with double letters, so it’s a good idea to keep them in mind.

Below is an assortment of words that not only have been used as part of bonus-round clues multiple times, but also at a rate at least 100 times as often as they appear in standard English.

Words used 100 times as often in ‘Wheel’ bonus rounds as in standard English

TAFFY1100x normal HIDEAWAY1000x PARKA840x BLUFFING700x YAMS690x GOOEY670x APPETIZER560x QUART560x HUNCH480x FAWN390x PUFFY360x HANGOUT310x BAFFLING300x JOG280x BAGGY280x PAJAMAS280x NIFTY270x QUAINT260x BROWNIES260x WAFFLES240x PATIO240x AVID230x QUILT230x FUDGE230x JUICY230x BLAZER220x YUMMY210x MAHOGANY210x PLAID190x BOUTIQUE190x MUFFIN190x AVOCADO190x

The table above uses data from the show’s first 40 seasons. Already in Season 41 — since just September — several of the words above have appeared in the bonus round again, including APPETIZER, BLAZER, BLUFFING, BOUTIQUE, JUICY, HANGOUT and YAMS. So have other double-F words like DIFFICULT, FLUFFY, OFF, OFFICE, OFFBEAT and SPIFFY.

Bonus tip

Don’t forget to win the game first. Only one player reaches the bonus round!

For possible future contestants reading this, remember that all these trends and tips have a chance of helping you only if you manage to make it out of the first 20 minutes of the game and into the bonus round.

For the rest of us, we can play the bonus round from home five nights a week. And millions still do: “Wheel of Fortune” remains one of the most-watched nonsports programs in television, which will probably continue after Ryan Seacrest takes over for Mr. Sajak next season.

The show also posts its daily bonus-round puzzles on YouTube. So you can watch a few more puzzles (don’t blame the contestants for being nervous), and let us know in the comments if our tips helped.

_EST _F L_C_!

What’s the Best ‘Wheel of Fortune’ Strategy? Play and Find Out. (2024)
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