By Gabriel Pariente
Published: May 4th, 2016
Brooklyn College senior Matthew Epstein had always dreamed about appearing on ABC’s hit game show, Wheel of Fortune. From a young age, one of his nightly rituals had been watching every episode of the show, solving puzzles with the contestants on T. V., and sharing their exuberance and pain as they spun the infamous wheel. However, all of this early interest did not prepare Epstein for the thrill of walking onto the set for the first time.
“I was speechless. Seeing Pat Sajac and Vanna White walk our way. It was so surreal ‘cause you see them on T. V. all the time, and when it’s real life, happening in front of your eyes, it’s unbelievable,” he said.
After applying for the show last year, Epstein received a letter from the show telling him he’d been chosen to appear as a contestant during its annual College Week program, which aired the end of March 2016. Appearing on the show had been a life-long dream for the Brooklyn College senior who is majoring in education and hopes to become a physical education teacher.
“I freaked out. I couldn’t believe it because they said it should be by [my] house in two weeks, and at that point it had been two and a half weeks after I applied, so I figured, ‘I’m not going get it’,” he said. He added, “It also said in the letter [they] might not contact [me] for 2 years,’ so I wasn’t expecting to hear from them for a while.”
Even after getting the letter, Epstein almost lost out on the opportunity to take part in the College Week taping due to some technological mishaps. In February, the show emailed him about when to come to Los Angeles for a taping—the email went to his spam folder. He also missed a phone call from the show’s producer shortly after the email.
“I’m going through my voicemails and I find one from the show producer that if I don’t get back to him we may have to find another person for College Week, and I called him right away saying ‘Oh my God I’m sorry and please take me back’,” he said.
Luckily, the producer agreed to the request, and two weeks later Epstein and his High School sweetheart Rebecca Nussbaum were on their way to Los Angeles.
But despite his love for the show and dream to be on T. V., Epstein’s feelings began to change as he waited in the studio for his taping to begin. “I was freaking out. My nerves were through the roof, but it got a lot more fun as the taping went on, especially because Pat Sajac calmed us down and told us jokes during the commercial brakes,” he said.
Epstein would go onto win the first two rounds of the show, and at one point, recited the alphabet backwards, drawing applause from the studio audience. Eventually, he’d finish on top of the rest of the contestants, winning a total of $16,500 and advancing on to the Bonus Round.
But in trying to guess the seemingly simple phrase “Biology Exam” in the Bonus Round, Epstein struggled. “I only got one letter on the board from the letters I guessed, but oh my gosh I was so close,” he exclaimed, relieving the moment. “I somehow figured the second word ‘Exam’, but couldn’t figure out the first word and tried every phrase from English to Global, and as soon as time expired I knew it was biology when B was shown to be the first letter of the first word.”
After the taping, he signed a contract for when he’d receive the prize, and also a gag order saying he could not tell anyone the results of the taping until it aired, including family and friends. However, one person he could share the thrill of winning with was his girlfriend of four years, Rebecca.
“Right after the game ended and we went to commercial, I went into the audience to find her. And as soon as I did, I just gave her a gigantic hug,” he said. While he couldn’t tell anyone the results of the taping, he did note how his family reacted when they watched him the night the show aired on March 29.
“The first two puzzles I solved, my family was clueless to what the puzzle was, but for the third one they all knew,” he said. “So when I didn’t solve the puzzle and tried borrowing a vowel that wasn’t up there, everyone was screaming at me, saying how could I not know that.”
Epstein still is in awe of what he was able to experience and be a part of. “It honestly changed my life, and you should never give up trying to achieve your dreams. ‘Cause eventually, if you keep working for them, they will come true.”