Cupertino native Ryan Jensen, 23, struck a fortune on Monday night.
Jensen and his aunt, Karen Buchanan, won $19,250 in cash and prizes on the season premier episode Wheel of Fortune, including a trip to St. Martin in the Caribbean.
Jensen and Buchanan are both longtime fans of the 35-year-old show, which requires participants to guess the missing letters of words and phrases, said Jensen Monday night by phone.
“I’m a huge puzzle solver,” said Jensen, who has been watching the show nightly since he was a kid, and playing along with his friends.
“I always beat them,” laughed Jensen, a 2006 Monta Vista High School graduate. He recently received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from San Diego State University.
Inspired by a family night theme, Jensen asked his aunt, a court reporter from Santa Clara, to apply to go on the air with him. He discovered that she had won a Vanna White look-alike contest in the 1980s.
While Jensen and Buchanan applied on the show’s website about two years ago, they were chosen at random to audition for the show about two months ago. The process involved piecing together word puzzles similar to those found on the show. Shortly after, they received a call: the producers wanted them to come on the air.
About 10,000 people apply every year to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, said publicity coordinator Katie Quicksilver. Only about 600 are selected to audition.
“Thousands of people apply, and they can be in the database for years be in the database for years before they’re selected,” said Quicksilver.
Only five to ten percent of those who audition for Wheel of Fortune actually make it on the air, said Gary ‘O Brien, a contestant producer for the show. While everyone on the air wins some amount, only 15 to 20 percent win over $10,000.
Now Jensen, who works part-time at a restaurant and volunteers at the San Diego Zoo, plans to put most of the money into a savings account. But he also will set aside a little for his vacation, he said.
He hopes to spin the Wheel of Fortune, on-air, again. “Going on Wheel was definitely one of the highlights of my life,” said Jensen.
The season premier of Wheel of Fortune appeared on KGO at 7:30 pm on Monday, September 19. The week’s theme is “Home Sweet Home,” where family members team up to win large sums of money. All cash prizes for the week are courtesy of the company Maxwell House.