YORKTOWN, N.Y. - Yorktown resident Robert Santoli didn’t just win his recent appearance on “Wheel of Fortune”; he dominated, finishing with a near-perfect sweep of the puzzles, including solving the opening round toss-up with only one letter on the board.
Seconds into the program, with only a “D” showing on the board, Santoli buzzed in, correctly guessing the answer was “Port & Starboard.”
The performance, which aired last Friday, was years in the making for Santoli, an avid game show watcher, who first tried out for “Wheel of Fortune” at 19 years old. Santoli and other contestants were told ahead of time by producers that their show was sponsored by Carnival Cruise Line and would be nautical-themed, leading the 2011 graduate of Soundview Preparatory School to create a study guide of possible puzzle solutions leading up to his January taping.
“The instant I got my theme, I immediately came up with an ever-growing list of puzzles themed towards cruises, sailing, fish, boats—anything on or in the water,” Santoli said.
When the category of “Places” was announced and the blank spaces were put on the board, Santoli knew his research had paid off.
“As soon as I saw that ‘Places’ was the category, I had a hunch and then I saw four blanks, an ampersand (&) and nine blanks, and my face just lit up,” Santoli said. “My reflexes on that buzzer really show throughout the episode.”
The rest of the evening played out in similar fashion for Santoli, 23, who won the second toss-up puzzle (“Oh, What a Night”) almost as quickly. His two competitors didn’t have a chance to spin the wheel on the next puzzle, prompting Santoli to offer a “sincere apology” to them after solving.
“As soon as I solved the Round 1 puzzle for some cash and a $6,009 cruise, I knew they had a lot of catching up to do, so I told them, ‘I’m sorry,’” Santoli said. “They were very nice, both before and after the show. Before they walked off the set after the final round, I told them: ‘No hard feelings.’”
After winning the two toss-ups and the first round puzzle, Santoli had already netted $13,000 in cash and prizes, including a cruise. During the commercial break, Santoli said long-time host Pat Sajak leaned in to tell him: “That was great, Robert, but now we have to let someone else play, OK?” Santoli agreed and tried to give his fellow players a chance. Still, he ended winning every puzzle but one.
Santoli racked up over $31,000 heading into the Bonus Round, which he also won, quickly guessing “Goofy Pictures,” netting him another $45,000. In total, Santoli went home with $76,000 in cash and prizes, including two cruises. So, what does he plan on doing with his winnings?
“Most importantly, I plan to pay off my student loans from Fordham and buy or lease my own car,” he said.
Santoli was joined at the taping in Los Angeles by his mother and father, who celebrated on-stage with him after the Bonus Round. He watched his episode at home last Friday surrounded by friends and family.
“I know I look like a bit of a dork on the show with my high-pitched ‘Yeahs!’ and my childish jumping up and down after winning the Bonus Round, but I was really, to quote the Round 4 puzzle, ‘Living in the Moment,’” Santoli said. “I was so anxious when on the stage. I was shaking the whole time, first out of nervousness, then out of excitement once I kept solving puzzles. I got those same feelings when I finally watched the episode on TV. It feels weird seeing and hearing myself on a show that I’ve watched other strangers on for over 20 years.”
The full interview with Santoli is below:
How long have you been trying to get on the show?
I first tried out for the show when I was only 19. We took a road trip to an open audition called the "Wheelmobile" in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. Two months later, I was given a callback for a final audition in that same city. I made it to the end, but did not make the show. I then went to two more Wheelmobiles in Cicero, N.Y. and Warwick, R.I. but was unsuccessful at both, as these events are largely dependent on random drawings. I also submitted an audition video online when the show was casting for some upcoming episodes to be taped on location in New York City. Again, I was unsuccessful at getting a final audition, but I did watch several of these episodes from the audience. Two more attempts at submitting videos later and I finally earned another final audition on June 11, 2015 in New York City.
I love game shows and “Wheel” is my favorite. I grew up watching it along with the other game show mainstays like “Jeopardy!” and “The Price Is Right,” as well as kids’ game shows like “Double Dare” and “Legends of the Hidden Temple”—both of which are sadly long-gone. I'm going to try for more game shows as soon as I can. I have to wait a year, though. There is an upcoming revival of the classic game show "Pyramid" being taped in New York City. Hopefully it'll be around long enough for me to get on.
What was the application process like?
There are two ways to try out for the show: The first is attending a tour of open auditions called the Wheelmobile. Names are randomly selected and you go on a stage, get interviewed, show off any talents you have, and play a mock speed-up round of “Wheel.” The most promising of these candidates, as well as a few randomly-selected others who did not get picked to go on stage, are invited to a final audition in the same city a few months later.
The second way of trying out is to apply on wheeloffortune.com and upload a one-minute video talking about yourself and why you should be a contestant. If they like you, they will invite you to a final audition in your nearest major city when their contestant department is in the area. The invite comes in the form of an email with a link to a PDF file of the contestant application that you are expected to print, fill out and bring with you.
At the final audition, me and about 60 others were seated in a room with a projector and a mini wheel. They go through several puzzles and give everyone in the room a few turns guessing letters and trying to solve. You're expected to have a very clear voice and clap and smile a lot. You can't just say "M"; you have to enunciate "emmm-uh."
After everyone's had a chance, they hand out a written puzzle test. There are two different versions of the test that are handed out in an alternating pattern to avoid cheating. You are given 16 partially-filled puzzles in four categories, and you have five minutes to fill in whatever you can. Many thought the test was really hard, but I got all 16.
After a break, they cut the room down to about one-third. Those asked to stay will play more serious rounds and be interviewed as if they were talking with Pat Sajak on the actual show. During my first final audition, the cut-down meant that whoever was not asked to stay would not be asked to come on the show. The second one, however, they implied that this was no longer the case and that everyone has a chance even if you're not asked to stay. The first time, I was asked to stay and solved three puzzles. The second time, I was not asked to stay and I thought that was the end for me. I was pretty upset for the rest of the day because I had not known that things had changed.
They tell everyone that if you have made the show, you will get a letter in the mail about two weeks after the audition. Mine came 15 days after. The letter explains that you will be given a tape date with about two weeks' notice sometime within the next 18 months.
How did you solve the first puzzle so quickly with only one letter? How did you know it was “Port & Starboard”?
Every week, “Wheel of Fortune” has a theme, and we are told what our theme will be when we are given our tape date. Mine was "Spin & Sail," a special week sponsored by Carnival Cruise Lines. On nearly every episode, the first puzzle (the $1,000 Toss-Up) has something to do with the theme, and often other puzzles during the game as well. Sometimes, these puzzles can be very predictable. When I was in the audience for a special week taped on-location in New York back in 2013, the first show started off with a “Landmark” puzzle. Before the white blanks even finished appearing on the board, I had a hunch it would be "Statue of Liberty." Unsurprisingly, one of the contestants buzzed in the instant the first letter came up.
I spent the days before our trip compiling a list of possible puzzles and key words themed toward sailing, cruising, water and even fishing. There are websites that keep track of past “Wheel of Fortune” puzzles, so I did some research on previous weeks themed toward these things and wrote them down. The show does sometimes repeat puzzles, especially themed ones. "Port & Starboard” had been used at least twice before my show, both times as a Toss-Up puzzle.
I got really lucky because that was the only puzzle that week that appeared verbatim on my list. As soon as I saw that "Places" was the category, I had a hunch and then I saw four blanks, an ampersand and nine blanks, and my face just lit up. My reflexes on that buzzer really show throughout the episode.
Emilbert, a former Wheel player, was sitting in your support group. How do you two know each other?
I first knew of him before he went on the show thanks to social media. “Wheel of Fortune's” Twitter page hosts a daily game called "Twitter Toss-Up," where they Tweet puzzles every five minutes with more letters filled in each time. Whoever replies with the right answer first gets recognition, and sometimes even actual prizes. Emil wins all the time, and he says it was great practice for the show.
Emil's episode aired in March 2014 and went down as the most viral moment in “Wheel” history. He solved a seemingly-impossible bonus puzzle with only the first two letters revealed. It was so impressive that he went on several news and talk shows, such as Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel, and “The Today Show.”
Before his episode aired, Emil had joined a “Wheel” fan-site that I help run. It is a site made for discussing the show, sharing fun stories and even hosting games of “Wheel” with our own rules. Emil has since become a prominent member of our site, along with several other upcoming and former contestants, both recent and not-so-recent. Emil and I later became Facebook friends and we exchanged a whole bunch of advice and information about the contestant experience once I was given my tape date. He lives in California, so we brought up the idea of him possibly coming to the taping. Thankfully, there were no conflicts in his work schedule, so he was able to come.
The night before the taping, we met in person for the first time and spent hours talking about the show and the fan-site. I wasn't expecting to do anything to his degree that would get me on talk shows, but I also wasn't expecting to beat his score! He was so nice to me and my family. He told my parents everything they needed to know when they went to the studio. I knew I had to make it to the Bonus Round so that all the faithful “Wheel” fans who remember his moment could see his face again. The crew was pretty excited to see him back, even Pat. He didn't acknowledge Emil on camera, but he did tell him, "Good to see you again" after we all celebrated my big win, plus, "I think he has you beat."
It was such an honor for him to come out. He later told me he would have come all the way to New York for the show's airing if he wasn't working. He loves to go places. He actually took the trip he won on his show about a week before my taping.
Did you know the bonus round answer before you picked your letters?
Everybody, including Pat, asked me this. No! There are several times where I can get the bonus puzzle off of just RSTLNE at home, but mine was fairly difficult. I did know the second word was "Pictures," so I knew not to waste my picks on a P, C, I or U. You only get three consonants and a vowel in the Bonus Round, so you have to choose very wisely. On one of the shows earlier in the week, a contestant called letters he already knew were in the puzzle and didn't get much help other than what he knew from the start, and he lost by a very close margin. That was heartbreaking to watch both from the audience and on TV.
I did some research of the most popular letters in bonus puzzles. Contrary to popular belief, they are not the next most frequent letters of the alphabet after RSTLNE (H, D, C, M, A), but in most cases, they're about a tier down; letters like G, P, Y, B, O. O is more popular than A in bonus puzzles by far, because they know almost everyone picks A for their vowel because it's the next most popular after E. Specifically, the top three consonants and a vowel that I was going to call were G, H, P and O. Two contestants also called these letters earlier in the week, and it worked out for one of them, who solved "Very Busy Schedule” for $40,000. The other got a lot of help from those letters ("Echoing Voices") but was not able to solve it. Once I knew the second word was "Pictures," I tossed out the P and replaced it with a Y, because I knew the first word was probably an adjective that could describe pictures. "Adjective-noun" puzzles are quite common in the Bonus Round and sometimes, they can be very contrived (Pat agreed with me on this). One episode had a bonus puzzle of "Wacky Neighbor,” which was amazingly solved with no letters revealed in "Wacky." So I picked Y, G, H, O, and that ended up being a very lucky combination of letters.
What are you going to do with your winnings?
Most importantly, I plan to pay off my student loans from Fordham and buy or lease my own car. As of now, I share a car with my mother. I also plan to reimburse my parents for all the money they spent on our trip to LA, of course. We ended up staying longer than we planned, because my taping was the Friday before the big January blizzard hit New York, and our flights home kept getting cancelled. We were supposed to leave Saturday night, but we ended up not getting a flight to New York until Monday evening. The show does not reimburse you nor pay for your transportation or hotel, but they do guarantee you $1,000 just for getting on the show. I'm also a gambler, so I do plan to hit up Empire City in Yonkers with a few hundred once the check comes, and play the “Wheel of Fortune” slot machines, of course!
Congratulations on the cruises! When are you going and who are you taking with you?
Thank you! The Southern Caribbean one I picked up off the Wheel in Round 1, I am taking my mother on. The trips are only for two. I would love to take my father and at least one of my sisters if I had the chance. We are aiming for November for that cruise. We're still working out the details for the Bermuda cruise.
I had always wanted to go on a cruise, so it was very lucky that my week was sponsored by Carnival. There were several Carnival employees present at the taping and they all applauded and congratulated me after the show.
What was the response to your victory on the set? Did Pat or the other players say anything to you off-air?
I felt so bad for the other two players, Bonnie and Noelle. As soon as I solved the Round 1 puzzle for some cash and a $6,009 cruise, I knew they had a lot of catching up to do, so I told them, "I'm sorry." They were very nice both before and after the show. Before they walked off the set after the final round, I told them "No hard feelings". They were still all-smiles, but looking at their facial expressions on the show (especially when I quickly solve "Port & Starboard”), I could tell they just wanted to strangle me, and I don't blame them. Regardless, Bonnie and Noelle had nothing but nice things to say during the commercial breaks.
During a commercial break, as we were preparing for the third Toss-Up puzzle, Pat referred to our buzzers as "detonators" and told the ladies, "Are you ready to blow up Robert?" Obviously, he was joking. Pat knows when to joke and when to be serious, but it's funny to read comments online from people thinking Pat was annoyed with me. He was actually very impressed, and so was Vanna. During the credits of the show, where the winner stands at center stage and talks with Pat and Vanna, she told me, "Robert, you're amazing!" And after the cameras stopped, Pat told the audience, "Robert solved three more puzzles from next week's shows."
It was one of the most impressive Wheel performances I can remember. How you feel overall about your appearance?
Thank you! Nice to know there are other daily viewers in Yorktown. I definitely consider my performance above-average, but there have been plenty of people who have scored better than me, including three million-dollar winners. There have also been a lucky few who have solved every single puzzle.
I'm so blessed by all the support I've received from people I know and across social media. My friends from the fan-site started a Twitter hashtag of #RobertOnWheel. I know I look like a bit of a dork on the show with my high-pitched "Yeahs!" and my childish jumping up and down after winning the Bonus Round, but I was really, to quote the Round 4 puzzle, "Living in the Moment.” I was so anxious when on the stage. I was shaking the whole time. First out of nervousness, then out of excitement once I kept solving puzzles. I got those same feelings when I finally watched the episode on TV. It feels weird seeing and hearing myself on a show that I've watched other strangers on for over 20 years. In the meantime, I've made tons of new friends with former and upcoming “Wheel” contestants on social media and the fan-site buyavowel.boards.net. I even got a few comments from viewers saying they cried watching me win. I also have to laugh at people saying that I cheated or got the answers from somewhere. It's all about knowing the common tendencies of the show, like the $1,000 Toss-Up always being themed, or when your next spin could land in the area of a Bankrupt. I gave Bonnie and Noelle a few chances but they kept getting Bankrupts and calling wrong letters. There wasn't much I could do but solve. I really like how close we all buzzed in on the third Toss-Up ("Easy Breezy”).
'Til it happens to you, you won't know how it feels to be a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune.” I encourage anyone who likes to play along with the show to just apply online. You have nothing to lose. Regardless of how well you do, the experience is the same for everyone. The entire Wheel crew treats you like family, the contestant coordinators especially. They're your best friends for the day. They'll sit down next to you and have conversations with you and make you feel right at home. You can tell they love their jobs and the people they get to know every single taping.
Did you graduate from Yorktown High School? If so, what year?
I did not. For high school, I went to Soundview Preparatory School. When I started there, it was located in Mt. Kisco, but only a few months later, we moved to the former Beaver Farm in Yorktown on the corner of Underhill Avenue and Route 118. It's a beautiful campus. I graduated with a record-high class in 2011. I recently got hired by the school as an IT assistant. It's been great coming back to the school and seeing most of my old teachers, and the support from them and the students for my appearance and big win has been outstanding.