“Wheel of Fortune” was a television staple in Glen Czernik’s Logan Square home. His mother, Terry, would watch it while she prepared dinner; he often watched it while he ate supper. Czernik, who now works as a River Forest police officer, watched it so much that he got good at doing word puzzles.
“I always could guess the puzzles before the contestants could,” he said. “I figured that I would decently if I ever got a chance to be on.”
Czernik, River Forest’s crime prevention officer got the chance – and really shone. On May 17, the 31-year-old Park Ridge resident came away with $57,398 in cash and prizes.
Getting picked to be a contestant on the show, Czernik said, was a matter of luck. But he chalked up his success to his puzzle-solving skills.
Last summer, he found out there was a casting call in Rosemont for “Wheel,” so he went and applied. Czernik’s application was pulled at random from hundreds of others. In December, he went to downtown Chicago for an audition, which included a sped-up version of a puzzle, taking a written test and figuring out another puzzle. He also had to tell a story about himself before a group.
The following month, Czernik found out in a letter that he was in the contestant pool, and that he would likely be on the show during the next 18 months.
At the end of March, he and his wife Jackie traveled to Los Angeles for a taping – no expenses paid. The episode he’d be on would be part of the “Great Cities America” tour. He tried to keep his appearance quiet, but that didn’t work. Once he asked for time off to fly to L.A., word got around.
Once he got there, Czernik said he was a bit nervous. There were a whole lot of things to remember: how to spin the wheel so he didn’t hurt his hands (it’s heavier than it looks), strategies on where to stand, how to project his voice and basic game tips (the most common vowel is an e, there were common letter combinations). There was a run-through so Czernik and the other two contestants could get the hang of it.
“They didn’t want people to crash and burn; they wanted everyone to do good,” he said. “They wanted contestants to have a good time and stay positive.”
Even when cameras were off, host Pat Sajak kept the tone light and helped put everyone at ease. He didn’t get to speak with the other host Vanna White, but she did go backstage before taping to wish everyone good luck and spoke as well to the crowd.
Czernik said he stuttered a bit during the introduction and admitted he didn’t do too well during the two beginning rounds. But he gained his composure after winning a round for the first time.
“I wasn’t too nervous about the crowd or the camera. I was more nervous about not messing up,” he said. “When I won, Sajak said, ‘There’s that smile.’ I got a ‘solved’ under my belt, my head was cleared and I started solving puzzles.”
His “task” was done when he won the prize puzzle — and a trip to Hawaii.
“Before I went on camera, my wife said she wanted me to win a trip to Hawaii. I didn’t care how much money I won,” said Czernik. “When I won the puzzle prize, well, my job was done.”
Then he got into and won the bonus round. Czernik’s wife was so excited she bounded onstage and hugged her husband.
The hardest part was when he got home. He couldn’t tell anyone when the show would air or how well he did, questions people asked him daily. Friends and colleagues grilled him for answers; the only person who knew was his wife.
The week before the show, on May 10, he could tell everyone when the show aired, but he didn’t let anyone know how much he won (he had to sign a pledge that he wouldn’t tell, or he’d lose all his winnings if he did).
A big banner with a photo of him on Wheel hung in the police department until the day the show aired.
On the night of the show, he got loads of calls, texts and Facebook messages from friends, family and colleagues. Family in Cincinnati had watch parties. Friends from Cornell College in Iowa, where Czernik attended, found out and tried to watch, but the show was preempted by 30 minutes of tornado warnings.
The day afterward, Czernik brought in treats to thank staff and colleagues for watching.
“I wasn’t trying to make a big deal out of it,” he said. “I sent out an announcement, because from the time I came back from L.A., everyone was asking me when it’d be on.”
Czernik said he doesn’t know when he and his wife will go to Oahu for a week. He said he also won a $1,000 gift card to Harry Caray’s Steakhouse.
“There’ll be a lot of Harry Caray’s. I’m hoping to use it as much as I can for as many meals as I can,” he said.
He added he probably would use some of the cash for home improvements.
What did he learn from the experience?
“Now that I did it, I learned that anyone could be on the ‘Wheel’ if they wanted to,” Czernik said. “It might be a cliché, but things that seem out of reach may not be out of reach; just give it a shot.
“A lot luck led me to bonus round, my name drawn at the audition, I had a good audition and did well at the wheel. If you want to do something that’s on your bucket list, give it a shot to say that you tried.”