Neil Horne, a chess champion from Gugulethu, Cape Town, made local television history on his 52nd birthday (15 April) by becoming the first contestant to win more than R100 000 on Wheel of Fortune South Africa.

In the legendary game show, which has been airing in the US since 1975 and finally made it to our shores on 8 April 2024, three contestants spin a giant carnival wheel and solve word puzzles to win cash or fabulous prizes.

Besides a snazzy red Suzuki Grand Vitara and other mystery prizes, the highest amount of cash up for grabs in Wheel of Fortune South Africa’s bonus round, played by the winner of the previous rounds, is the R100 000 Neil managed to clinch with his incredible word skills – and some assistance from Lady Luck.

In addition to the top cash prize, Neil also pocketed R2 600 earlier in the game, bringing his total winnings to R102 600.

Usually, big-money winners on big-name game shows leap out of their skins when surprised with such huge sums of money. However, Neil contained his emotions with a straight face. Even host Rorisang Thandekiso, jumping with joy, commented that she seemed more excited than him.

However, this unemotional approach matched Neil’s unflappable style throughout the episode.

Playing against Ruben Smith, a High School Computer and Business teacher from Pretoria, and the effervescent Tshiamo Tshabalala, a Political Science graduate from Brits, it was a slow and disappointing start for chess champion and word master Neil.

Ruben won the first “Toss-up”, where fast fingers counted. The category was “Quotes from movies”, and after the show, Neil confessed that he was bummed about Ruben solving the puzzle first: “The answer was ‘May the force be with you’. I thought to myself, ‘Ruben was probably not even born when the first Star Wars movie came out’!”

Then, Tshiamo won the first round. But Neil stayed calm and collected – a strategy that also served him in good stead as the reigning Bellville chess champion.

The next “Toss-up” was an easy solve for Neil. Yet again, it was almost game over when Tshiamo had one letter remaining to crack the second round. Lucky for him, she chose the wrong letter.

So, proceeding to the bonus round, Neil had to spin the wheel to land on one of 24 envelopes, not knowing the content inside. From the three categories presented to him, he picked “Around the house” and nailed the puzzle.

The mystery prize inside the envelope turned out to be the whopping R100 000!

Despite his composed composition on the show, Neil says, “Being on Wheel of Fortune South Africa was bundles of fun. I was also in awe of the aesthetics of the studio and set.”

Furthermore, Neil attributes his Wheel of Fortune success to his scrabble prowess, knowing the permutations of letters to compose a word and “just being lucky”.

Neil has won several Scrabble tournaments, including the prestigious Western Province Masters. He also plays Killer Sudoko daily.

Wheel of Fortune South Africa is made possible by Cell C and airs on S3 Mondays to Fridays at 19:30. There are daily rebroadcasts on SABC 2 the following day at 09:30 and an omnibus on S3 on Saturdays from 09:00-12:30.