Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Bell's Hell

The search for Chancellor Valorum, or what a fast-food contest can do to a man.

By George Shadroui

JULY 12, 1999:  I could claim temporary insanity.

Only I have done that before, like when I got on my Tunica kick or the time I called in to a sports talk show.

Even by my juvenile standards, though, this latest case was strange. I rarely participate in contests, have no expectation of winning door prizes, and rarely bother to check the Pepsi tabs to see if I am an instant winner. Like most Americans, I saw Star Wars years ago, and I had eaten in Taco Bell maybe 12 times in my entire life. Friends would tell you, if you could ask them, that I am one of the least impressionable people they know when it comes to popular culture. I have spent most of my life not even owning a television.

Yet, somehow, the gods of manipulative marketing messages reached out and grabbed me by the throat. It began innocently when I got in the mood for a new place for lunch. I started going to Taco Bell, which was close to work. A taco, a gordita, and a large iced tea. Little game-board medallions were cleverly packaged on the drink lids. Pull the tab, find your colorful medallion, move on with life. No fuss, no expectations, no big deal -- at first.

I collected a handful of them -- Queen Amidala, C-3PO, and Anakin Skywalker. They were cool-looking characters, so I stuck them in my car and forgot about them. But I kept going back to Taco Bell and gradually began to get multiple pieces. Before long I had all the reds covered on the board but one. It suddenly dawned on me that all I needed to win $1 million was Chancellor Valorum!

After that, it starts to get a little hazy.

I have recollections of sitting in Taco Bell watching other people eat, paying special attention to their reactions when they pulled the lid tab off. Could it be that they had the piece I needed and had no idea of its true value? Nonchalantly, I would walk up to tables, shoot a quick glance down at their trays, and note whether they had a missing piece. Some had the annoying habit of putting their pieces face-down so I couldn't see if it was a piece I already had. Still, this mad strategy paid off a few times. I found Mace Windu on the floor, asked an unsuspecting older lady for Darth Maul, and negotiated with a group of 10-year-olds for Sebulba. The 10-year-olds were impressed when I told them I needed Chancellor Valorum to win. But they had never seen him.

Taco Bell became a regular part of my diet, as were the large sweet teas that left me wide-eyed, upright in bed night after night. Friends and colleagues watched me with a mixture of pity and astonishment as I approached total strangers to ask if they had any pieces they could spare. I even went through the trash bin at Taco Bell when I saw a piece face-down, thinking it might be a winner. Eat at Taco Bell, I urged friends and colleagues around the country. I'll split the proceeds if you find my winning piece!

My winning piece!? What was happening to me?

It all came tumbling down with a simple phone call. A colleague with two children, 8 and 10, allowed me to call them to discuss a partnership. I would provide them with a winning piece if I got it, if they would do the same for me. But as we made our way around the board, the truth exploded like a seven-layer burrito. We were all missing the exact same pieces!

They needed the elusive Chancellor Valorum. So did I! I needed Yoda. So did they! The Daultay Dofine was worth $10,000 to me. And to them! Finding the medallions of Battle Droid or Shmi Skywalker was about as likely as finding a Big Mac in Taco Bell.

I was downright annoyed.

So I went to the nearest Taco Bell and found the wall where they display the rules. There it was for all to see -- odds of winning were 300 million to 1 for the $1 million pieces. Odds for the $10,000 prize were 6 million to 1. To win even a thousand dollars, the odds were 200,000 to 1. What a gyp!

This led to another obsession. A few colleagues and I did some quick mathematical calculations and discovered the following (we think). Stack up eight medallions like coins and that gives you roughly an inch. Stack up 300 million of them and it would take 200 miles of medallions stacked on top of one another before you would get a winning piece. Or, look at it another way. How many large iced teas would it take to get a winning piece, all things being statistically normal? Answer: an ocean of it. You would spend $300 million on iced tea to win $1 million! Not the kind of rational economic analysis likely to land one in the Fortune 500 or on Wall Street (unless you were selling the tea, of course).

All I can say in my defense is that, for some bizarre reason, it felt good to be 10 years old again, even for a few fleeting weeks.

Anyone need 50 worthless Star War medallions? I'll sell them cheap.

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