The pressure was rising, the chances of winning six figures were getting more remote, and Jade Thomas, a 29-year-old former U.S. marine, was starting to feel worried under the bright lights of the "Deal or No Deal" stage. Then host and executive producer Howie Mandel invited Thomas' mother to join her.
"When Howie brought my mom on stage, I felt a lot of stress and anxiety float away," Thomas tells CNBC Make It. "I got very emotional because my mom and I are so close and I think he saw the relationship we have is very genuine."
The company helped: "Having that comfort so close to me," she says, "just made me feel reassured, like, 'OK, you can do this. You've got this.'"
Thomas and her mom, Cheryl Myles, have always shared a special bond, even in a family of seven children. That's why whatever amount of money she won, Thomas says, she knew would split: "Half for my mom, half for me."
"I've always felt like we've had that close relationship," Thomas says. "At the end of the day … I know if my mom ever needs anything, she can depend on me."
For a while during the game, though, it was Thomas who needed to depend on her mom for support. "When she first went up there," Myles recalls, "I think she was a little nervous because I'm watching her face and, I mean, I know my kid's face. She looked a little tense.
"I think I put her more at ease. I think they may have called me up to be her good luck charm."
Indeed, luck seemed to strike: Myles began eliminating cases with low amounts of money.
"Yeah, I don't know how that happened. It's one of those things," Myles says. "When we saw the low numbers going off, our minds were just like, 'Oh, my God.' We had no rhyme or reason, or we didn't have a system of which number to call first, second or anything.
"But it did seem like the tide turned when I went up. It was like, 'Wow. … Did I really turn the tables for my daughter? Was I finally able to do something for Jade that she's always done for me?' So I was really happy at that point that I could make such a difference in her game."
As more cases were knocked off the board, Thomas thought to herself, "Let's just keep going. As long as you don't open the million, you're going to keep going." And every time another low amount was eliminated from the game, she says, "of course, it was just unreal."
But like Mandel, who says he'd be one of the show's "worst contestants ever" because he doesn't like to gamble with money, Thomas says she also wanted to "play smart" and approach the second half more conservatively.
"I've watched episodes where people have walked away with nothing — $5, $10, less than a thousand dollars," she says. "And I knew going in that you still have to play with a level head."
She ultimately accepted a deal from the banker for $233,000, plus a bonus drum kit for her mom, who is an avid drummer.
Thomas says she isn't bummed about not winning $1 million. "I am not disappointed at all. I am so grateful for the amount of money that I won. I went in there with a set amount that I was hoping would be a goal and I surpassed what my intentions were."
Plus, she was excited about the game itself. "The whole experience was absolutely a dream come true. The best part was spending time with my family because we never had a family vacation growing up, so it was nice for us all … to have a nice little vacation."
Thomas says she hopes the money can help her parents, since they sacrificed so much to raise her and her siblings. "My parents, especially my mom, sacrificed a lot raising seven children. She sacrificed having a career so she can be at home taking care of [us].
"I knew that once it was time for me to leave the military and head down the road to become a teacher that, when I was established in my career, I was going to find a way, somehow, to give back to my mom and dad," she says. "That means more to me than winning the money."
As for her half of the winnings, Thomas says she and her husband plan to buy a home in Georgia, pay off some lingering debt and take their two daughters to Disney, "because we've never been on a family vacation, either."
And for the rest, she plans to put it into savings. "I don't plan to blow it in a day. We want to make sure we're being smart about it."
Her advice to anyone who comes into a huge windfall: Take a breather before making any big decisions — an idea co-signed by Tomorrow Rodriguez, who won $1 million on the show in 2008.
"Really think about what you want to do because you'd hate to think back, like, 'Man, I just blew through this money,'" she says. "Hold out for a second before you start swiping your card."
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