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This article lists American game show winnings records and details the history and people who have held them. Through the years there have been number of big winners as American game shows competed for viewers' attention by offering ballooning prizes to their contestants.
During the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s, the overall, and longest held, record was set by Teddy Nadler with $264,000 in 1957. Nadler's record was not bested until 1980 by Thom McKee, who won $312,700 on Tic-Tac-Dough. In 1999, John Carpenter won $1,000,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, becoming the first person to win a seven figure prize on a quiz show. Since then, many players have gone on to win that amount and even surpassed it. As of May 16, 2014, Brad Rutter is the all time highest-earning American game show contestant with a total of $4,555,102. He succeeded Ken Jennings as the highest-earning contestant by virtue of his victory in the Jeopardy! Battle of the Decades tournament.
The single day record for shows in daytime television, for many years, was held by Michael Larson, who won $110,237 on Press Your Luck in 1984. Larson achieved his record by memorizing the show's board patterns. He repeatedly hit the board's squares that awarded constants with money and an additional spin, allowing him to spin the board in the second round as long as wanted. Because of this, his game had to be split into two episodes (which aired June 8 and June 11, 1984), as his turn caused the game to go well over the show's half-hour allotted time. In 2003, Game Show Network produced a documentary about the event.
In 2006, Larson was succeeded by Vickyann Chrobak-Sadowski, who set the record by winning $147,517 on the 35th season premiere of The Price Is Right in 2006. Chrobak-Sadowski's record has since been broken by Sheree Heil from Heil's appearance on The Price Is Right in 2013. She won $170,345 in cash and prizes on the episode that aired December 30, 2013, including an Audi R8 won in Gas Money, $10,000 cash, and Prada shoes.
The record for overall winnings on American game shows has changed hands quite a few times over the years. Although the 1950s had their share of big winners (Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren of Twenty One infamy being two of the most notable), the biggest winner of them all was Teddy Nadler in the 1956–57 television season, who set a record that would stand for the next two decades by winning $264,000 (today $2.29 million) on The $64,000 Challenge.
It was not until 1980 that Nadler's record fell. During the summer of that year, a U.S. Naval officer named Thom McKee began a run on Tic-Tac-Dough that carried over into the following season. Since champions on Tic Tac Dough played until they were defeated, and games on the show could end in ties with the pot carrying over, McKee was able to keep building his total as long as he kept playing and winning. McKee won $312,700 (today $895 thousand) in cash and prizes in 43 games, which included eight cars (on Tic Tac Dough and its sister show, The Joker's Wild, a contestant automatically won a car after every fifth game they won).
While McKee was the biggest solo winner until 1999, nine couples on The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime won the show's top prize of $1,000,000 (today $2.08 million) (in a combination of prizes and a long-term annuity) during the show's run in syndication from January 1986 to September 1987. However, this program had no solo players.
In 1999, McKee was passed by Michael Shutterly, who was the biggest winner in the first airing of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the United States. Shutterly was the first contestant on the show to get to the 15th and final question, but elected to walk instead with $500,000 (today $708 thousand), which made him the biggest winner in game show history at the time.
It was during the second season of Millionaire in the United States that the show crowned its first million-dollar winner. On November 19, 1999, John Carpenter won the show's top prize without using any lifelines, save for a phone call on the final question to tell his father he was going to win the million dollars. After Carpenter answered the final question, which concerned Richard Nixon's appearance on Laugh-In in 1968, host Regis Philbin proclaimed Carpenter the show's (and worldwide format's) first top prize winner.
Carpenter's record remained in tact until the following year. In early 2000, Rahim Oberholtzer, a contestant on the revival of Twenty One, won four games in his appearances on the show, along with $120,000 in the show's "Perfect 21" bonus round, for a total of $1.12 million. Host Maury Povich proclaimed him "the TV Game Show king" for surpassing Carpenter's mark.
Oberholtzer's record did not last long. Late in its run, the Fox show Greed began bringing back some of its previous winners to try for an extra $1,000,000. Curtis Warren, who was part of the first team to win $1,000,000 on the show (of which his share was $400,000, plus $10,000 for winning a terminator round), was one of the contestants brought back to do so on February 11, 2000. Warren was given a question about TV shows that had been made into movies, with 8 choices (of which he had to identify the four correct answers). He successfully did so, giving himself $1,410,000 and the record for the time being (although his record was actually higher than what was reported, based on his winnings on other game shows prior to his win on Greed).
Warren's record was even shorter lived than Oberholtzer's had been, lasting only four days. Three days before Warren's big win, David Legler, who also appeared on NBC's Twenty One, began a run as champion on the show. Four days after Warren's win, the run continued, with Legler having earned a grand total of $1,765,000 in six wins to surpass Warren's record and become the third contestant in a span of two months to top $1,000,000 on a game show. Shortly after Oberholtzer's win, Twenty One changed its payoff structure, which is part of the reason why it took Legler five wins to reach $1 million in winnings and six to top the record instead of the four it took Oberholtzer to top Carpenter's record.
Legler held the record for well over a year. As 2000 ended and 2001 began, the producers of Millionaire decided that it had been too long (71 games over a five month period) since their top prize had been won, and instituted an accumulating jackpot which added $10,000 to the grand prize amount for each game it was not won. Kevin Olmstead took the hot seat and claimed the top prize on April 10, 2001, winning a jackpot of $2,180,000. Olmstead became the first contestant to top $2 million in total winnings on a game show and supplanted Legler as the all time leader.
In 2004, ABC launched an ultra high-stakes version of Millionaire entitled Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire, with a $10 million top prize. Two separate Super Millionaire series aired, one in February and one in May of that year. However, despite the higher stakes and the potential for someone to top the all-time record for winnings, the largest prize awarded was $1,000,000 won by Robert Essig.
Exactly one week after Super Millionaire came to an end, Ken Jennings of Salt Lake City, Utah, became the new champion on Jeopardy! This June 2, 2004 episode was the first in a long winning streak for the software engineer, made possible due to a change at the beginning of that season (the show's twentieth on air in syndication), eliminating the longstanding rule limiting consecutive appearances for a champion to five. With no limit to his appearances, Jennings began to break many game show records. As his streak continued deeper into the 21st season, Jennings was inching closer and closer to Olmstead's record. Jennings topped Olmstead's Millionaire winnings with his 65th consecutive win, finishing the day with $45,099 and a new cumulative total of $2,197,000.
Jennings won nine more games before his streak came to an end on November 30, 2004. He had extended his record total to $2,520,700 at the time of his defeat, after which he was awarded an additional $2,000 for finishing in second place per Jeopardy! rules. Shortly after Jennings' defeat, Jeopardy! decided to see how he would fare in tournament play. On February 9, 2005, the show launched its Ultimate Tournament of Champions, inviting back 144 other past champions to compete over the next three months in a five-round single-elimination tournament with a $2 million grand prize. The field included the highest-winning five-time champions and winners of some previous tournaments, though not all invitees were able to participate. Jennings received a bye into the finals of the tournament, where he faced semi-final winners Jerome Vered and Brad Rutter in a three-game, cumulative total match. Vered had set a single-day scoring record during his appearance on the show in 1992, while Rutter had won the 2001 Tournament of Champions and the 2002 Million Dollar Masters tournament and had held the show's winnings record before Jennings broke it.
In the tournament's three-day final, Rutter handily defeated Jennings and Vered to win the tournament and $2,000,000, and in the process he supplanted Jennings as the winningest all time American game show contestant. Including the $1.18 million he had won in his previous Jeopardy! appearances (five regular season games, a Tournament of Champions win, the Million Dollar Masters win, and three matches in the earlier rounds of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions), Rutter's total stood at $3,255,102, while Jennings was now second with $3,022,700 having gained an additional $500,000 for his second place finish in the tournament.
Jennings slowly began to chip away at Rutter's record, first by winning $714.29 in 2006 as part of the Mob on NBC's 1 vs. 100. A year later, Jennings won the Grand Slam tournament on Game Show Network and the $100,000 top prize by defeating Ogi Ogas in the final round. Finally, on October 10, 2008, Jennings passed Rutter by winning $500,000 on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?. He extended the record by winning $300,000 in The IBM Challenge, where he and Rutter took on IBM supercomputer Watson in a special 2011 Jeopardy! event. Rutter, in the meantime, won $200,000 in the challenge (both he and Jennings pledged half of their winnings to charity) and added $100,000 more later in 2011 when he appeared on Million Dollar Mind Game to raise his total to $3,555,102, second only to Jennings' $3,923,414.29.
In 2014, Jennings and Rutter were both invited to play in the Jeopardy! Battle of the Decades, a tournament conducted by the producers of Jeopardy! to celebrate its thirtieth season in syndication. Both men advanced to the two-day tournament final with Roger Craig filling the third position. Needing a win to reclaim his record, Rutter took the top prize in the tournament after Jennings, who needed to answer the second day's Final Jeopardy clue correctly to win (after making a sufficient wager), failed to do so. Rutter won the top prize of $1,000,000 while Jennings won the $100,000 second prize.
|1||Brad Rutter||$4,555,102||Jeopardy!, $4,455,102||Rutter's total includes $55,102 during his initial appearance on Jeopardy! in 2001, $100,000 in 2002's Tournament of Champions, two separate $1,000,000 prizes (one for winning the Million Dollar Masters tournament in 2002 and one for winning the Battle of the Decades in 2014), $2,100,000 for winning the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, $200,000 ($100,000 of which was donated to charity) for finishing third in the 2011 Jeopardy! IBM Challenge.|
|Million Dollar Mind Game, $100,000|
|2||Ken Jennings||$4,023,414.29||Jeopardy!, $3,422,700||Jennings won $2,522,700 in his original run on Jeopardy!, $500,000 for his second place finish in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, $300,000 ($150,000 of which was donated to charity) in the 2011 IBM Challenge, and $100,000 for finishing second in the Battle of the Decades.|
|Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, $500,000|
|Grand Slam, $100,000|
|1 vs. 100, $714.29|
|3||Andrew Kravis||$2,656,550||The Million Second Quiz, $2,600,000||Kravis won $326,346 in the main competition as one of the top four finalists, then won a $2,000,000 grand prize plus an additional $273,654 as champion to bring his total to $2.6 million, surpassing the amount of money won by Jennings during his original run on Jeopardy!.|
|Wheel of Fortune, $50,550|
|Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $1,000|
|4||Kevin Olmstead||$2,207,000||Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $2,180,000||Olmstead's win occurred during the progressive jackpot shows on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001. Following this win, Olmstead held the record as the biggest winner in American television for over three years until it was broken by Ken Jennings. He also held the record as the biggest winner on a primetime game show in U.S. television history for over twelve years until it was broken by Andrew Kravis on September 19, 2013.|
|5||Ed Toutant||$1,871,401||Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $1,860,000||Toutant was another contestant during the progressive jackpot shows on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001. After missing a question which was later revealed to be flawed, Toutant was invited back to continue playing for the jackpot at the same level he was playing for during his original appearance. Toutant was able to complete the remaining questions and win a jackpot of $1.86 million.|
|6||Ashlee Register||$1,795,000||Duel||Register won $75,000 plus an accumulating $1,720,000 jackpot, giving her the record for most winnings by a female contestant on a game show in U.S. television history.|
|7||David Legler||$1,765,000||Twenty One||Legler won $1,765,000 over six wins with Twenty One's new payout structure, and was Twenty One's biggest winner.|
|8||Curtis Warren||$1,546,988||Greed, $1,410,000||Warren's two biggest wins include $60,000 in cash bonuses; he won $10,000 on Greed for accepting a Terminator challenge and $50,000 on Sale of the Century for a successful final defense of his championship. His record-setting win came in a Million Dollar Moment.|
|Sale of the Century, $136,288|
|Win Ben Stein's Money, $700|
|9||John Carpenter||$1,250,000||Who Wants to Be a Millionaire||Carpenter's winnings include $1,000,000 as first ever top prize winner on the show, and $250,000 ($125,000 of which was donated to charity) in the champions edition of the show.|
|10||Adam Rose||$1,153,908||The Price Is Right||Rose's total was achieved on a Price Is Right $1,000,000 Spectacular. He won $153,903 in cash and prizes, and because he won both of that evening's Showcases Rose was awarded a $1,000,000 cash bonus.|