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This article lists American game show winnings records and goes into 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 with ballooning prizes.
From the Golden Age of Television the overall – and longest held – record was set by Teddy Nadler ($264,000) in 1957 and was not bested until 1980 by Thom McKee ($312,700). Just before the end of the century John Carpenter won $1,000,000 on Millionaire. A few years later, Kevin Olmstead won the accumulating Millionaire jackpot of $2.18 million; he was then supplanted by Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings in November 2004 with $2.5 million from 75 games. In 2005, Brad Rutter overtook Jennings with a total of $3.2 million by winning the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions (defeating Jennings head-to-head in the process). Rutter competed against Jennings and Watson, an IBM supercomputer, in the 2011 Jeopardy! IBM Challenge. Rutter placed third, winning $200,000, half of which was donated to charity. Jennings won $300,000 ($150,000 of which was donated to charity) in the same tournament for finishing second. When combined with $500,000 he won on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? in 2008, Jennings' total has reached $3,773,414.29 as of February 2011, again propelling him to the top of the overall winnings list.
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The daytime all-time winnings record (for a cumulative run on a show) is held by Tom O'Brien, a contestant on Sale of the Century in 1987. A contestant during the Winners' Board era of the show, O'Brien won all 11 games he played in, winning 10 prizes off the board plus a $50,000 bonus for winning an 11th consecutive game. That, plus over $20,000 in winnings in Tournament of Champions play, gave O'Brien a grand total of over $173,000 in cash and prizes.
The single day record, 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 money-and-a-spin squares, and his game had to be split into two episodes (which aired Friday, June 8 and Monday, June 11, 1984 after being taped on May 19) because 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's record was broken by Vickyann Chrobak-Sadowski on The Price Is Right, who also set a regular show record in the process on the show's 35th season premiere. She won $147,517 in cash and prizes, including both Showcases.
The record for overall winnings on American game shows has changed hands quite a few times over the years. Although the fifties 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 on The $64,000 Challenge.
It wasn't until 1980 that Nadler's record fell. During the summer of that year, a US 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 (which wasn't true of many other shows). McKee won $312,700 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).
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, which made him the highest winner in game show history.
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 (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.
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 climbed to the top 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 called the answer "the final answer heard 'round the world," then proclaimed Carpenter the show's (and worldwide format's) first millionaire.
Carpenter's record stayed 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. (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 million. Curtis Warren, who was part of the first team to win $1,000,000 on the show (of which his share was $410,000), was one of the contestants brought back to do so on February 12, 2000. After answering an elimination question, 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 Sale of the Century and Win Ben Stein's Money 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, a contestant named David Legler on Twenty One began a run to the top. Four days after Warren's win, the run continued, with Legler earning a grand total of $1,765,000 in six wins to surpass Warren's total and become the third contestant in a span of two months to top $1,000,000 on a game show. (Shortly after Rahim Oberholtzer's win, Twenty One changed its payoff structure, which is part of the reason why it took Legler 5 wins to reach $1 million in winnings and 6 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 (five months) 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 (US) 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. With his 59th consecutive win on October 25, 2004, Jennings joined Olmstead as the only two game show contestants at the time to win over $2,000,000 on a quiz show. It took Jennings six more wins to top Olmstead's record, which he accomplished in his 65th consecutive win. Jennings finished the day with $45,099 and a new record 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 the early 1990s, while Rutter had won the 2002 Million Dollar Masters tournament and had held the show's winnings record before Jennings broke it. Rutter was also one of two contestants in the tournament who could surpass Jennings' lifetime total by winning the top prize (Bernie Cullen, who was eliminated in the prior rounds of the tournament, was the other on the basis of his being a top prize winner on Millionaire in 2001).
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 Masters win, and three matches in the earlier rounds of the UToC), 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 1 vs. 100. (Rutter also participated in a later Mob on the show, and was eliminated without winning any money; both also participated in a Last Man Standing match, and neither won any money; Rutter was eliminated first, and Jennings on the last question.) A year later Jennings won the Grand Slam tournament and the $100,000 top prize by defeating Ogi Ogas (who defeated Rutter in the quarterfinals) in the final. Finally, on October 10, 2008, Jennings passed Rutter by winning $500,000 on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?. The record total, which includes a $150,000 prize earned for finishing second in the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge, aired on February 14–16, 2011, now stands at $3,773,414.29. (Jennings was awarded $300,000 for the appearance but donated half the prize to charity—VillageReach.)
|1||Ken Jennings||$3,773,414.29||Jeopardy!, $3,172,700||Jennings won $2,522,700 in his original run on Jeopardy!, $500,000 for his second place finish in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions., and $300,000 ($150,000 of which was donated to charity) in the 2011 Jeopardy! IBM Challenge.|
|1 vs. 100, $714.29|
|Grand Slam, $100,000|
|Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, $500,000|
|2||Brad Rutter||$3,470,102||Jeopardy!, $3,370,102||Rutter's total includes $55,102 during his initial appearance on Jeopardy! in 2001, $100,000 in 2002's Tournament of Champions, $1,000,000 for winning the Million Dollar Masters tournament in 2002, $2,115,000 for winning the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, and $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|
|3||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.|
|4||Sandra Diaz-Twine||$2,000,000||Survivor: Pearl Islands, $1,000,000||Diaz-Twine's total includes her prize for being Sole Survivor on Pearl Islands and her prize for Sole Survivor on the all-star series Heroes vs. Villains, each prize being $1,000,000. Also holds the record for most winnings by a woman.|
|Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, $1,000,000|
|5||Ed Toutant||$1,871,000||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.|
|Jeopardy!, $11,401 source j-archive.com|
|7||David Legler||$1,765,000||Twenty One|
|8||Curtis Warren||$1,546,988||Greed, $1,410,000||Warren won $410,000 during his initial appearance on Greed and later won an additional $1,000,000 during a Million Dollar Moment contest.|
|Sale of the Century, $136,288|
|Win Ben Stein's Money, $700|
|9||"Boston" Rob Mariano||$1,345,910||Survivor, $1,298,410||From 4 appearances on Survivor, including 1 win, and 2 appearances with his wife Amber on The Amazing Race. Their best result was a second place finish in season 7.|
|The Amazing Race, $47,500|
|10||Adam Rose||$1,153,908||The Price Is Right||Rose was the first millionaire on the prime-time $1,000,000 Spectacular. Total includes a $1,000,000 double showcase win bonus, two showcases, a $20,000 cash prize for winning the Grand Game pricing game, and winning an item up for bids in One Bid.|