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In the United States, a game show is a type of radio, television, or internet program in which contestants, television personalities or celebrities, sometimes as part of a team, play a game which involves answering trivia questions and/or solving puzzles, usually for money and/or prizes. Game shows are usually distinguishable from reality television competition shows, in which the competition consumes an entire season of episodes; in a game show, prizes can typically be won in a single match (in some cases, particularly in the ones that offer record-setting prizes, contestants can play multiple matches and accumulate a larger total). Beginning with the first five-figure and six-figure game show jackpots in the mid-1950s, a succession of contestants on various quiz shows of the era each set records. Terry Nadler of The $64,000 Challenge, the highest-scoring contestant of the 1950s era, was not surpassed until 1980, when Thom McKee won $312,700 on Tic-Tac-Dough. Between 1999 and 2001, during a brief boom in high-stakes game shows, the record was broken six times. Both the 1955–1958 and 1999–2001 eras of rapidly set and broken records were driven primarily by one-upmanship between the networks each trying to secure bragging rights and ratings by inflating their prize offerings, rather than the merits of the contestants themselves. As of May 2019, Brad Rutter is the highest-earning American game show contestant of all time, having accumulated a total of $4,888,436. He succeeded Ken Jennings as the highest-earning contestant (a record he had held since 2004) by virtue of his victory on May 16, 2014 in the Jeopardy!Battle of the Decades tournament. American daytime television has historically had smaller prize budgets for game shows that air in that daypart.
Most daytime game show top prizes were limited to $25,000 during the 1960s and 1970s, a restriction made for both budgetary concerns and to assuage criticism that arose from the 1950s quiz show scandals. The single day record for shows in daytime television was set by Michael Larson in 1984, who won $110,237 (equivalent to $266,000 in 2018) on Press Your Luck. Larson achieved this record by memorizing the show's board patterns, repeatedly hitting the board's squares that awarded contestants money and an additional spin, which would, in turn, replace the spin he had just used, effectively allowing him to spin the board in the second round as long as he wanted. Because of this, his game had to be split into two episodes (which aired June 8 and June 11), as his turn caused the game to go well over the show's half-hour allotted time. At the time of the show's airing, CBS only allowed contestants to win up to $50,000 on a game show (contestants would retire after winning $25,000); the winnings limit increased to $75,000 in November and $100,000 in 1986 (and later $125,000 by 1990) before being permanently eliminated in 2006. In March 2003, Game Show Network produced a documentary about the event featuring Ed Long and Janie Litras-Dakan, the contestants Larson handily defeated in 1984.
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, winning a Dodge Caravan playing 'Push Over', $1,000 cash and both showcases. In 2013, Chrobak-Sadowski was succeeded by Sheree Heil, who set the record by winning $170,345 on The Price Is Right 'Best of 2013' special, winning an Audi R8 playing 'Gas Money', $10,000 cash and Prada shoes. In 2016, Heil was succeeded by Christen Freeman, who set the record by winning $210,000 on October 28, during the show's 'Big Money Week' special. As Cliff Hangers was the episode's Big Money game, game rules were modified to offer a top prize of $250,000, which was reduced by $10,000 for every step the mountain climber took. In addition to her One Bid prize and an additional $1,000 won during the Showcase Showdown, Freeman's grand total was $212,879, setting a new daytime record.
During the early quiz show boom of the mid-1950s, Richard McCutcheon set the first winnings record by winning the title prize on The $64,000 Question in 1955, matched shortly thereafter by Joyce Brothers despite producers attempting to give her questions they thought she could not answer. Ethel Park Richardson set the next winnings record of $100,000 on The Big Surprise no later than March 1956 before being surpassed by Charles Van Doren, who defeated $69,500 winner Herb Stempelen route to winning $129,000 on Twenty One. Within weeks of Van Doren's victory, Teddy Nadler set a record during the 1956–1957 television season that would stand for the next two decades, winning $264,000 (equivalent to $2,433,000 in 2018) on The $64,000 Challenge. The quiz show scandals of 1958 and 1959 prompted the cancellation of most of the big-budget game shows and the imposition of strict limits on prize amounts, which meant that through the 1960s and 1970s, game show contestants could not match their 1950s counterparts. Stempel openly admitted the fraud after his defeat, though Van Doren insisted he had wanted to do the show honestly and refused to speak on the topic for decades afterward. Brothers's win, which ultimately added up to $128,000 after a follow-up win on The $64,000 Challenge, was ultimately upheld as legitimate, and she went on to a prolonged career as a psychologist and media personality. Nadler, a middle-school dropout, was exposed as a likely fraud when he failed a civil service exam trying to get a temporary job with the United States Census Bureau; he nonetheless was not investigated for any role in the scandal.
It was not until the summer of 1980 that Nadler's record fell, when 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 (similar to that of Jeopardy! beginning with the 2003–2004 season) 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 (equivalent to $951,000 in 2018) 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 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 season 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 biggest winner in American game show history at the time. Shutterly had previously won $49,200 as a four-day champion on Jeopardy! in 1988, making his career winnings total $549,200. On November 19, during the second season of MillionairePowerpoint with animations to pdf. in the United States, the show crowned its first million-dollar winner when John Carpenter won the show's top prize without using any lifelines, save for a phone call on the final question, when he told 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 intact until the following year. In early 2000, Rahim Oberholtzer, a contestant on the revival of NBC's 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 $1,120,000. For surpassing Carpenter's mark, then-host Maury Povich proclaimed Oberholtzer 'the TV Game Show King'. Late in its run, the Fox game show Greed brought 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 eight 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. Warren's record was even shorter lived than Oberholtzer's had been, lasting only four days. Three days before Warren's win, David Legler, who also appeared on 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 two months to top $1,000,000 on a game show.
Legler held the record for well over a year, outlasting Twenty One itself: by July 2000, the million-dollar game show boom had gone bust and both Greed and Twenty One (along with several others) were cancelled, leaving Millionaire as the last surviving million-dollar game show on American television from that boom; it would not be until April 2001 (with the arrival of the similarly short-lived Weakest Link) that another would be attempted. By the start of 2001, the producers of Millionaire decided that it had been too long (71 episodes 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 episode it was not won. Kevin Olmstead claimed the top prize on April 10, 2001, winning a jackpot of $2,180,000. Olmstead became the first contestant to top $2,000,000 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 $10,000,000 top prize. Two separate Super Millionaire series aired, one in February and a second in May. 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.
One week after Super Millionaire came to an end, Ken Jennings of Salt Lake City, Utah became the new champion on Jeopardy! The episode, which was broadcast on June 2, 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. On November 3, 2004, 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 (equivalent to $2,914,000 in 2018). Jennings won nine more games before his streak came to an end on November 30, 2004 at the hands of contestant Nancy Zerg. 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's 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 $2,000,000 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 was the show's highest-earning contestant of all-time before Jennings. In the tournament's three-day final, Rutter defeated Jennings and Vered to win the tournament and $2,000,000, supplanting Jennings as the winningest all time American game show contestant in the process. 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 Jeopardy! event in 2011. Rutter won $200,000 in the challenge, in which both he and Jennings pledged half of their winnings to charity. Rutter then added $100,000 more when he appeared on Million Dollar Mind Game, raising his total to $3,555,102, second only to Jennings's $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 (who had set the previous single-day winnings record of $77,000 in 2010) 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. Jennings appeared on Millionaire in November 2014. Winning the top prize was the only way he could reclaim the record from Rutter; however, he finished with only $100,000, leaving him in second place. He was then a contestant on the ABC primetime show 500 Questions in 2016; however, as he only lasted four questions, he was unable to add to his total. Both Jennings and Rutter competed in the Jeopardy! All-Star Games in 2019. Under the format of that tournament, teams of three competed in a relay to win a $1,000,000 top prize split between them. Thus, either Jennings or Rutter would be able to add up to $333,333.33 to their total as captain of their respective team if they won. It would not have been enough for Jennings to surpass Rutter. But it was Rutter's team who won the tournament, with Jennings's team finishing second and splitting $300,000.
NBC's The Million Second Quiz artificially inflated its grand prize to allow for Andrew Kravis, the winner of the ten-day tournament, to claim a record for most money won on a single game show in regular play. Kravis had only won $2,326,346 during actual play ($326,346 during the game, plus the $2,000,000 grand prize) but was awarded $2,600,000 solely so the show could lay claim to the record. Factoring overall winnings, which includes a $50,500 win on Wheel of Fortune and two consolation prizes for losing on Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Kravis's total sits in third as of 2019.
A month after the Jeopardy! All-Star Games came to an end, James Holzhauer became the new Jeopardy! champion. The episode, which was broadcast on April 4, 2019, was the first in a 32-game winning streak where he joined Jennings and Rutter as the only contestants in Jeopardy! history to win at least $1,000,000 (as of the episode broadcast on April 23) and $2,000,000 (as of the episode broadcast on May 24). He also surpassed Roger Craig's Jeopardy! single-day winnings (on multiple occasions), pushing the record to $131,127 on the episode broadcast on April 17. Holzhauer ultimately won $2,464,216 during his Jeopardy! run, which combined with his prize of $58,333.33 from his appearance on The Chase in 2014 places him fourth in total game show earnings.
|Rank||Name||Total winnings |
|1||Brad Rutter||$4,888,436||Jeopardy!, $4,788,436||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 during the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005; $200,000 for finishing third in the 2011 Jeopardy! IBM Challenge; and one-third of a $1,000,000 prize for winning the 2019 Jeopardy! All-Star Games, split between him and his Team Brad teammates David Madden and Larissa Kelly. The $100,000 that he won on Million Dollar Mind Game in 2011 was a portion of a $600,000 prize that was split between six contestants.|
|Million Dollar Mind Game, $100,000|
|2||Ken Jennings||$4,223,414||Jeopardy!, $3,522,700||Jennings won $2,522,700 in his original 75-episode run on Jeopardy!; $500,000 for his second-place finish in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions; $300,000 in the 2011 IBM Challenge; $100,000 for finishing second in the Battle of the Decades; and $100,000 for finishing second in the 2019 Jeopardy! All-Star Games as a portion of a $300,000 cash winnings split between Jennings and his teammates Monica Thieu and Matt Jackson. In addition to his appearances on other shows, Jennings also competed on 500 Questions in 2016; however, he did not add to his total, lasting only four questions.|
|Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, $500,000|
|Grand Slam, $100,000|
|Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $100,000|
|1 vs. 100, $714.29|
|3||Andrew Kravis||$2,656,550||The Million Second Quiz, $2,600,000||In the 2013 The Million Second Quiz, Kravis won $326,346 in the main competition as one of the top four finalists, then won a $2,000,000 grand prize. The producers then deliberately rounded up Kravis's total to $2,600,000 as a contrivance to ensure that Kravis's total would break the record then held by Jennings. He previously took part in Jeopardy!'s Teen Tournament in 2002 and was eliminated in the tournament's semifinal round.|
|Wheel of Fortune, $50,550|
|Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $1,000|
|4||James Holzhauer||$2,522,549||Jeopardy!, $2,464,216||Holzhauer won $2,464,216 in his 33-episode run on the daily Jeopardy! in 2019, less than $59,000 short of matching Jennings' record for regular (non-tournament) winnings on that show. Holzhauer had previously won $58,333.33 in 2014 on The Chase, one-third of a $175,000 jackpot split among his three-person team. He also appeared on 500 Questions, but did not win anything.|
|The Chase, $58,333.33|
|5||Kevin Olmstead||$2,207,000||Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $2,180,000||Olmstead's primary 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 Jennings. He also held the record as the biggest winner on a primetime game show in U.S. television history for over twelve years before Kravis broke it on September 19, 2013.|
|6||Ed Toutant||$1,871,401||Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $1,860,000||Toutant (December 27, 1951 - November 6, 2018) 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.|
|7||Ashlee Register||$1,795,000||Duel, $1,795,000||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 and the record for the most money won by an American who has only ever appeared on one game show.|
|8||David Legler||$1,765,000||Twenty One, $1,765,000||Legler won $1,765,000 over six wins on the 2000 revival of Twenty One, making him the show's biggest winner.|
|9||Curtis Warren||$1,546,988||Greed, $1,410,000||After Warren won $410,000 in late 1999 on Greed, he was one of four big winners invited back in early 2000 for the Million Dollar Moment, where he added a then-record-setting $1,000,000 prize to his total winnings on the show. Warren also won money on Sale of the Century in 1986, Win Ben Stein's Money in 1998, and failed to win any money on Jeopardy! in a 1986 appearance.|
|Sale of the Century, $136,288|
|Win Ben Stein's Money, $700|
|10||John Carpenter||$1,250,000||Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, $1,250,000||Carpenter's winnings include $1,000,000 as first ever top prize winner on the show, and $250,000 in the champions edition of the show.|