Biggest winners in Jeopardy history

Written by:
January 15, 2020

Biggest winners in Jeopardy history

"Jeopardy!" was born as an answer to the game show scandals of the 1950s, when some of the most popular shows of the era were rigged by producers. Inspired by his wife, aspiring game show producer Merv Griffin created a game where you gave contestants the answer—then, they had to give you a question. The show almost didn't make it to air because studio executives complained it was too difficult and that people at home wouldn't want to watch if they didn't know the answer. The show's decades on the air and dozens of awards beg to differ.

That doesn't mean the show is easy; in fact, Griffin refused to dumb it down for viewers. Perhaps that's why when contestants do extremely well, people tend to notice and wonder how they do it. James Holzhauer brought media attention (and a huge ratings bump to the decades-old quiz show) when he seemed poised to break Ken Jennings' 2004 record; Holzhauer fell short when his astonishing, 32-game "Jeopardy!" winning streak ended June 3. Holzhauer's successes also brought new attention to "Jeopardy!" game theory, a subfield in which academics and fans of the show alike try to determine the best way to play this decades-old primetime staple.

It turns out Holzhauer's abilities relate back to a strategy first pioneered by contestant Chuck Forrest in 1985. The "Forrest Bounce" involves sticking to high-value clues and looking for Daily Doubles, which allow contestants to quickly rack up more points while confusing their opponents. Many, but not all, of the show's most successful contestants have borrowed the strategy since then.

Using the show's Contestant Hall of Fame, Stacker ranked the 25 biggest "Jeopardy!" winners of all time by their total earnings on the show, including their winnings from various tournaments. These might not reflect the total amount each contestant has won on the show as "Jeopardy!" omitted consolation prize money, money won for charities, and the monetary amount of a car from their calculations.

There has been debate about the true "Jeopardy!" G.O.A.T., and clearly the show's producers listened to their most loyal fans who wanted to see this play out. On Jan. 7, 2020, ABC aired the first episode of a series called, "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time," in which the three highest earners—Holzhauer, Jennings, and Brad Rutter—competed for $1 million. The best-of-seven event (first to three wins) was set to conclude March 17 if the title remained unclaimed, however, the tournament came to a swift end on Jan. 15, after Jennings won three of the first four games. Fifteen years after Jennings' original 74-game winning streak, he proved he is the greatest "Jeopardy!" player of all time.

Read on to see where Holzhauer and Rutter rank among the "Jeopardy!" greats. Discover the strategies other contestants used to dominate the leaderboard and find out which contestants were beaten by a supercomputer.

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#25. Frank Spangenberg

- From: Douglaston, N.Y.
- All-time winnings: $249,596

Until 2003, "Jeopardy!" contestants were limited to a five-day run and could only take home up to $75,000. Frank Spangenberg, a police officer in New York City, managed to make the most of his limited time on the show, racking up a total of $102,597. He donated $27,000 from his winnings to the Gift of Love Hospice—the same amount they needed to install a new security system.

#24. Bart Thomas

- From: Bridgewater, N.J.
- All-time winnings: $250,000

Bart Thomas is one of only a few 20th-century winners on this list. In 2001, clue values were doubled and in 2003, the limit on the number of games contestants could win was removed, making it much easier to rack up huge amounts of cash winnings. Thomas proved victorious in the 1994 Senior Tournament, which featured contestants over 50 and guaranteed a minimum prize of $25,000.

#23. Bruce Seymour

- From: Piedmont, Calif.
- All-time winnings: $250,000

Bruce Seymour, a lawyer from San Francisco first got his start on the fourth season of "Jeopardy!", taking home $54,989 on his initial run. However, he's perhaps best known for his victory on the first special tournament run by the show, "Super Jeopardy!" Seymour was victorious in the 13-week, single-elimination tournament and brought home $250,000.

#22. Alex Jacob

- From: Greensboro, N.C.
- All-time winnings: $250,000

Before coming on "Jeopardy!" Alex Jacob had a successful career as a professional poker player, which might have helped him in his lucrative 2015 run on the show. Building on a strategy pioneered by the 1987 Tournament of Champions winner Chuck Forrest, Jacob bounced around the board looking for Double Jeopardies and either bet big to gain an insurmountable lead or bet small and took the opportunity to catch up to other players. Maintaining his cool, he racked up $146,598 in his original run and also dominated the 2015 Tournament of Champions, where he took home another $250,000.

#21. Seth Wilson

- From: Nacogdoches, Texas
- All-time winnings: $265,002

Seth Wilson started watching "Jeopardy!" when he was 5, but that wasn't the only preparation he used for his 12-day, $265,002 streak. As a doctorate student studying theater, he was already knowledgeable in history and literature—two common subjects on the show—and he filled in the gaps in his knowledge with online quizzes. He later came back for the 2017 Tournament of Champions and the 2019 All-Star Game but never quite recaptured the magic of his original run.

#20. Alan Lin

- From: Riverside, Calif.
- All-time winnings: $266,933

California software engineer Alan Lin spent five years attempting to get a place on the show, becoming a huge fan after graduating college. He studied up on history, geography, music, and movies to prepare for his eventual appearance, employing spreadsheets and more. He took home $123,600 from his first run and grabbed another $100,000 as the first runner-up in the 2017 Tournament of Champions.

#19. Arthur Chu

- From: Broadview Heights, Ohio
- All-time winnings: $297,200

Like TV quiz shows, "Jeopardy!" doesn't normally have villains, but Arthur Chu's 11-game winning streak proved controversial among many of the show's longtime fans. Chu employed the "Forrest bounce" strategy that many other high-scoring contestants employed to search for Daily Doubles. Despite the controversy, Chu was actually just doing what other winners before him had done.

#18. Michael Falk

- From: Milwaukee, Wisc.
- All-time winnings: $309,403

Michael Falk, a Wisconsin meteorologist, managed to snag around $60,000 in his original three-game run on the show, but it was during the 2006 Tournament of Champions that he made most of his winnings. He made it to the semi-finals as a wild-card contestant but managed to buzz his way to victory—and $250,000. He'd later return to "Jeopardy!" during the Tournament of Decades but quickly exited after facing off against Ken Jennings, one of the show's most successful players.

#17. Russ Schumacher

- From: College Station, Texas
- All-time winnings: $319,800

Graduate student Russ Schumacher had watched "Jeopardy!" since he was in elementary school before finally appearing on the show in 2003 and 2004 when he won $250,000 in the Tournament of Champions. In the years since his original victories, he's gone on to direct the Colorado Climate Center and even appeared in the 30th Anniversary Battle of the Decades, where he made it to the semi-final round.

#16. Vijay Balse

- From: Chatham, N.J.
- All-time winnings: $332,400

Vijay Balse auditioned for "Jeopardy!" six times in 16 years, finally landing a spot on what he called "the quiz show to be on" in 2009. Unlike most contestants, he didn't practice buzzing in. Instead, he watched recorded episodes from his DVR and interacted with other fans of the show on message boards and forums to help him prepare for his ultimate appearance. After taking home $84,000 from his four-day winning streak, he won $250,000 in the 2010 Tournament of Champions.

#15. Mark Dawson

- From: Woodland Hills, Calif.
- All-time winnings: $333,849

"Jeopardy!" champion Mark Dawson almost cut his winning streak short during his original five-game hot streak. He was in last place coming into Final Jeopardy! and decided to wager $0 because he was sure he wouldn't know the answer; none of his competitors did either, so he ended up moving on. Dawson won $52,599 and a Corvette during his first run, making him the last person to win a Corvette on the show.

#14. Austin Rogers

- From: Pound Ridge, N.Y.
- All-time winnings: $411,000

A New York City bartender won the hearts of "Jeopardy!" viewers over his 12-game winning streak in 2017 thanks to his off-the-cuff humor and willingness to high-five Alex Trebek. Rogers credits his history degree from Macalester College in helping him win over $400,000 during his time on the show. Rogers has since levied his viral stardom from the show into a blossoming media career.

#13. Buzzy Cohen

- From: Los Angeles, Calif.
- All-time winnings: $416,603

In the same year that Austin Rogers became famous for his "Jeopardy!" run, Buzzy Cohen polarized the show's long-time fans with his charming persona and snazzy suits. Alex Trebek gave Cohen the nickname "Mr. Personality," but it wasn't the charm gave Cohen his nine-day streak or allowed him to beat out Alan Lin and Austin Rogers in the 2017 Tournament of Champions. Cohen prepared with "Trivial Pursuit" decks and watched Rocky movies to inspire him to victory.

#12. Dan Pawson

- From: Boston, Mass.
- All-time winnings: $420,902

Dan Pawson dominated during his original run on "Jeopardy!," winning nine games and $171,902, as well as the 2009 Tournament of Champions. The show runs in the family for Pawson. His daughter was born on the day of his final "Jeopardy!" appearance (the Final Jeopardy category was ironically "Baby Names"), and his wife would win one of the highest totals in a single game when she later appeared on the show.

#11. Ben Ingram

- From: Florence, S.C.
- All-time winnings: $426,534

Ben Ingram won eight games on his original "Jeopardy!" run, raking in $176,534. Still, his streak wasn't close to that of his competitors in the 2014 Tournament of Champions Julia Collins and Arthur Chu, who had won 20 games and 11 games, respectively. He still managed to beat both of them, even staying ahead for most of the match.

#10. Julia Collins

- From: Kenilworth, Ill.
- All-time winnings: $428,100

Julia Collins' 20-game winning streak made her the woman who won the most in the show's history. She predicted her "Jeopardy!" dominance in her eighth-grade yearbook, but likely didn't expect to win $428,100 back then. She would later add to her winnings, taking home $50,000 as a second runner-up in the 2014 Tournament of Champions and splitting $50,000 with her teammates in the All-Star Tournament.

#9. Colby Burnett

- From: Chicago, Ill.
- All-time winnings: $480,334

High school teacher Colby Burnett stands as the only "Jeopardy!" champion in history to win both the Teachers Tournament and the Tournament of Champions, taking home $100,000 and $250,000, respectively. Burnett used the money from his success to buy a condo for his mother, who worked nights to put him through prep school. Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn even named Dec. 18 Colby Burnett Day in honor of his achievements.

#8. Roger Craig

- From: Newark, Del.
- All-time winnings: $530,200

Until James Holzhauer came along to break his record in 2019, Roger Craig held the record for the most money won in a single "Jeopardy!" game: $77,000. Using his skills as a computer scientist, Craig downloaded over 200,000 clues from the fan-run "Jeopardy!" archive to study up on the most common categories. During the game itself, he bet aggressively on Daily Double clues, often building up massive leads including in the 2010 Tournament of Champions where he was also a winner.

#7. Matt Jackson

- From: Washington D.C.
- All-time winnings: $611,612

Matt Jackson first grabbed national attention with his smile and celebrations for correct answers, before shocking everyone with his rapid-fire gameplay. He signed up after being inspired by a friend's victory in the college tournament and prepared for competition by reading books by Ken Jennings and Bob Harris about their experiences, which netted him a 13-day winning streak and $411,612 in cash. His mantra for the competition was apparently, "I am not throwing away my shot," a line from the musical "Hamilton."

#6. Larissa Kelly

- From: Richmond, Calif.
- All-time winnings: $660,930

Larissa Kelly was the first woman to win five "Jeopardy!" games in a row and followed both her husband and sister as a contestant on the show. She participated in quiz bowl throughout high school and in college, where she met her husband and fellow "Jeopardy!" super champion David Madden. She'd later return for the Battle of the Decades, where she was eliminated early but redeemed herself in the 2019 All-Star Tournament, where she nabbed the $1 million first prize alongside her teammates.

#5. David Madden

- From: Ridgewood, N.J.
- All-time winnings: $773,733

David Madden's 2005 19-game winning streak was the second longest in the show's history before it fell to Julia Collins in 2013. Unlike most other winners on this list, Madden dropped out of the Tournament of Champions early, only making it to the semi-finals. He used his $432,400 winnings to hike the length of the U.S. for charity.

#4. Watson

- From: IBM
- All-time winnings: $1,000,000

In 2011, "Jeopardy!" brought two of its biggest winners (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) back to face their biggest challenge yet: IBM's supercomputer, Watson. The exhibition pitted the "question answering machine" against Jennings and Rutter over two nights, and the computer blew its competitors out of the water, with Watson winning $77,147 to Rutter's $21,600 and Jennings' $24,000. Watson's victory was evidence that artificial intelligence can reason and think similarly to a human in a complex, high-stakes situation.

#3. James Holzhauer

- From: Naperville, Ill.
- All-time winnings: $2,962,216

James Holzhauer's 32-streak "Jeopardy!" run smashed many records set by previous winners on this list. He beat Roger Craig's highest winnings from a single game, taking home $131,127 in one sitting; in fact, his per-game average beats out Craig's single-day record. Holzhauer's strategy of bouncing around the board, sticking to high-value clues, and aggressively betting during Final Jeopardy! has been used by others before him but never to the same effect. His undefeated run ended with him just shy of Ken Jennings' $2.5 million streak in 2004. In January 2020, Holzhauer participated in the first-ever "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time," tournament. While he was unable to beat Ken Jennings, Holzhauer was offered $250,000 for his participation in the tournament between the show's three highest-earning players. 

#2. Ken Jennings

- From: Seattle, Wash.
- All-time winnings: $4,370,700

Ken Jennings might be one of the show's most familiar faces. He became a household name in 2004, winning 74 games and $2,520,700 over the course of five months. On Jan. 15, 2020, 15 years following Jennings' original streak, he proved he is the greatest "Jeopardy!" player of all time by winning the first three games in "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time," a tournament between the three highest-earning "Jeopardy!" players (Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer). Jennings was awarded $1 million along with bragging rights. 

#1. Brad Rutter

- From: Lancaster, Penn.
- All-time winnings: $4,938,436

Brad Rutter dominated in 2000, winning $55,102 back when contestants were limited to five games on the show. Since then he's beaten out Jennings and other "Jeopardy!" masters in the Tournament of Decades, the Ultimate Tournaments of Champions and others, most recently leading his team to victory in the All-Stars Tournament. However, Rutter could not defeat Jennings during the "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time," tournament in January 2020, he did, however, still bring home $250,000 just for participating. 

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