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Biggest winners in 'Jeopardy!' history

  • 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 Jenning's 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.

    You may also like: Can you answer these Jeopardy questions about politics?

  • #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.

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