After 50 years on air this year, the TV game show originally created by Merv Griffin back in 1964 is still going strong. Originally hosted by Art Fleming, the game show host with the perennial poker face who we’ve come to know and love as Alex Trebek, began his 30-year career with the show in 1983.
For those of us in North America, Jeopardy is as familiar as the TV set itself, but readers further afield may wonder at our fascination with the formula. Answers are offered as “clues” for contestants with buzzers who must offer up the correct question first to win. Its enormous popularity with the viewing audience has allowed Jeopardy! to patent the trademark status of “America’s Favorite Quiz Show.” More than a million people have taken the pre-qualifying test online to try and get a spot on the show and those that can’t are happy to shout the answers out in their living rooms. The show attracts an average of 25 million viewers a week – that’s a lot of people getting smarter and more culturally informed – or at least amassing plenty of pub quiz trivia…
Over the years, despite the many parodies by Saturday Night Live or the Simpsons, the show has helped illuminate mysteries of the universe from the correct pronunciation of the word “GIF”, to what DNA stands for (clue: “Deoxyribonucleic acid”).
There are board games, online games and apps to play the “clue of the day,” and an incredibly comprehensive fan-created Jeopardy archive of interactive rounds from each game ever played since Trebek’s pilot episode. With 30 daytime Emmys, it’s little wonder the game format hasn’t changed much over the years. The biggest update, aside from “teen,” and “college” shows, came in 2003 when contestants were no longer limited to five consecutive wins before mandatory retirement. From that point on, they were allowed to win until unseated by a competitor and all fans know what happened next: 2004’s Ken Jennings. The all-time great who reigned victoriously for 74 straight games was defeated by a head-smackingly simple question (read on for more on this). But Jennings isn’t the only title holder. There are ten Jeopardy! contestants before and after who’ve walked away with big cash – though nowhere near Jennings’ earnings, they’ve garnered some notoriety themselves. From a Science Fiction writer, to a former senior policy advisor to the Senate, to a former editor at Amazon, these big-winning individuals exemplify the multi-topic smarts, quick trigger-finger and sometimes unexpected game strategies needed to come out on top.
10. Ben Ingram – $176,534
Ben Ingram’s run on Jeopardy! ended after eight straight wins during season 29. While Ingram set out with the humble goal to win one game, he walked away as one of the show’s most triumphant champions to date. At 30-years-old at the time of the show, from Florence, SC, Ingram holds a biology degree from Wofford College and the USC. While on Jeopardy, he was working as an IT consultant. During his eighth and final show on air, he fell to third place by the Final Jeopardy! round. Despite getting the question right with “What is the 1812 Overture,” to the clue: “This piece that premiered in Moscow in 1882 includes strains from “God Save the Czar” and “La Marseillaise,” he was unable to cover the ground necessary to reclaim the lead. Ingram, like many contestants before him, applied a strategy of hunting for the Daily Doubles, or chances to double his cash pot, in order to gain points and keep opponents at bay – though for many fans, this approach continues to be debatable fair-play.
9. Tom Walsh – $184,900
In Season 20, this writer and former Senior Policy Adviser to the Senate Finance Committee stayed in the lead for seven weeks before his throne was usurped by Jennings. His long-running victory was a show record until the legendary Jennings hit the scene, at which point Walsh has said in an interview, “I feel like ‘Cactus Gavvy’ Cravath, do you know who that is? Nobody does. He’s the guy who had the home run record before Babe Ruth came along.”
While Walsh was a fact-machine, spitting out answers on varied topics, he had his moments of weakness when pop culture was concerned, left to scratch his head when the topic of Britney Spears cropped up. It was a world geography clue that stumped him in the end and sent him from first place to third. He incorrectly answered “Ethiopia” to the clue, ” This country’s coastline, on the Gulf of Aden & the Indian Ocean, is the longest on the African continent.” The correct answer, from Mr. Mom contestant Steve Hall, who became the new champion, was “Somalia.”
8. Joon Pahk – $199,000
The seven-day winning streak by Somerville, MA, resident Joon Pahk ended in season 28 – but not before he raked in a cool few hundred thousands. While he maintained a lead throughout the first round of his final show, he was in second place going into the Final Jeopardy! round. He got the question right with, “What is Santé Fe,” to the clue, “The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, home to the largest permanent collection of her works, is in this state capital,” but stay-at-home mom Katie Proctor also answered correctly and she wagered more, making her the new champion.
Pahk has said his experience on Jeopardy! was overwhelming and modestly attributed luck as part of his success, in having the right categories and questions. Pahk, a freshmen physics prof at Harvard University at the time of the show, grew up around Washington, D.C. before attending Harvard and briefly living in Cambridge where he attended graduate school. Part of Pahk’s secret to success? Crossword puzzles. He has indicated an obsessive long-standing enjoyment of the pastime, which likely helped build up his ability to call upon knowledge of random facts and trivia on Jeopardy! He is still an avid crossworder. In 2014 he placed 4th at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), and he’s a regular blogger on Diary of a Crossword Fiend.
7. Jason Keller – $213,900
Even just appearing on the show was a major personal victory for Jason Keller, who spent 16 years as a trivia, brain-game junky and a mega-fan of the show. Keller had been sending letters of appreciation by snail mail to Jeopardy! since he was a kid. He eventually took the show’s online test as part of the qualifying process and passed four times, gaining three separate in-person auditions. His persistence paid off and he eventually won over the producers because of his friendships with former show contestants through national scrabble tournaments and quiz bowls. Finally, in season 28, Keller’s dream came true and he didn’t disappoint. His nine day run eventually concluded when he couldn’t come up with the answer of, “Who is Larry McMurtry,” to the clue, “Concluding a four-book series, his 2004 novel ‘Folly and Glory’ features Kit Carson, William Clark & Jim Bowie.”
6. Larissa Kelly – $222,597
The only Science Fiction writer on the list (that we know of), Kelly is the second highest-winning single-day female Jeopardy! contestant with a $45,000 total after her first appearance on the show during season 24. She maintained her winning streak for six games and, excluding her tournament winnings, she is the highest-winning female contestant the show’s ever seen. She also broke Jennings’ record for most money won by a contestant over the first five days, with her $179,797 running total. Despite getting the Final Jeopardy! question right in her last appearance, with “Who is Churchill” to the clue, “He said, ‘An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last,'” she was too far back to retain her title. Kelly grew up in Newton, MA, where as a teen she led the “Science Bowl” team to nationals. She went on to receive a PhD at Berkeley, with her studies in the history of archaeology in 19th century Mexico. As a student she was a quiz bowl member and eventually married quiz bowl teammate and one-time Jeopardy! contestant Jeff Hoppes. The game show gene runs in her family; not only has her husband tried his hand at Jeopardy! but her sister Arianna also appeared on the show. Arianna was defeated by Aaron Schroeder, who went on to face-off with Larissa in a 2009 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions finals. Talk about six-degrees of Jeopardy!
5. Roger Craig – $230,200
Season 27’s first great champion comes from Newark, DE. Computer scientist Roger Alan Craig also held the all-time record for single-day winnings in 2011. He collected $77,000 in his second straight victory and went on to win a total seven games. With an undergraduate degree in biology and biochemistry from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as well as a master’s degree and PhD in computer science from the University of Delaware, Craig started his championship run while simultaneously working on his doctorate. He’s been a prolific publisher of papers in the field of bioinformatics and currently works as a Data Scientist for Penton, a leading professional informational services company.
But Craig’s computer smarts proved unhelpful upon his loss to North Carolina sportswriter Jelisa Castrodale. While he was in the lead going into the Final Jeopardy! round of his last game, luck was not in his side when a Sports and Media clue appeared: “On Feb. 8, 2010 the headline in a major newspaper in this city read, ‘Amen! After 43 Years, Our Prayers Are Answered.’ Craig answered incorrectly, “Chicago.” Naturally, his sportswriter opponent had the correct answer with, “New Orleans.” Craig eventually returned for the Tournament of Champions, in 2011, which he won, beating fellow all-time champ Joon Pahk. During the first of Craig’s two-day finals, he became the first contestant in the history of the show to find two Daily Doubles in a row, risk all of his money on both, and win each. He then made another – only slightly less epic – appearance in Jeopardy’s Battle of the Decades tournament in 2014, making it as far as the quarterfinals.
4. Tom Nissley – $235,405
A former editor at Amazon, who spearheaded their books blog Omnivoracious, Tom Nissley is an 8-time Jeopardy winner with a Ph.D. in English Lit and a writing resume that includes published articles in “The Paris Review Daily” and “The Stranger.” Based in Seattle, Nissley writes about books on his blog Ephemeral Firmament. While his book smarts came in handy for a correct answer to a clue about the writer of “The Moon” and “Sixpence” (Somerset Maugham), Nissley eventually lost out to his opponent Melissa Goldsmith, when he guessed incorrectly in the Final Jeopardy! round with, “What is the Lincoln Memorial,” to the clue, “Finding the spot for this memorial caused its creator to say, ‘America will march along that skyline.'” All contestants actually got this one wrong, with the correct answer being, “Mount Rushmore.”
Nissley later went on to play and lose against Roger Craig in the Tournament of Champions. Despite the loss, Nissley has said he was quite proud of getting the very obscure answer, “What is the Gulf of Bothnia?” to the clue, “This body of water separates Sweden and Finland.”
3. Dave Madden – $430,400
As the founder and Executive Director of the National History Bee and Bowl (NHBB), it’s no wonder Dave Madden is number three on the list of all time quiz-winning champions on Jeopardy! He started his career in the quiz bowl as a high school student in New Jersey, and went on to play in the bowl while at Princeton, where he quizzed in the same circles as Larissa Kelly’s husband Jeff Hoppes. This friendship would eventually lead to Madden’s audition for Jeopardy!, a process that ended with his stunning 19 straight wins on the show.
His strategy of hunting Daily Doubles proved effective: his run saw him collect 46 of them in total, for which he gave only two incorrect answers. During his last show, he was third going into the Final Jeopardy! round and although his answer, “Who is Julius Caesar,” was correct to the clue, “In 1950 Pius XII was Pontifex Maximus; exactly 2,000 years earlier, this man held a title of the same name,” he didn’t wager enough to make it to the top again. After his success on Jeopardy, Madden got back into the quiz bowl circuit and hosted an all-history bowl at his old high school, having so much fun in the process he then founded the NHBB.
2. Arthur Chu -$ 297,200
This year saw one of the most divisive contestants Jeopardy! has ever had in its 30 seasons, 30-year-old Arthur Chu. A compliance analyst and voiceover artist from Broadview Heights, OH, Chu had a 12-show run that saw him collect over a 1/4 million in winnings. While his lightening fast proficiency with the buzzer and head full of answers helped him stay in the lead, it was his aggressive quest for Daily Doubles that has gained Chu a number of critics along with his fans.
Instead of following the practice of finishing each category’s questions one at a time, Chu instead opted to lurch around the board in search of the coveted Daily Doubles. Despite the fact that contestants have been using this strategy to their advantage for years, Chu has taken serious heat from traditionalists who consider the tactic to be unsportsmanlike, rather than strategic. It’s worth noting his twitter account @arthur_affect proves to be quite entertaining and evidences Chu’s easy going sense of humour. In his last appearance on the show, Chu struggled throughout the game. He eventually risked his whole pot unsuccessfully in the Final Jeopardy! round and gave an incorrect response to the clue, “He was the last male monarch who had not previously been Prince of Wales.” Only his opponent, Diana Peloquin had the correct answer with, “George VI.” Nonetheless, Trebek summed up Chu’s performances on the show with his usual brevity, calling it “a great run.”
1. Ken Jennings – $2,520,700
Even people who don’t watch Jeopardy! have heard of Jennings and his season 21 supremacy. Despite the fact his long-running 74-game appearance was now over ten years ago, he is still the undisputed champion in Jeopardy’s decades-long history. The mild-mannered Jennings, who now has his own website, is originally from Seattle, though he grew up overseas in Korea and Singapore, before moving back to the U.S. to attend the University of Washington. He eventually transferred to Brigham Young University after a two-year Mormon mission in Spain, to receive a double major in English and Computer Science. In his university years he captained his quiz bowl team, and eventually wrote and edited questions for the National Academic Quiz Tournaments. He was in Salt Lake City, working as a software engineer, when he got the call to appear on the show.
For the next six months, Ken appeared on TVs every night winning game, after game, after game and eventually solidifying himself as a TV hero. Although his breadth of knowledge seemed endless, on topics like, “Presidents By Kids,” “Dumb Criminals,” “Vikings,” “The Art World,” “Cycling,” “TV Weapons,” “Starbucks,” and “Science and Nature,” to name a few, his downfall came in the form of a rather banal clue about taxes. That Final Jeopardy! clue was: “Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year,” and it stumped Jennings who eventually answered with, “What is Fed Ex?” His opponent, Nancy Zerg, gave the correct answer of “H&R Block.” Jennings has said in interviews he wasn’t all that shocked to have missed that one since he had always done his own taxes. After his legendary time on the show, Jennings went on to become a best-selling author with books including “Brainiac” – about trivia in American culture – and has amassed the biggest American trivia book ever assembled, aptly titled, “Ken Jennings’s’ Trivia Almanac.”