There is a long history of game show winners stretching back to the 1950s. Dozens of winners have established game show winnings records over the past few decades, with each one upping the ante for their successors. The amount of prize won in the 1950s is far less compared to what is won today, where the winnings include spectacular amounts of cash and rewards.
Game show winning records are split into three categories: cumulative records, single-day records and overall winnings. Cumulative records capture the overall winnings of a participant across all game shows; single-day records capture amount won on just a single day; overall winnings calculate the total amount won on a single show.
In the early days, Teddy Nadler set the record by winning $264,000 on “The $64,000 Challenge” in its 1956-57 season. Adjusted for inflation, the amount translates to around $2.194 million in today’s currency. The record stood for more than two decades, until Thomas McKee, a U.S. naval officer, began his run of winning Tic-Tac-Dough continuously for 43 games. By the end of his run, McKee had won $312,000 in cash, plus eight cars as prizes.
Though McKee held the top spot in game show winnings until 1999, nine couples had went on to win a million dollars each on the show “The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime,” which ran from January 1986 to September 1987.
McKee was surpassed by Michael Shutterly in the first season of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Shutterly was the first contestant to reach the elusive 15th question, answering which would’ve netted him a cool million dollars. However, he chose to walk away with $500,000 ($701,000 today accounting for inflation). Nevertheless, in the show’s second season, John Carpenter became the first contestant to have won a million dollars.
Since the turn of the millennium, the record has been broken multiple times. Some participants have accumulated an impressive cumulative winnings record thanks to their appearance on multiple game shows. This list captures the top ten total winnings on game shows:
10 Robert Carlo Mariano (a.k.a. Boston Rob): Total Winnings: $1,345,910
Hailing from Canton, Massachusetts, Robert Carlo Mariano is a television celebrity who has appeared in several reality shows. He is widely known for his appearances on the “Survivor” TV series, where he also met his present wife Amber Brkich, who had won the show’s second season. After making four appearances on Survivor, Boston Rob finally went on to win the prize in fourth season in 2011, bringing his total winnings from the show to $1,298,410. He has also participated along with his wife in “The Amazing Race” twice. They were placed second in the show’s Season 7, adding $47,500 to his total winnings tally.
9 Curtis Warren: Total Winnings: $1,546,988
Curtis Warren briefly held the record for having the won the most in game show history. He became the only contestant to capture the Million Dollar Moment on CBS’s hit TV show “Greed.” He had already won $410,000 during his appearance on the same show earlier. As a result, he netted a cool $1,410,000, making him the game show winnings record holder. Warren also appeared in other shows such as “Sale of the Century” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” where he won $136,288 and $700 respectively. Even though Warren had his golden moment way back in 2000, he still makes an appearance at the ninth position in this list.
8 David Legler: Total Winnings: $1,765,000
Just a week after Curtis Warren had won the Million Dollar Moment prize on Greed, David Legler surpassed his record by winning NBC’s “Twenty One,” which was a reboot of the hit American game show that aired in the late 1950s. Under the new payment structure in “Twenty One,” David Legler had to win six games in total to bring his winnings to $1,765,000. Even to this day Legler remains the biggest winner of the show, surpassing all his predecessors and successors in the year 2000 itself.
7 Ashlee Register: Total Winnings: $1,795,000
Ashlee Register won the first season of “Duels,” an US game show hosted by Mike Greenberg. The show first aired as a week-long six episode tournament from December 17-23, 2007. Many critics dubbed the show as a mix between “World Series of Poker” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
Nonetheless, by winning the $1,720,000 jackpot in the final round, and having won $75,000 in her previous duels, Ashlee Register became the highest game show money winning female in the United States at that time. She has since been surpassed by others.
6 Ed Toutant: Total Winnings: $1,871,401
No contestant had won the million dollar prize in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” for many episodes. As a result, the creators of the show decide to add a progressive jackpot prize to the total winning amount every episode if no one wins the mega prize. During this period of time, Ed Toutant was one of the contestants on the show.
However, his luck was cut short when he answered the $16,000 question wrong. The question was later found to be flawed. Hence, Ed was called back on to the show, and he was given a chance to play from the same level where he left. Ed answered all the remaining questions and went on to win the jackpot of $1.86 million. Later, Ed also participated in “Jeopardy!,” where he won $11,401.
5 Sandra Diaz-Twine: Total Winnings: $2,000,000
Hailing from the city of Stamford, Connecticut, Sandra Diaz-Twine used to work as a simple office assistant until her luck changed completely after participating in the hit reality TV series “Survivor.” She has appeared in the show’s 7th season “Survivor: Pearl Islands” and the 20th season “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains,” and has been awarded the Sole Survivor prize both the times.
This makes here the only Survivor participant to have won the Sole Survivor award twice. Both the prizes have netted her a cool $2 million dollars, making her the record holder for most winnings in a game show by a woman. Currently, Sandra is working as secretary for a law firm, and lives with her husband and two children in North Carolina.
4 Kevin Olmstead: Total Winnings: $2,207,000
Before Ed Toutant won the $1.86 million jackpot on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Kevin Olmstead had already won an impressive $2.18 million at the show in the same season. After Kevin had won this impressive amount, he held the record for having won the biggest amount in American television for over three years.
The record was finally broken by Ken Jennings. Also, he held the record for having won the biggest amount on an American prime time game show for over 12 years; an impressive feat indeed. The record was broken by Andrew Kravis just a few months back in September 2013. Kevin has also won $27,000 on “Jeopardy!”
3 Andrew Kravis: Total Winnings: $2,656,550
“The Million Second Quiz” is a unique game show which is broadcast on NBC channel. Here, the contestants across 1,000,000 seconds for prize money of $2 million, plus extra bonuses. Andrew Kravis won $326,346 in the show’s main competition round competing with three other finalists, and then went on to win the $2,000,000 grand prize and an additional $273,654.
Having come out as the quiz champion on September 19, 2013, his record winning $2.6 million total stands as the highest amount won by a contestant in a single run of any game show. Before participating in “The Million Second Quiz,” Andrew had already won $5,000 on “Jeopardy!,” $50,550 in “Wheels of Fortune,” and $1,000 in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
2 Brad Rutter: Total Winnings: $3,555,102
Brad Rutter holds the record for having won the biggest cumulative amount on U.S. television show “Jeopardy!,” and he also holds the second rank in the all-time game show winnings department. His $3,455,102 run on “Jeopardy!” includes winning $55,102 in 2001 during his initial appearance, $100,000 in Tour of Champions 2002, $1 million in Million Dollars Masters tournament in 2002, $2.1 million in Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, finally $200,000 for finishing third in the “Jeopardy! IBM challenge.” He donated $100,000 of his final winnings to a charity.
Brad has also won a cool $100,000 on another game show called “Million Dollar Mind Game.”
1 Ken Jennings: Total Winnings: $3,923,414.29
Ken Jennings is second only to Brad Rutter in “Jeopardy!” winnings, and his cumulative earnings from other shows make him the record holder for all-time winnings in game shows. In his original run, Ken Jennings won $2,522,700 on “Jeopardy!,” plus an additional $500,000 in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.
He was placed second in the “Jeopardy! IBM Challenge,” for which he won $300,000 ($150,000 of the prize amount was donated to charity). Being a television celebrity, Ken Jennings has appeared on game shows such as “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?,” “1 vs. 100,” and “Grand Slam.” He has won a total of $600,714.29 from his appearance on shows others than “Jeopardy!,” which makes him the all-time leading money winner on game shows.