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).
Since the genre began, many shows have offered prizes of large sums of money to contestants; Teddy Nadler set the original monetary winnings record of $264,000 during his appearance on The $64,000 Challenge in 1957. Nadler was not surpassed until 1980, when Thom McKee won $312,700 on Tic-Tac-Dough. In 1999, John Carpenter won $1,000,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, becoming the first person to win a seven-figure prize on an American game show. Since then, many players have gone on to win that amount and even surpassed it. As of 2015, Brad Rutter is the highest-earning American game show contestant of all time, having accumulated a total of $4,555,102. He succeeded Ken Jennings as the highest-earning contestant by virtue of his victory on May 16, 2014, in the Jeopardy! Battle of the Decades tournament.
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 from scandals that arose surrounding prime-time game shows in the 1950s. The single day record for shows in daytime television was set by Michael Larson in 1984, who won $110,237 (equivalent to $254,000 in 2016) on Press Your Luck. Larson achieved his record by memorizing the show's board patterns. He repeatedly hit the board's squares that awarded contestants money and an additional spin. That spin would in turn replace the spin he had just used, effectively allowing him to spin the board in the second round as long as wanted. Because of this, his game had to be split into two episodes (which aired June 8 and June 11, 1984), as his turn caused the game to go well over the show's half-hour allotted time. In 2003, Game Show Network produced a documentary about the event.
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 in 2006. Chrobak-Sadowski's record was later broken by Sheree Heil from her appearance on The Price Is Right in 2013. She won $170,345 in cash and prizes on the episode that aired December 30, 2013, including an Audi R8 won in the pricing game "Gas Money", $10,000 cash, and Prada shoes.
On the October 28, 2016 episode of The Price Is Right, which aired during Big Money Week, Christen Freeman won $210,000 in cash during a playing of Cliff Hangers. During the episode, 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.
While the 1950s had multiple big winners (Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren of Twenty One being two of the most notable), Teddy Nadler set the overall record during the 1956–57 television season, who set a record that would stand for the next two decades by winning $264,000 (equivalent to $2,326,000 in 2016) 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.
It was not until 1980 that Nadler's record fell. During the summer of that year, 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, 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 $909,000 in 2016) 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 (equivalent to $2,108,000 in 2016), 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 airing 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 (equivalent to $719,000 in 2016), which made him the biggest winner in American game show history at the time. Shutterly had previously won $49,200 as a 4 day champion on Jeopardy! in 1988, making his career winnings total $549,200.
During the second season of Millionaire in the United States, the show crowned its first million-dollar winner. On November 19, 1999, John Carpenter won the show's top prize without using any lifelines, save for a phone call on the final question to 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 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, host Maury Povich proclaimed Oberholtzer "the TV Game Show King."
Late in its run, the Fox 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 8 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 NBC's 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. As 2000 ended and 2001 began, the producers of Millionaire decided that it had been too long (71 games 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 game 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 one in May of that year. 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, broadcast on June 2, 2004, 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. 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.
Jennings won nine more games before his streak came to an end on November 30, 2004. 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' 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, and in the process he supplanted Jennings as the winningest all time American game show contestant. 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 2011 Jeopardy! event. Rutter won $200,000 in the challenge, in which both he and Jennings pledged half of their winnings to charity. He then added $100,000 more later in 2011 when he appeared on Million Dollar Mind Game, raising his total to $3,555,102, second only to Jennings' $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 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 later appeared on Millionaire in November 2014. Winning the top prize was the only way he could have reclaimed the record from Rutter; however, Jennings finished with only $100,000, leaving him in second place. Jennings later appeared on the ABC prime time show 500 Questions in 2016; however, as he only lasted four questions, he was unable to add to his total.