Michael Larson After pulling in $110,237 in cash and prizes on Press Your Luck in 1984, this grizzly, unemployed ice cream man held the record for most money earned in a single game show. And how did he do it? By cheating like those MIT ruffians in that movie, 21. Sort of. Larson claimed later that he used his VCR to painstakingly memorize, frame-by-frame, the lighting patterns on the Press Your Luck board, figuring out how he could appear on the show and make big bucks, no whammies. Though at the time his story seemed uplifting — he claimed he had no money to his name before coming on the program, using what he had left to fly to Hollywood and purchase a cheap thrift store jacket — the rest of his life reads like an alternate version of Quiz Show. Check out his Wikipedia page for his bizarre life story.
In 2000, film director John Carpenter was so broke after losing millions on Escape from L.A. that he moved to Hamden, CT and applied to Who Wants to be a Millionaire. No, just kidding. But wouldn’t that be a better story? As it stands, this John Carpenter became the first million-dollar winner on the popular ABC game show. He worked his way to the top using only one lifeline, too, calling his dad on the very last question just so he could slickly be all like, “Dad, I don’t need your help, I just wanted to tell you I’m gonna totally answer this question.” And then he did, y’all. He did.
Ken Jennings You’d be happy, too, if you were about to become the single biggest earner in American game show history. Software engineer Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games of Jeopardy! in 2004, already breaking a bunch of records and giving him a gazillion dollars. But then, in case we didn’t already know he was a show-off, he went on to appear on the shows 1 Vs. 100, Grand Slam, and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?. (Answer to Fox executives: Yes. He is smarter than a fifth grader.) These appearances brought his total earnings to $3,623,414 and 29 cents. You may laugh, but those 29 cents are going to come in handy when we steal $3,623,414 from Ken Jennings later this year.
Kevin Olmstead Even though John Carpenter was the first millionaire on the ABC program, Kevin Olmstead actually ended up making more money. How is this possible? Because the ratings were dipping on the show, the producers decided to give “bonus” money on top of the one-million-dollar prize. After correctly naming the inventor of the mass-produced helicopter (Igor Sikorsky, natch), Olmstead took home a total of $2.18 million. For a few years he was the record-holder in America.
Brad Rutter Ken Jennings may have won a gazillion straight Jeopardy! games, but he’s actually not the most successful stand-alone contestant in that show’s history. That award goes to Brad Rutter, who won three tournament titles: the 2001 Tournament of Champions, the Million Dollar Masters Tournament, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions. Without having to go on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader to prove himself, Rutter amassed over three million bucks on Jeopardy! alone and, for good measure, also won himself a Chevy Camaro.