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The Best ‘Jeopardy!’ Players of All Time
Ever thought about winning Jeopardy!—hearing the roar of the audience, feeling that warm sense of accomplishment, walking across the stage to shake Alex Trebek’s hand? Winning Jeopardy! is a lifelong dream for thousands of trivia fanatics and game show hopefuls, but it doesn’t just confer bragging rights—it can come with a serious payday. America’s favorite quiz show doles out millions of dollars a year in prize winnings, catapulting legendary champions to fame, fortune, and life without day jobs. Even for more modest winners who don’t rake in millions, Jeopardy! prize money has enabled champions to do everything from pay off student loans to travel the world.
“Best” is a many-shaded term in Jeopardy! Nation, so for the sake of argument, we’re defining “best” as highest earnings in regular season play, which excludes special events like The Tournament of Champions or The Greatest of All Time Tournament. Read on for a full rundown of the Jeopardy! pantheon—and if it inspires you to take the plunge yourself, start studying for the legendary quiz.
Ken Jennings needs no introduction. In 2004, Jennings, then a software engineer in Salt Lake City, threw the Jeopardy! record book out the window with an unprecedented 74-game winning streak, which netted him a whopping $2,520,700. Jennings’ streak captivated the nation, increasing Jeopardy!’s ratings by 22% and making Jeopardy! the highest-ranked syndicated television show. To this day, Jennings holds the records for longest winning streak and highest average of correct responses. His Jeopardy! winnings (including tournament paydays) and other game show appearances have lodged him in the television pantheon as the highest-earning contestant in the history of American game shows. Jennings spent his winnings on what he calls “the three T’s: taxes, tithing, and widescreen TV” (Jennings, a Mormon, practices tithing 10% of his yearly income to the Church of Latter Day Saints). There’s been no truly post-Jeopardy! life for Jennings, a forever friend of the show, who came back to face off against IBM supercomputer Watson, and who remains a consulting producer.
James Holzhauer came to Jeopardy! armed to succeed, owing to his background as a professional sports gambler. Holzhauer’s unique skills and experiences in that line of work didn’t disappoint: over a 32-game streak in 2019, he earned $2,462,216, and became known for his gutsy strategy of betting nearly everything he had in Final Jeopardy to double his earnings. Holzhauer became the first and only player to earn over $100,000 in a single episode, setting a new record for highest single-game earnings at $131,127. Like Jennings, Holzhauer remains in the Jeopardy! orbit, but continues to loom large in the sports betting world, contributing to The Atlantic’s sports coverage.
We’ve yet to see the heights of current champion Matt Amodio’s abilities. As Season 38 premieres, 18-game streaker Amodio is hoping to secure his 19th win, with $574,801 already under his belt. Amodio, a computer science PhD candidate at Yale, has played through a turbulent chapter in Jeopardy! history, weathering the storm of the Mike Richards controversy. Amodio’s earnings make him the third highest-earning contestant of all time, but his streak isn’t over yet, meaning that it’s still possible for him to leapfrog over Holzhauer or Jennings.
Albuquerque math teacher Jason Zuffranieri won a total of $532,496 over 19 games in 2019, cementing him in the Jeopardy! pantheon as the fourth highest-earning contestant of all time. He shares the record for fourth-longest winning streak with David Madden (more on him below). The historic streak was a long time coming for Zuffranieri, who auditioned for Jeopardy! nine times before making it onto the show. “My mentality for 25 years was that I wasn’t meant to be on the show for whatever reason: not smart enough, not camera-friendly, not interesting, whatever,” Zuffranieri said. “To finally get a chance on that stage was a dream come true, and the level of good fortune I received is truly beyond anything I ever considered could happen.”
Trivia is in David Madden’s blood. Following his 2005 hot streak as the fifth highest-earning contestant of all time (at $430,400), Madden went on to found the National History Bee and Bowl, two nationwide history competitions for students to compete as individuals and teams. Madden also founded the US Geography Olympiad, the International Geography Olympiad, the US Academic Bee and Bowl, the National Science Bee, and the National Humanities Bee, among other trivia competitions. In 2020, Madden turned his trivia prowess to politics when he founded Demoquiz, a platform where Democratic candidates could fundraise through online quiz nights.
Julia Collins, a supply chain manager from Illinois, made history in 2014 when she netted $428,100 over the course of 20 consecutive victories. Today, she remains the highest-ranked female contestant of all time. After her historic winning streak, Collins spent part of the windfall on a trip to Paris and London, and used the earnings to pivot to a new career. Collins now runs her own nonprofit, Girls Like You and Me, an organization dedicated to “helping smart girls find careers they love.”
Washington D.C. paralegal Matt Jackson came to Jeopardy! in 2015 with a long history of quiz bowl championship experience at Yale. Those years paid off in his 11 game winning streak, which ultimately earned him $411,612. Known for his lightning speed on the buzzer, Jackson charmed fans by using his fingers to display his number of wins during the on-camera introductions—until he ran out of fingers. After his streak ended, Jackson donated 10% of his winnings to a variety of charities.
Austin Rogers’ sarcastic banter with Alex Trebek earned him a special place in the hearts of Jeopardy! fans—as did his 12 game streak, which earned him $411,000. Owing to his upbeat demeanor and quirky sense of humor (some called it “Krameresque”), Rogers became a viral sensation during his winning streak. After his streak ended, Rogers bought a rare 1989 Honda Civic, traveled the world, and returned to his job as a New York City bartender. Today, Rogers is still bartending at The Gaf West, where he worked prior to Jeopardy!, as well as hosting trivia nights at other bars.
Arthur Chu, an insurance compliance analyst from Cleveland, Ohio, kickstarted a pop culture frenzy during his 11-game streak in 2014, which netted him $297,200. Chu’s aggressive, game theory-fueled style of play, in which he hopscotched around the board in search of Daily Doubles rather than playing through each category in linear fashion, scandalized Jeopardy! Nation, which denounced him as everything from “smug” to “evil” to “an emotionless villain.” Chu embraced the title of Jeopardy! Villain, saying, “I’m just up there being a machine, playing the game. Mowing through the questions mechanically with this detached mien like a crazy person. That is not the most likable side of me.” After Jeopardy!, Chu gained renown as a writer, speaking out about nerd culture and stridently opposing the Gamergate movement.
Seth Wilson ranks as the tenth highest-earning contestant of all time, following his 12 game streak in 2016. PhD candidate Wilson earned $265,002 during his time as a Jeopardy! champion, which he used to pay off his student loans and travel to Europe. After Alex Trebek’s death in 2020, Wilson remembered an unforgettable interaction with the “personable and gracious” host: “He said if he was on a trivia team that he would want to be on a team with me because I seem to know a lot about different things. That was flattering because Alex spends a lot of time of his professional life with really smart people.”
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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