Four years ago today (June 2, 2004), an unassuming Mormon with boyish good looks and a pistol-quick reaction on the buzzer began his famous winning streak on Jeopardy! When his original appearance ended, Ken Jennings won $2,520,700 (the highest total winnings in non-tournament play) in an unprecedented 74 games. Additionally, Ken holds the record for the longest winning streak in the game show's history, and the most money won in a single game: $75,000. Since making his mark, Ken appeared on the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions, landed several endorsement deals, wrote books, and garnered the greatest prize of all: writing a regular column in mental_floss magazine.
Undeniably, Ken Jennings earned his place in the Jeopardy! Hall of Fame, but other contestants (pre and post the era of Jennings) have demonstrated amazing intelligence and hefty winnings themselves.
Frank Spangenberg: The Top Cop
Until 2003, Jeopardy! winning streaks ended after five games. Frank Spangenberg, a New York City cop with an intimidating physical presence and a moustache that lives in its own time zone, holds the record of winning the most money in five regular appearances: $102,597. During his run in 1990, Jeopardy! also had a $75,000 limit for regular season winnings, and if a contestant happened to win more in five games, the surplus went to charity. So, Spangenberg made a hefty donation, and after that the rules changed to cap winnings off at $100,000. In 1997, the cap was increased to $200,000, plus a pair of cars for five time champions. Spangenberg returned to the Jeopardy! scene to compete in several tournaments, perhaps to prove once and for all that he didn't keep the answers hidden in his magnificent moustache.
Not a Boys Club
Intimidating ladies who mastered the buzzer also hold records in Jeopardy! history. Rachael Schwarz, who credits her success to her love for reading, was the first woman to win the Tournament of Champions (in 1994), and she competed in future tournaments, impressively in all. Robin Carroll, a homemaker from Georgia, won her original five games as shutouts in season 16, and became the 2001 International Champion after previously winning the 2000 Tournament of Champions.
Mad Memory Skills
Not so much a record as an incredible feat of memory skills and intelligence, Eddie Timanus, a five-time-champion in 1999, was the first legally blind contestant to compete on the show. Before game play began, Eddie received the category names written in Braille and a computer keyboard to type out his response to Final Jeopardy, but no other special favors. He was invited back to the annual Tournament of Champions (like many five-time winners) and made it to the semifinals.
A Three-Way Tie!
On March 16, 2007, millions of fans were shocked when the first time in Jeopardy! history, a three-way tie resulted after all three contestants answered Final Jeopardy! correctly. All three contestants won $16,000 and came back to compete the next day as winners. The odds of this happening on Jeopardy!? One in 25 million. The factoid that led to this surprise finish:
The clue: WOMEN OF THE 1930s.
The answer: "One of the men who shot her realized when he saw her body that she'd often waited on him at a cafe in Dallas."
The question: "Who is Bonnie Parker?" [of Bonnie and Clyde fame]
Biggest. Winner. Ever.
The record for highest total winnings on Jeopardy! now belongs to Brad Rutter. In 2004, Jeopardy! held a 15-week-long Ultimate Tournament of Champions, inviting more than 100 champions from years past to compete. Ken Jennings had a bye until the Finals. On May 25, 2005, Brad Rutter—a previous five-time champion himself and the first player to win a million dollars at the Masters Tournament in 2002—took the title, defeating Jennings and Jerome Vered, who held the record for one-day winnings ($34,000) for ten years. Brad's grand total: $3,255,102.
What is, "I do"?
Bob Harris, a five-time-champion and competitor in the Masters Tournament and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, authored Prisoner of Trebekistan, a part memoir, part "how-to" account of succeeding on the show. (He also has some exhaustive theories about The Sopranos finale.) One fascinating anecdote from the book talks about the time Harris presided over the wedding of fellow champion Dan Melia on the Jeopardy! soundstage. While Alex Trebek sat in the audience, Bob stood at the sacred podium. The bride, groom, and their parties stood at the contestant's podiums. The game board featured wedding-themed categories and answers, and the music consisted of Jeopardy!'s opening theme and the "think music."
Under WEDDINGS for $200, the answer read: "A man customarily says this if he should consent to have this woman to be his wedded wife." Question? "What is I do"? Alex Trebek was the official witness.
Sara Newton is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. Her last story was an interview with Peter Sagal, host of NPR's 'Wait Wait"¦Don't Tell Me!'