Top 5: Game Show Contestants

Ken Jennings wears great T-shirts, but where does he stand in the Top 5 Countdown?

It’s important to note that as I write this, I’ve come off of watching the end of Card Sharks, the $25,000 Pyramid, the $100,000 Pyramid, and two episodes of Match Game on Game Show Network before watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. So it’s pretty clear that I’m a game show freak.

The game show freakitude, in turn, makes the memorable contestants – the ones known around the country, game show fans or not – all the more memorable. Here are my choices for the Top 5 most memorable game show contestants:

T5. Michael Larson, Press Your Luck, 1984 and Terry Kneiss, The Price is Right, 2008

Daytime game shows generally go unnoticed – if they win, they go home back into obscurity with some bucks and a few prizes; and if they lose, well, here’s a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, “the San Francisco Treat.”

But for Michael Larson and Terry Kneiss, they took their game shows by storm by gaming the game. Larson, a broke ice-cream truck driver by day, bought a then-newfangled device called a VCR and memorized the sequences of Press Your Luck‘s “Big Board”, finding out that some panels of the board never had the “Whammy” that bankrupted winnings, earning over $110,000.  Kneiss, a former TV weatherman with a killer memory, remembered prices on the Drew Carey-hosted The Price is Right, getting the first perfect bid on the Showcase (along with his perfect bid from Contestants Row) and earning almost $60,000 in cash and prizes. Both were accused of cheating, but neither had done anything wrong – they had simply beaten the house at its own game, and beaten them bad. 

3. Frank Spangenberg, Jeopardy!, 1990, 1993, 2002, 2005; Grand Slam, 2007 

While Spangenberg, now an NYPD Lieutenant (when he was on Jeopardy!, he was a member of the now-absorbed New York City Transit Police), had later appeared in the Jeopardy! Million Dollar Masters tournament and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, along with the “Battle of the Game Show Stars”, Grand Slam, his true claim to fame is his original Jeopardy! run in 1990. He blew everyone out of the water – earning a record $102,597 – though he was only allowed to keep $75,000, with the rest going to charity – over five days – the maximum for a player up until the 21st Century. He’d later go on to win the 1993 Tenth Anniversary Tournament, earning dinner with playwright Wendy Wasserstein – whose name was the Final Jeopardy! answer in the tournament’s final match. While he’s gone back to being a regular joe in most respects, he’s still a minor New York celebrity who is to this day stopped on the streets as “that guy from Jeopardy!”

2. Ken Jennings, Jeopardy!, 2004, 2005; Grand Slam, 2007; Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, 2008

Remember that five-day cap on Jeopardy! I was talking about a moment ago? In 2003, it was lifted in favor of a “sky’s the limit” approach for longer championship reigns and greater winnings (which had been further enabled by a doubling of the point values in 2001). By that point, two contestants had become the first “super-champions”: Sean Ryan, at six games, and Tom Walsh, with seven. Then on June 2nd, 2004, a computer programmer from Salt Lake City started his months-long date with destiny.

Ken Jennings ended up winning 74 games, winning over $2.5 million, setting a new single-day record with $75,000, and becoming a pop-cultural phenomenon – complete with touring the talk show circuit, Sesame Street, and nightly shoutouts to “Ken Jeopardy” by the Pardon the Interruption team on ESPN. When he lost to Nancy Zurg in his 75th game with an answer of “What is FedEx?” to the clue, “Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year,” he was offered product endorsement deals from both FedEx and H&R Block (the correct answer), which he both declined (though he did later appear in an Allstate commercial). The Super Tournament was largely created in his honor – with Jennings (who came in second place, earning a half-million dollars) getting a bye to the final. Since Jennings, only 9 contestants have won more than five games (with David Madden of New Jersey winning 19).

But he didn’t stop there. He went on to win Grand Slam and $100,000 in 2007, and reclaimed the “most money earned on a game show” title from Brad Rutter by winning $500,000 on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, getting the final question correct, though only after walking away (he would have become only the second million-dollar winner in the show’s history).

But the #1 choice not only won a crapload of money, he played a role in almost destroying the entire quiz show industry, as it’s…

1. Charles Van Doren, Twenty One, 1957

To put it plainly: the first run of the CBS game show Twenty One was a fix. After the initial broadcast, sponsor Geritol threatened to pull the plug on the show if it didn’t become more dramatic. The result? Everything – from the contestants, to the answers given, to the answers missed, to even the banter between the hosts and the contestants – was rigged. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for a contestant named Herb Stempel. Stempel had been coached throughout his run – even told to get a haircut in order to seem more like a square, a guy that the audience could rally against.

Enter Van Doren, a professor at Columbia University, who – after weeks of 21-21 ties against Stempel, defeated him, going on a three-month run of his own, earning over $129,000 – over a million in today’s money.

Stempel blew the whistle on the scandal, but no one believed him until a new show, Dotto, was caught cheating as well – leading to U.S. Senate investigating and setting new regulations on game shows (for more info, see the Kevin Costner movie Quiz Show). Although Van Doren wasn’t the whistleblower or the architect of the cheating, he was the face – a symbol of the 1950s game shows and their downfall.

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4 thoughts on “Top 5: Game Show Contestants

  1. You forgot Brad Rutter, the guy who kicked Ken Jennings’s behind and one of the biggest (if not biggest) winner in game show history. He should be on the somewhere list. I like Frank Spangenberg being on the list. A true game show revolutionary. As for Van Doren, he did nothing but follow instructions.

    • That’s fair – Rutter is now at #2, behind Jennings – but is he more memorable than Jennings? I don’t think so.

      Besides, Jennings won it largely on the show’s regular games, Rutter won it largely in the Million Dollar Masters tourney and the UToC.

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