The Best Players In Jeopardy! History

While Jeopardy! initially launched in 1964, it was after the relaunch in 1984 hosted by Alex Trebek that the show became a true cultural juggernaut, the best-known trivia quiz show on television, and a shorthand for what it means to be a smart person. And airing every weekday for over 35 years means that Jeopardy! has had tens of thousands of players grace its hallowed studio podiums over the years. Only a few have had the juice to become household names, though, and that's what we're looking for here.

These rankings are based solely on Jeopardy! official Hall of Fame totals, and so they only include money from games won, not consolation prizes. It also means that popular players like Austin Rogers, Buzzy Cohen, or Arthur Chu (Jeopardy!'s greatest villain) were just short of the list. Also, the IBM Challenge is considered an exhibition match, so Watson, the Jeopardy! robot, is likewise not included. With that said, the following article gives information on these notable people. Answer: Who are the best players in Jeopardy! history?

Dan Pawson quickly became one of Jeopardy!'s best players

As recorded on J! Archive, Dan Pawson was a legislative aide from Boston when he first appeared on Jeopardy! in 2008. His first appearance was on December 12 of that year, and he would go on to win a total of nine games, which together with his $1,000 prize for finishing third place in his tenth game (failing to know that the Pope's ring has a boat on it, guessing his cool hat instead) gave him a regular season total of $171,902, which isn't too shabby for ten half-hours' worth of work but not quite "greatest of all time" territory yet. What really helped propel him on to the all-time list was his win in the 2009 Tournament of Champions, which added $250,000 to his total winnings, bringing him up to $420,902 in winnings, plus his $1,000 consolation prize. 

That wasn't the end of Pawson's Jeopardy! career, however, as he would return in 2014 as part of the Battle of the Decades tournament, now working as a global health consultant in Brooklyn. While he won his first game of the tournament, he was, of course, beaten by Brad Rutter in the quarterfinals. He can't be too sad, though, as he also won $30,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2017, and his wife Andrea Saenz was a Jeopardy! champion as well in 2010.

Ben Ingram took home $426,534

As The Herald reports, Ben Ingram is an IT consultant from South Carolina who enjoyed an eight-game winning streak on Jeopardy! in 2013, bringing in $176,534 in total winnings before finishing in third in his ninth game. At the time, an eight-game streak was good enough to tie for fifth-longest streak ever, but now, it no longer even qualifies for the top ten. Naturally, Ingram was invited back to take part in the 2014 Tournament of Champions, which he won, despite being up against two arguably better known (or maybe more notorious) players, Julia Collins and Arthur Chu. This championship win added a quarter million to Ingram's coffers, bringing his total winnings to $426,534, and making him the 11th biggest Jeopardy! winner of all time.

Ingram would return to the show as a part of the 2019 All-Star Games team tournament, where he was drafted by team captain Julia Collins (the two became friends following the Tournament of Champions, despite Ingram beating her) as the overall fourth pick in the draft. Their team would be rounded out with third member Seth Wilson, whose 12-game winning streak in 2016 is — as of this writing — the eighth-longest streak in the show's history. Unfortunately, Team Julia was the first team eliminated from the tournament, and the team split a $50,000 consolation prize three ways, which isn't considered part of total winnings.

Julia Collins earned $478,100

As J! Archive shows, Julia Collins has a heck of a Jeopardy! record. Her barn-burning winning streak started shortly after Arthur Chu's notorious run as champ, and before long, she'd fully outstripped his headline-grabbing 11-game streak. Collins went on to win 20 consecutive games for a total of $428,100, which at the time was the second-longest winning streak behind Ken Jennings and the third-largest regular season earnings behind Jennings and Dave Madden. (Since that time, Collins has fallen to third place behind James Holzhauer in longest streak and fifth in non-tournament winnings, with Holzhauer and Jason Zuffranieri topping her 2014 numbers.)

After her legendary winning streak, Collins returned for the 2014 Tournament of Champions where she finished second in her quarterfinal bracket, but she managed to join the semifinals as a wild card. In the finals, she finished in third behind Ben Ingram and Arthur Chu. (None of the three, however, were able to call to mind the Shakespeare play Pericles of Athens in the final.) The $50,000 from this third place finish brings her official total up to $478,100. She returned as the only female team captain in the All-Star Games with teammates Ben Ingram and Seth Wilson, but their group was the first eliminated, finishing third behind teams led by Ken Jennings and Austin Rogers.

Colby Burnett is Jeopardy!'s greatest teacher

Colby Burnett, an AP History teacher from Chicago, holds the distinction of being the only person so far to win both the Teachers Tournament and the Tournament of Champions, as noted on J! Archive. Burnett, often remembered for his tendency to wear oversized suits in his TV appearances, won the Teachers Tournament in November 2012, and a mere three months later, he won the Tournament of Champions in February 2013. The Teachers Tournament netted him $100,000, and the Tournament of Champions brought him home another $250,000.

Burnett returned to the show as part of the Battle of the Decades in 2014, where he finished in second place behind Roger Craig in a semifinal game (with all players missing that Prince Edward Island was named for Queen Victoria's father), which added a semifinalist's winnings to his total. After this, Burnett returned for the All-Star Games, where he captained a team that also included Pam Mueller (whom he'd previously played in the Battle of the Decades) and Alan Lin. Burnett's team finished third behind Brad Rutter's and Ken Jennings's teams. As a result, Burnett, Mueller, and Lin split the third place prize of $100,000. All told, Burnett's official winnings total $480,334, which isn't too shabby for someone who never played a single regular season game.

Roger Craig became one of the game's best players with record-breaking totals

Before James Holzhauer came along with his Vegas tactics for racking up gargantuan cash totals, Roger Craig was the guy when it came to big Jeopardy! winnings. As Delaware Online reports, Craig, a computer scientist from Newark, Delaware, enjoyed a seven-day winning streak in 2010, the most eventful of which was his second game, in which his final score of $77,000 set a new record for one-day winnings total, breaking the previous record of $75,000 set by Ken Jennings. This record stood for nearly a decade until James Holzhauer smashed it on April 9, 2019 with a new record of $110,914. (Holzhauer would, of course, go on to break his own record a few times.) By the end of his seven-day run, Craig had totaled $230,200, finally losing in his eighth game to a sportswriter on a sports-themed "Final Jeopardy."

Craig, of course, returned for the Tournament of Champions in 2011, which he won, racking up a cool quarter mil. In 2014, he was in elite company in the Battle of the Decades tournament, where he made it to the finals, finishing in third behind Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, adding $50,000 to his total. He was drafted by Austin Rogers' team in the All-Star Games, along with Teen Tournament champion Leonard Cooper, but Team Austin was knocked out in the wild card round. All told, Craig's winnings total $530,200.

Jason Zuffranieri might still add to his $532,496

To make it onto the list of Jeopardy!'s highest-ever earners, it's pretty much essential to win a big money game like the Tournament of Champions. The $250,000 prize from that tournament plays a key role in propelling pretty much every player on this list into the upper strata of players. That's not universally true, however. As the New York Post reports, Jason Zuffranieri's 19-game winning streak in 2019 was good enough to net him $532,496 in total winnings, all without a tournament win. The Albuquerque math teacher's run on the show landed him the third-highest regular season winnings behind Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, the fourth-longest winning streak behind Jennings, Holzhauer, and Julia Collins, and the seventh-highest total winnings overall. Zuffranieri got knocked out in his 20th game after failing to correctly identify the Sydney Opera House as the subject of the song "The Eighth Wonder." A classic blunder.

However, Zuffranieri stands a significant shot of making a considerable jump in these ratings. The sole reason he's listed here with only regular season winnings is that there hasn't been a Tournament of Champions with him in it as of this writing. Whenever the next championship occurs, Zuffranieri will be there, and he has an extremely good chance of winning. A Tournament of Champions win would put him in the top four, behind Holzhauer.

Matt Jackson became an internet smash with weird smiles and a whole lot of cash

The 13-time Jeopardy! champ Matt Jackson gained arguably more attention for his idiosyncratic behavior than he did for his dominant game play. As Today explains, the then-23-year-old paralegal from Washington, D.C., won internet fame for his slow, awkward smile, holding up his fingers to indicate how many games he'd won during the intro, and the time he shouted "boom!" after getting a Daily Double correct. He was also known for his rapid buzzing and often calling for the next question before Alex Trebek could even confirm he'd gotten the previous one correct. His unique style paid off, however, as he ended up racking up $411,612 across 13 regular season wins, the sixth-highest in Jeopardy! history.

Jackson returned for the 2015 Tournament of Champions, winning his quarterfinal and semifinal games before finishing in second to Alex Jacob, which netted him an additional $100,000. He was later drafted to Ken Jennings' team in the 2019 All-Star Games together with 2012 College Tournament champion Monica Thieu. Team Ken finished in second place, and the three teammates split $300,000 three ways. This brought Jackson's total winnings to $611,612, as well as the sixth-longest consecutive winning streak, the sixth-highest regular season winnings, and sixth-highest overall winnings. Does this six-six-six record placement give Jackson's eerie smile a new, sinister context? No. It's a coincidence ... probably.

Larissa Kelly is Jeopardy!'s winningest woman

As J! Archive records, at the time of her six-game run in 2008, Larissa Kelly was the winningest woman in Jeopardy! history. Her total winnings of $222,597 made her the highest-winning female contestant in history and the fifth overall winner in regular season play. She also broke Ken Jennings' record for most money won in five days. However, her status as winningest woman has since been taken by Julia Collins and her 20-game streak, her five-day winnings record was beaten by Roger Craig and then James Holzhauer, and she's no longer in the top ten for regular season play, but her numerous accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at.

Kelly returned for the 2009 Tournament of Champions, where she finished in second place behind Dan Pawson, adding $100,000 to her total winnings. She also took part in the 2014 Battle of the Decades, where she was eliminated in the first round, but she still added $5,000 to her cash pile. The major event that rocketed her up the standings and returned her to her position as highest-ranked woman, however, was when she was drafted (criminally late, according to Deadspin) to Brad Rutter's team in the 2019 All-Star Games. Together with Dave Madden, the three were basically an unstoppable Jeopardy! juggernaut, and they finished in first and split $1 million three ways, giving Kelly a final total of $660,930.

David Madden skipped a tournament and still became one of Jeopardy!'s best players

David Madden, an art historian originally from New Jersey, had an impressive run on Jeopardy! in 2005. As J! Archive explains, his 19-game streak was, at the time, the second-longest after Ken Jennings', though it's since been surpassed by James Holzhauer and Julia Collins and matched by Jason Zuffranieri. His total winnings of $432,400 were also enough to put him at the second-highest regular season winnings after Jennings, but he's since been bumped down to fourth behind Holzhauer and Zuffranieri. He returned for the 2006 Tournament of Champions, only to be knocked out in the semifinal round (even after beating the eventual winner of the tournament in the first round), adding $10,000 to his winnings.

Madden was invited to take part in the 2014 Battle of the Decades tournament, but he actually had to decline due to contractual issues related to his position as the founder of the National History Bee and Bowl, an academic quiz competitions for students. He was, however, allowed to return for the All-Star Games, where he was drafted by Brad Rutter along with Larissa Kelly. The three steamrolled the competition and ended up taking home a third of $1 million each, bringing Madden's overall total to $773,733. It's impossible to say how much more he could've won in the Battle of the Decades, but it wouldn't have been enough to bump him up on this list.

You can bet James Holzhauer won big on Jeopardy!

During James Holzhauer's headline-grabbing, barn-burning Jeopardy! run in 2019, it seemed like he would never lose, shatter all standing records, and change the way the game was played forever. As The New York Times points out, the first two didn't quite happen, but he's definitely made an indelible impression on the game. The Las Vegas sports gambler was known for grabbing high money clues early, betting huge on Daily Doubles to get unsurpassable banks of cash, and most importantly, almost never getting a question wrong. It honestly seemed like he might never lose, like he was destined to beat Ken Jennings's legendary streak, until he did lose in his 33rd game to librarian Emma Boettcher.

Still, he's indisputably one of the best to ever play, with the second-longest winning streak ever, the second-highest regular season winnings, and every spot in the top 16 highest single-day totals ever. He averaged over $75,000 per episode, but his total regular season winnings of $2,462,216 fell just short of Jennings's record. Holzhauer returned for the 2019 Tournament of Champions, which he of course won, adding $250,000 to his total, and he then went up against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2020's Greatest of All Time tournament, finishing in second place, adding another quarter mil to his pile for a total of $2,962,216. His career is still young, though, so he might not be finished winning.

Ken Jennings is the Greatest of All Time (well, kind of)

By pretty much any metric except one, Ken Jennings is the best Jeopardy! player who's ever lived. His 74-game winning streak will likely never be matched, with the second-highest streak (James Holzhauer's) being less than half as long. He has the record for the highest winnings in regular season play, and as The New York Times reports, he even literally won the tournament naming him the "Greatest of All Time." His only problem is he almost never beats Brad Rutter.

Jennings' legendary winning streak began in June 2004, shortly after the show eliminated its five-game cap, probably not anticipating by how much that limit would soon be exceeded. Over the course of 74 games, Jennings racked up $2,520,700, and he then returned for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, coming in second to Brad Rutter and taking home $500,000. He faced Rutter again in 2011 when the two took on the computer Watson in the IBM Challenge. Jennings' second place finish (behind Watson) netted him $150,000. He then finished second place (behind Rutter) in the Battle of the Decades, winning $100,000, and his team finished second behind Rutter's in the All-Star Games, adding another $100,000 to his total. 

In 2020, however, he finally beat Rutter in the Greatest of All Time tournament, snagging the prize of $1 million. Despite all that, his $4,370,700 (one of the biggest payouts in game show history) is still just shy of Rutter's overall total.

When it comes to money, Brad Rutter is Jeopardy!'s all-time best player

Brad Rutter is not only the biggest winner in Jeopardy! history, he's also the biggest winner in all of game show history. It's wild to think how much more money he might have had, though, if his initial Jeopardy! run hadn't happened before the five-game cap was lifted. Until 2020, his reputation was that he'd never lost a game of Jeopardy! to a human (that is to say, Watson the Jeopardy! robot beat him), but as The Washington Post explains, Rutter finally took an L to his long-time rival Ken Jennings in the Greatest of All Time tournament. 

Rutter's original run on Jeopardy! in 2000 wasn't going to break any records. He took home $55,102 and two Camaros (that used to be a thing for five-time winners). It was in tournaments, however, that Rutter began to shine. He won the 2001 Tournament of Champions for $100,000 and then the 2002 Million Dollar Masters, winning, well, $1 million. He beat Jennings for the first time in 2005's Ultimate Tournament of Champions, winning $2,115,000. He finished third in the IBM exhibition match and took home $100,000 and then won another cold million in the Battle of the Decades in 2014. A first place finish for his team in the All-Star Games and a third place finish in the Greatest of All Time brought his total to a hard-to-fathom $4,938,436.