Trivial Pursuits


Which king was the great-grandfather of France's Louis XV? When Ken Jennings, a thirty-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City, provided the correct answer (Louis XIV), on November 3, he locked down his sixty-sixth consecutive win on Jeopardy and became the biggest money-winner in television game-show history. By the time he finally lost—in an episode that aired on November 30—Jennings had amassed $2.52 million, given more than 2,700 correct responses, and defeated 148 challengers over 75 episodes of the show. Jennings's winnings surpassed those of the previous record holder, Kevin Olmstead, an environmental engineer from Michigan, who racked up $2.18 million on ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in the spring of 2001. Here are eight other notable masters of miscellany from over the past half century, ranked in order of their winnings (in 2004 dollars). —Michael Slenske

1. Curtis Warren (1999-2000): This air-traffic controller won $1.41 million on two episodes of Fox's Greed. His successful earlier appearances on Sale of the Century and Win Ben Stein's Money gave him total game-show winnings of $1,546,988 (inflation-adjusted: $1,658,990). The million-dollar question on Greed required him to identify four television series that had been made into movies. His answer: McHale's Navy, Dragnet, The Flintstones, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

2. Robert Strom (1957): The eleven-year-old math wizard from P.S. 26 in the Bronx won $192,000 on The $64,000 Question, and won another $32,000 on The $64,000 Challenge, thereby collecting $224,000 (inflation-adjusted: $1,211,392) before hitting puberty.

3. Elfrida von Nardroff (1958): Von Nardroff, a graduate student in sociology at Columbia, became the biggest winner in the history of Twenty-One, collecting $220,500 (inflation-adjusted: $1,157,427) over a sixteen-week run.

4. Charles Van Doren (1956-1957): During fourteen weeks on Twenty-One the Columbia English professor earned $129,000 (inflation-adjusted: $697,632) before tarnishing his family's literary legacy by admitting in a congressional hearing to having received answers in advance. Losing game-show question: Name the kings of Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Iraq. Answer: King Haakon, King Gustavus, King Baudouin, and King Faisal. Van Doren missed King Baudouin. (His losing answer to Congress: "I was like a child who refuses to admit a fact in the hope that it will go away.")

5. Thom McKee (1980): This naval pilot lasted longer—nine weeks—than any other player in the history of Tic Tac Dough, winning $312,700 (inflation-adjusted: $631,529)—$200,000 in cash, three sailboats, eight cars, and sixteen vacation trips—by defeating forty-three opponents. Losing question: What leading actress appeared in both The Wind and the Lion and Starting Over? Answer: Candice Bergen.

6. Michael Jezierny (2000): Jezierny, a sixth-grader, bested forty-nine other precocious children to win a $300,000 trust fund on Fox's Challenge of the Child Geniuses. Winning question: What did the Romans call the country now known as France? Answer: Gaul.

7. Herbert Stempel (1956): As Robert Redford dramatized in his 1994 film Quiz Show, Stempel, a twenty-nine-year-old Army veteran attending the City College of New York on the GI Bill, bagged $49,500 (inflation-adjusted: $277,779) before losing on purpose to Van Doren. Losing question: What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955? Answer: Marty.

8. Tom Walsh (2004): Before Ken Jennings began trouncing everyone, this former senior policy adviser to the Senate Finance Committee held the record for most wins on Jeopardy, amassing $184,900 over the course of seven victories. His losing answer: This country's coastline, on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, is the longest on the African continent. Correct response: What is Somalia? (Walsh said "Ethiopia.")

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