The Jeopardy! “Greatest of All Time” tournament concluded earlier this week with a thoroughly dominant performance by Ken Jennings, who secured the GOAT title after defeating rival claimants James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter 3-1-0. For long-time J! watchers and aspiring contestants like me, the competition was the fulfillment of years of hopeful speculation and a fitting send-off for host Alex Trebek, no matter how long his time with the show continues beyond this point.
Now admittedly, I prefer Jeopardy! to Wheel of Fortune, but I am a big fan of both programs, and despite the substantive differences between the actual games, the two shows are closely related. (Hosts Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek even swapped places for an April Fool’s Day crossover several years ago.) As such, the J! tournament, along with Sajak’s own recent health scare, got me thinking about what a parallel Wheel GOAT sendoff tournament might look like.
There are, of course, several impediments to selecting a field of Wheel competitors to match the likes of Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and James Holzhauer. For one, with the exception of a couple of early seasons which had an hour-long tournament-style format, Wheel has never allowed winners to return, forcing us to evaluate contestants on a single game’s performance. Too, while skill and luck are necessary for success in both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, the balance is shifted much more heavily toward luck in Wheel than in J!. Last, the history of Wheel and its biggest winners is much harder to piece together from online research, though a couple of fan sites have done excellent work in cobbling together bits and scraps of information from the show’s 40+ years of episodes.
Despite these challenges, it is still feasible to put together a respectable Wheel GOAT field, as I have done below. First, though, a couple of notable contenders who fell just short of making the list.
Honorable Mention #1: Judy Bongarzone (1976 tournament winner)
Tracking down information on Wheel‘s earliest years is certainly a challenge, but Judy Bongarzone’s name came up multiple times during my research. Bongarzone’s main claim to fame is her victory in the NBC All-Star Dream Machine Championship, a 1976 Wheel tournament hosted by Chuck Woolery which brought together nine of the strongest competitors from the show’s first two years. (1) She can be seen briefly at the very beginning of the first episode of the tournament, available here.
Honorable Mention #2: Byron Polk (2003 tournament winner, $100k winner)
Like Bongarzone, Byron Polk was the winner of a special Wheel tournament–in his case, a tournament of champions held in June 2003. Polk was also a $100,000 winner earlier that same year, making 2003 a very lucrative year for him. (2) Given that several players have since won million dollar prizes on the show, and that several others have won comparable dollar amounts outside of the bonus round prize, Polk’s achievements aren’t quite enough to put him in the GOAT field, but they still land him in the upper echelon of the show’s competitors.
Now, to the actual field. In selecting the three contestants for the hypothetical GOAT tournament, I tried to emulate the J! tournament in using several criteria for constituting “greatness.” To be sure, Rutter, Jennings, and Holzhauer were the obvious choices for their tournament, with overall winnings, win streaks, and single-game performances serving as three easy indicators of their dominance. Given that Wheel has had only a handful of special tournaments and that win streaks are by definition non-existent, I had to find other ways of identifying its strongest competitors, who I believe are, in no particular order…
1. Cindy Kling (biggest cash-only winner, biggest non-million-dollar winner)
Cindy Kling turned in one of the most profitable Wheel performances of all time on December 28, 2012, when she racked up $47,000 during the main game before correctly identifying the answer in the bonus round and adding another $100,000 to her bank. Kling’s $147,000 represents the largest amount of cash winnings by a Wheel contestant and makes her the biggest overall winner in the show’s history aside from the million dollar prize winners. (3) Kling’s flawless bonus round can be seen here.
2. Autumn Erhard (million dollar winner, biggest overall winner)
Only three contestants have had the good fortune to grab the million dollar wedge, win the main game, land on the million dollar prize in the bonus round, and then solve the bonus puzzle. First came Michelle Lowenstein in 2008, who added the million to just over $26,000 in main game winnings. The most recent, Sarah Manchester, won roughly $17,500 before taking home the million dollar prize in 2014. Our tournament representative from the millionaire category, however, is Autumn Erhard, who in 2013 finished with a grand total of $1,030,340, narrowly edging out Lowenstein to become the biggest winner in Wheel history. (4) A GMA recap of Erhard’s story, including her bonus round success, can be found here.
3. Matt DeSanto (biggest main-game winner)
Unlike our other two GOAT contestants, Matt DeSanto’s $91,000 in earnings came entirely from the main game; oddly enough, he whiffed on his bonus round question and missed out on the chance to break six figures. Nevertheless, DeSanto won every other puzzle in his game, solving one (“The Lone Ranger”) with only the Es on the board. (You can watch that puzzle here.) DeSanto’s $91k performance from December 26, 2014, makes him the only Wheel contestant to ever break $70,000 in the main game, a bar he cleared with flying colors. (5)
Picking a winner from this hypothetical Wheel field is far tougher than doing so was for the actual J! tournament, as luck looms larger in the game’s rules and we have smaller sample sizes on which to base our guesses. (DeSanto’s dominance of the main game might give him a slight edge in my estimation, but of course, the wheel could also play a major role in determining the game’s outcome.) It’s also unlikely that such a tournament will ever see the light of day, but we can dream, can’t we?