At its core, the game is a quiz competition in which the goal is to correctly answer a series of fourteen (originally fifteen) consecutive multiple-choice questions. The questions are of increasing difficulty, except in the 2010–15 format overhaul, where the contestants were faced with fourteen questions of random difficulty, distributed into two rounds. Each question is worth a specified amount of money; the amounts are cumulative in the first round, but not in the second. If the contestant gives a wrong answer to any question, their game is over and their winnings are reduced to $1,000 for tier-one questions, $5,000 for tier-two questions, and $50,000 for tier-three questions. However, the contestant has the option of "walking away" without giving an answer after being presented with a question, in which case the game ends and the contestant is guaranteed to walk away with all the money they have previously received. With the exception of the shuffle format, upon correctly answering questions five and ten, contestants are guaranteed at least the amount of prize money associated with that level. If the contestant gives an incorrect answer, their winnings drop down to the last milestone achieved. Since 2015, if the contestant answers a question incorrectly before reaching question five, he or she leaves with $1,000. Prior to the shuffle format, a contestant left with nothing if he or she answered a question incorrectly before reaching the first milestone. In the shuffle format era, contestants who incorrectly answered a question had their winnings reduced to $1,000 in round one and $25,000 in round two.
op prize winners
The first contestant to correctly answer all 15 questions and win the top prize of $1,000,000 was John Carpenter, on the episode aired November 19, 1999. In 2000, the million dollar top prize was awarded five times: to Dan Blonsky on the episode aired January 18, to Joe Trela on March 23, to Bob House on June 13, to Kim Hunt on July 6, and to David Goodman on July 11.
In January 2001, when no contestant had won $1 million in any show that aired over a period of five months, the top prize was then changed from a flat $1 million to an accumulating jackpot that increased by $10,000 for each episode where the top prize was not won. On April 10, 2001, Kevin Olmstead correctly answered the final question and won $2,180,000, making him the biggest winner in television history at the time. The top prize for correctly answering the final question returned to $1 million following Olmstead's win and has remained unchanged since; just five days after Olmstead's win, the standard $1 million prize was awarded to Bernie Cullen. The last top prize winner on the original network version was Ed Toutant, on the episode aired September 7, 2001; he had previously appeared on the episode aired January 31, 2001, where he was ruled to have answered his $16,000 question incorrectly, but when it was discovered that there was a mistake in that question, Toutant was invited back and won a $1.86 million jackpot. On the Super Millionaire spin-off, Robert Essig won $1,000,000 after answering the twelfth question and then walked away, not reaching the final question for $10,000,000.
On the syndicated version's first season, two contestants correctly answered all 15 questions and won the top prize of $1,000,000: Kevin Smith on February 18, 2003, and Nancy Christy on May 8 of the same year. During the Million Dollar Tournament of Ten which aired in November 2009, Sam Murray, who had previously supplied correct responses for eleven questions, risked his winnings on a special $1,000,000 question; he was the only contestant to answer his question correctly
- Who Wants to Be a Millionaire