For decades, the faces of the American sports bettor were caricatures: a chain-smoker with a curled-up racing form, a bookie sitting in a dimly lit room, a shrieking tout wearing a gold chain and making dubious claims.
And then last month, in a fashion nobody would have bet on, a real-life example sprung off the television screens of middle America and defied those images. James Holzhauer has cemented himself as an all-time game show virtuoso on “Jeopardy!,” employing an aggressive style to win more than $1.7 million over 23 consecutive victories and swell the show’s ratings. He has also become — even if it lasts just 15 minutes — America’s most famous gambler.
Holzhauer, a Las Vegas resident, makes his living betting on sports. His emergence, bracketed around the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision allowing widespread sports gambling outside of Nevada, has given a face to the American professional sports bettor. That face happens to be clean-shaven and accompanied by tasteful button-down shirts and a math degree from the University of Illinois.
Holzhauer, who returned to competition Monday night after a two-week layoff, is a new kind of representative of sports gambling, both in substance and level of fame. Jimmy Snyder — known as Jimmy The Greek — became a celebrity picking games on “The NFL Today” in the late 1970s, but his last on-air appearance came in the late ’80s and he died in 1996. Billy Walters made himself wealthy and gained niche celebrity as a sports bettor before earning infamy — and prison time — in an insider-trading scheme, but he never attracted broad fame.
“Gen X and under, this is one of the first cultural touchstones the American public has had to sports gambling,” said Chris Grove, managing director of sports at gambling research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. “It’s hard to estimate what the effect of that is, but you shouldn’t underplay it.”
Grove drew a potential comparison. When Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker in 2003, he “provided a personification” of an online poker player to the public, Grove said, which helped fuel the industry.
It’s not a perfect comparison — Moneymaker was a poker player who got famous playing poker and not, say, telling Pat Sajak he’d like to solve the puzzle. But Holzhauer, like Moneymaker, is lending a persona to an industry poorly understood by those outside of it.
“This is an area that for most people is shrouded in mystery,” Grove said. “I think Holzhauer demystifies it to a degree. This is a living, breathing, relatively normal-seeming individual.”
Grove said public perception of sports bettors is defined by skepticism and negative connotation. A lot of people don’t believe it’s possible to make a living gambling on sports, and they hold a dim view of those who try. Holzhauer, Grove said, “is a counterpoint” — a whip-smart, clean-cut college graduate who proves you can earn a living picking games.
“I hope that my Jeopardy run helps destigmatize sports betting, because I have certainly dealt with some stigmas,” Holzhauer said, via email. “It doesn’t help that most sports betting personalities are touts who sell you picks that won’t actually beat the market. I hope I didn’t accidentally give those hucksters any extra customers.”
Holzhauer has used principles from his career to bludgeon his “Jeopardy!” opponents. Sports betting and “Jeopardy!” share a crucial trait at the expert level: There is more to each pursuit than guessing right, whether it’s the outcome of a game or a “Jeopardy!” clue.
Holzhauer wins at “Jeopardy!” because of his fast buzzer finger and a strategy reliant on choosing high-dollar clues first. He wins at sports gambling because he understands how to interpret movements in point spreads and knows which bookmakers to place bets with, and when. He also predicts winners and answers trivia questions correctly, but those skills are amplified by his advanced tactics.
When people express curiosity about his work, Holzhauer compares himself to an investment bank.
“There are many parallels: handicapping a team is basically fundamental analysis of a firm; in-game wagering is day trading a volatile stock; futures markets are, well, futures markets,” Holzhauer said. “The big difference is that the sports market has much higher transaction costs, so you need to be sharper to make a living in Vegas than on Wall Street.”
For those inside the sports wagering universe, Holzhauer’s background would not come as a surprise. Professional sports bettor Rufus Peabody, who co-hosts the “Bet The Process” podcast, described two typical images of sports gamblers. “There’s the old image of a cigar smoking Mafioso type guy,” Peabody said. “And then there’s nerdy quant who’s building these [statistical] models out. James is obviously more of the nerdy quant guy.”
Peabody, who studied data analysis at Yale, was making the point that Holzhauer shows the reality-based version of a modern sports better. Professional sports bettors don’t rely on street smarts and instinct. Rather, they tend to be people like Holzhauer, who combined his interests in sports and statistical analysis and realized he might be able to earn enough to make it his job. (Holzhauer declined to share how much he makes at sports gambling.)
“His success is great for sports betting in general,” Peabody said. “It helps to legitimize my profession. I can’t believe how many people have texted me and said, ‘Do you know this Jeopardy James guy? He’s a sports bettor.’ … Personally, I think it’s great to have that representation out there. It shows that sports bettors are educated people who have a skill set, and they’ve chosen to employ it in a different industry than other people.”
The size and texture of the world remains murky. A spokesman from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics passed the question of how many Americans classify themselves as professional sports bettors to the U.S. Census Bureau. A spokeswoman from that organization said it does not include sports bettor in its occupational surveys, adding she didn’t know of a better source for such data.
American Gaming Association spokeswoman Sara Slane said her organization does not track how many people identify as professional sports bettors. Through survey work, Grove said, Eilers & Krejcik pegged the number of Americans who make a full-time living betting on sports in the thousands, likely the low thousands.
But Holzhauer’s run has occurred at a hinge point in American sports gambling. In the year since the Supreme Court’s decision, states have raced to set up operations in hopes of cashing in on potential tax revenue. Along with opening myriad issues for both local governments and the sports gaming industry, the changes have raised the profile of sports betting, flooding sports networks with betting content and prompting teams and leagues to reach partnerships with casinos and sportsbooks.
“I think [Holzhauer] has helped legitimize sports gambling,” said venerable sportscaster Brent Musburger, now a host on the Vegas Sports and Information Network. “But the Supreme Court did a lot more to legitimize it, if you know what I mean.”
“I would relate it more to marijuana than I would to ‘Jeopardy!’,” Musburger added. “There’s a lot of us, me included, who do not use it. Tried it, in my case, once. Didn’t do anything for me, so I went back to alcohol.”
When Moneymaker emerged as poker boomed, the number of online players exploded. Holzhauer wouldn’t have the same effect on an industry that is far more established, but his presence may have an impact in making people more interested in sports gambling.
“I think there will be a small but measurable wave of people who see his performance on ‘Jeopardy!’ and think they would like to be a professional sports bettor, too,” said Grove. But, he added, most of those thoughts will be more aspirational than realistic.
In early April, before he would become a wealthy and polarizing sensation, Holzhauer remained only another anonymous and hopeful “Jeopardy!” contestant. A lot of people like to offer their takes on his profession, and during off-camera small talk, host Alex Trebek shared his. “I could win a thousand dollars gambling and not care,” Trebek told Holzhauer, Holzhauer recalled. “But losing 20 bucks pisses me off.”