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Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer shares his worst bet for Super Bowl LIV

Peter King

LAS VEGAS — James Holzhauer never was noticed, even in his adopted town of Vegas, till his magical two-month run on “Jeopardy,” when he won $2.46 million in 33 episodes. He started getting recognized in Prague, Barcelona and Lisbon because of his hot streak on the game show that’s been alive since before man walked on the moon. (True story: “Are you the Jeopardy guy?” he got asked on his European vacation in June. Several times.)

There’s a football element to Holzhauer, which is mostly why he’s in this space. He’s a big football bettor, and he’s so good at it that he’s got limits of how much he can put down on his bets at most Vegas sports books. So we talked “Jeopardy,” but we talked a lot of NFL too.

“If I had to pick a team or two to make it to the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl, the boring answer is the Patriots and the Rams,” he told me, sitting a table away from an octogenarian couple. They were nibbling at chicken sandwiches before noon Sunday. “Everyone knows these guys are the best teams out there. But if you’re looking to invest in a futures ticket, I would say that the big thing to avoid is look away from the teams that have all the hype surrounding them. I can’t believe we live in a world where the Cleveland Browns are the most hyped team in the preseason. But I would say they’re probably the single worst bet to win the Super Bowl right now.”

Whoa.

On the show, I thought it was interesting to watch Holzhauer play the board from the bottom, making the big bets first instead of working up from easy to hard. It was cool to watch him bet absurd amounts all the time. “It’s a lot easier when it’s me doing the work than when I’m watching a player fumble away my bet at the last second,” he said. “You get the idea that money comes and goes especially in this line of work I’m in. I’m a pro sports gambler. You have winning days and you have losing days. But you know if you’ve got the right strategy, you’re going to get it in the end.

“I started taking the online tests to get on the show about 13 years ago. If they had called me that first year, honestly, I probably would’ve just been another forgettable contestant. As time went on, it kind of felt like, ‘Hey wait a minute. I only got one shot at this, maybe I need to really maximize that one shot.’ Do everything I can right. Take a little time, do my studying, know what I need to know and develop a really good game plan going in and just think, How would a gambler approach Jeopardy to maximize his winnings? That was basically how I was playing up there.”

One of the bets Holzhauer likes this year, and every recent year, is a futures bet on the two teams with the playoff byes. “If you dig deep into the numbers,” he said, “you can get an idea of which teams have the inside track at the bye weeks and the tiebreakers come into play. There are times where there’s a decent chance that two teams will end up tied for the second and third spot, but one team has the tiebreaker locked up and you don’t always see that reflected in the odds … The one seed, just by virtue of having to play only two home games, would win the conference about 35 percent of the time and make it to the Super Bowl. The two team makes it about 29 percent, and the three seed makes it like 11 percent. That’s just an enormous gap between the two and the three. At least the past five or six years, something like that, you keep seeing the one and two seeds advancing to the Super Bowl.”

One other thing: Bet on Sunday nights for the week ahead. “If they put the odds up for next week’s football games on a Sunday night, there’s not a lot of thought that goes into that,” he said. “But you give people a week to bet on this, the odds are going to be a lot more efficient.” Oh, and one other thing after that: Bet on college football. There’s not as much attention paid to those games.

Holzhauer told me about the time in his life when he was told he couldn’t do something. And damn if he didn’t sound like a undrafted rookie who’d been doubted, and then rushed for 1,000 yards or caught 80 balls. Seriously: This line coming up made Holzhauer sound like Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay, ignored in the draft and then rushing for 1,037 yards as a rookie, ninth in the league last year.

“This is kind of a thing throughout my life,” Holzhauer said. “When I was 10, I got the, You’re wasting your time studying sports statistics. When I was 20, it was, You’re wasting your time gambling, playing poker.’ When I was 24, it was, You’re wasting your time gambling on sports. Then when I was 30, it’s, You’re wasting your time studying for Jeopardy. I hope I’ve proven all these things wrong.”

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