Houston’s most outrageous sports gambler has $4 million riding on his hometown Cougars to win the NCAA Tournament. Here’s how he would wager with your money.
By Will Yakowicz, Forbes Staff
If all goes according to plan, the Texas furniture mogul and high-rolling gambler best known as “Mattress Mack” will sell $34 million worth of mattresses during March Madness, the Houston Cougars will win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and Mack won’t make a dime.
Jim McIngvale, who founded Houston-based furniture chain Gallery Furniture with his wife in 1981, has placed another supersized wager on a sporting event—all to market his business. Starting late last year, Mack placed multiple bets across several casinos on the Cougars. All told, he has $4.1 million riding on Houston at 8.5-to-1 odds, meaning that if his hometown team cuts down the nets in the championship game on April 3—which, providentially, will be played at Houston’s NRG Stadium—he will win $34 million.
But McIngvale’s headline-grabbing bets are just business. His $4.1 million wager is a hedge against a furniture promotion he’s running at the store: If customers buy $5,000 or more worth of furniture, and Houston wins it all, they’ll get a full refund.
It’s a high-profile risk McIngvale has taken for decades, but he doesn’t do it to get rich from gambling. During the 2022 World Series, Mack famously won a record $75 million off a $10 million futures wager that Houston Astros would win the Fall Classic. But he sold some $74 million worth of furniture during that promotion so his winnings covered the sales, and his $10 million wager, which he also got back, covered the additional expenses. “People think I get to take all this money, but the truth is I paid out $75 million, plus all the credit card fees,” McIngvale says. “I’m not getting rich on these promotions, but it sure as hell helps me sell a lot of furniture.”
If the 2023 tournament plays out anything like last year, Mack likes his odds. In 2022, he bet $5.5 million on the Kansas Jayhawks to win and garnered $10.5 million when they did. This year, his beloved Cougars are the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region and several sportsbooks expect the team will win it all.
Of course, Mack is not alone in loving to wager on March Madness. An estimated 68 million America adults plan to bet $15.5 billion on the NCAA tournament this year, according to the American Gaming Association. The majority of American gamblers—some 83%—will fill out a bracket. And 46% of American gamblers will place a bet legally at a retail sportsbook, a legal mobile app or with a bookie. Another 32% will wager “casually” with friends, the report finds.
But for all those wanting to bet like Mack, he’s giving away a few tips—for free. “I’ve never done a bracket,” says McIngvale, “it’s an exercise in futility. I always get knocked out first day. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Instead, Mack suggests doing some real homework before placing a March Madness wager. He says he looks at historical performance, coaches, and injuries. “When I bet a future, I look at past performance,” he says.
He loves to bet on his home team whenever possible, too. For his last big win during the World Series, the past performance was an easy metric. “The Astros were in the American League Championships six out of the last six years,” he says. As for the Cougars, they were in the Elite Eight for the past two tournaments and made the Final Four in 2021. “They’ve been knocking on the door for several years now,” McIngvale says. “It was a no-brainer.”
Another aspect to look at, Mack adds, is the coach. “One thing I learned last year from a gambler is that some coaches are good at coaching these tournaments and some aren’t,” says McIngvale. “By looking at the past history, you figure out if this coach is good: can he get the players ready to play another game?”
And as with every Big Dance, gamblers are always looking for a Cinderella. This year, Mack has his eye on some blue-chip programs that are ranked too high to be considered the stuff of fairytales: Aside from Houston, he likes the University of Kentucky, the No. 6 seed in the East Region, and Gonzaga, the No. 3 seed in the West. “Both of them have a lot of history in this tournament in their coaches know how to play in it,” he says.
His wife, Linda, is relieved that he can’t just pull out his phone and place a bet. “She’s probably happy as things are,” Mack says, “because she thinks I have a gambling problem.”
Mack’s “longest of longshots” to win it all is another Texas team in the tournament: Texas Southern, a 20-loss squad that earned a spot in the First Four play-in games against Fairleigh Dickinson on March 15.
As for the increasingly popular prop bets, McIngvale doesn’t play them himself, but for those who do, he suggests finding a team with a great defense and betting the under. “The Cougars are very good at defense,” he says, sneaking in some more Houston homerism, “and they would be a good under bet.”
Above all, McIngvale also has two big rules for gambling: First, is don’t be stupid and bring a lot of cash to a casino if making an in-person bet. In November, McIngvale took a private plane to Lake Charles, Louisiana to bet $1 million on the Cougars at the Horseshoe’s Caesars Sportsbook. “I always wire the money—cash is way too dangerous,” McIngvale says. “But cash makes a great prop after you win.”
And his second rule? Never bet more than you can lose. Mack says you need to be focused on a wager and deal with the outcome, win or lose. Never chase a loss.
“I know what my limits are,” he says, “but I tend to be very impulsive.”
Back in February, McIngvale somewhat surprisingly announced that he was against Texas legalizing sports betting. He says he doesn’t want it to be legal in his home state because the distance and time it takes to get action down works as a throttle on his impulsivity. “The discipline of having to go to Louisiana or Las Vegas to place a bet makes it much more thoughtful for me and more planned and targeted than just random,” he says.
Beyond that, his wife, Linda, is relieved that he can’t just pull out his phone and place a bet. “She’s probably happy as things are because she thinks I have a gambling problem,” he says.
With $34 million riding on college basketball this month, Linda is already getting pretty nervous. “She told me this morning that as the tournament gets closer, she gets more anxious,” says McIngvale. “I said, ‘What’s there to be anxious about? It’s just a basketball game.’”