Moments before playing high-stakes poker for the first time in more than a decade Monday, “Jeopardy!” sensation James Holzhauer said his strategy was simply not to embarrass himself at the World Series of Poker.
The Las Vegas professional sports bettor certainly accomplished his mission but he went 0-for-2 in his quest to win prize money in WSOP events on the heels of his record-setting 32-game win streak on the popular game show.
Holzhauer won the first hand he played Monday morning in the $1,500 buy-in Super Turbo Bounty No-limit Hold’em tournament at the Rio Convention Center.
He was closing in on prize money almost six hours later when he was knocked out of the 1,867-player event on back-to-back bad beats.
After starting with $25,000 in chips, he had a stack of about $86,000 and a pair of pocket 7s when he called a $75,000 all-in bet. His opponent turned over a pair of 5s and was dealt another 5 on the flop for a winning three of a kind to cripple Holzhauer’s chip stack.
On the next hand, Holzhauer went all-in with a king-jack against a king-10 and his opponent caught a 10 on the board to win with a pair and eliminate the game-show phenom.
“You know, that’s poker,” Holzhauer said with a smile and a shrug after describing his demise from his seat in the $1,000 buy-in Tag Team No-Limit Hold’em event.
Onward at WSOP
After Holzhauer was eliminated, he immediately headed across the cavernous convention center to another room to tag partner Mike Sexton, the Poker Hall of Famer who paid Holzhauer’s entry fees in his role as chairman of partypoker.com, an online poker website.
After Holzhauer played for a couple hours and left for a dinner break, Sexton was eliminated when he turned over ace-king in the hole and his opponent had a pocket pair of 10s. There were 900 teams in the field and more than $800,000 in prize money.
Holzhauer, 34, pledged to donate half of any winnings to Project 150, a nonprofit organization in North Las Vegas that helps homeless high school students. He outlasted more than 75 percent of his opponents in his first WSOP event — placing 454th — but fell short of the money as only the top 15 percent (top 281 places) cashed.
However, Holzhauer and his wife, Melissa, had already donated a total of $40,000 to the charity, Project 150 executive director Kelli Kristo said as she watched him play. The Holzhauers have donated more than $300,000 overall to a variety of charities.
Holzhauer won more than $2.46 million during his “Jeopardy!” run that ended June 3, finishing less than $60,000 behind the show’s regular-play earnings mark of $2,520,700 set by Ken Jennings, of Edmonds, Washington, during his 74-game win streak in 2004.
Coincidentally, the total prize pool for the Super Turbo Bounty event was $2,520,450.
During breaks in the action Monday, the humble Holzhauer graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans and players, including ones at his own table.
Megan Thevenot of Houston broke down crying after Holzhauer took a photo with her as she held a sign that read, “Get Well Grandma Robbie.”
“This will be the highlight of her year,” Thevenot said, choking up.
A semi-professional online poker pro in the early 2000s, Holzhauer said he’d played fewer than 50 hours of live poker before Monday. His roommate at the University of Illinois was poker pro Jameson Painter, and some of his closest friends in Las Vegas are pro poker players.
“I have several friends who are (WSOP) bracelet winners,” he said. “They’re great people. I would trust them with my life.”
Sexton said Holzhauer helped to elevate the image of pro gamblers during his record-setting “Jeopardy!” run and that Monday’s WSOP appearance will help raise the profile of poker.
“Any time you get a celebrity like James Holzhauer is right now, it’s just fantastic for our industry if they come and play and support a poker event because the public gets exposed to the poker world,” Sexton said. “He’s definitely enhanced our profile, there’s no question about it, because of his demeanor, his charity giving, and he’s a family man.”
As legal sports betting continues to spread across the country, Holzhauer said some people have called him the ambassador of the movement.
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” he said. “But I hope I’m a positive face of progress.”