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‘Jeopardy!’ sensation James Holzhauer to make WSOP debut Monday

Before James Holzhauer became a professional sports bettor and national “Jeopardy!” sensation, he joked that he majored in poker at the University of Illinois.

Holzhauer will return to his gambling roots Monday when he makes his World Series of Poker debut at the Rio Convention Center.

The Las Vegas resident will participate in two events, starting at 11 a.m. in the $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em Super Turbo Bounty tournament. At 2 p.m., he’ll compete in the $1,000 buy-in Tag Team No-Limit Hold’em event with Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton.

“I decided to enter because Mike Sexton contacted me and offered to sponsor my buy-ins. I don’t have any plans to enter another WSOP event beyond those two,” Holzhauer told the Review-Journal in an email. “I played online poker semi-professionally in the early 2000s, but I don’t intend to make a career of it now, as I’m sure I wouldn’t be good enough at it to justify forgoing other opportunities.”

Holzhauer, 34, plans to donate 50 percent of any winnings to charity. He won $2.46 million during a 32-game winning streak on “Jeopardy!” that ended June 3. He and his wife, Melissa, have donated about $300,000 to various charities, he said.

A Naperville, Illinois, native, Holzhauer recently made a donation in “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek’s name to a Naperville pancreatic cancer walk.

Trebek, the longtime “Jeopardy!” host, is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. On Holzhauer’s final episode on the game show, Trebek thanked Holzhauer’s 4-year-old daughter for a handmade card she gave him.

“I want to express my thanks to your beautiful little daughter, Natasha, for having made this get well card for me,” Trebek told Holzhauer. “That was very sweet of her.”

In reference to his daughter’s birthday (Nov. 9, 2014), Holzhauer donated $1,109.14 to the Naperville walk and left a message on its website, “For Alex Trebek and all the other survivors.”

Trebek and Holzhauer were presenters at the NHL Awards show Wednesday at Mandalay Bay.

Holzhauer said he hasn’t played poker for nontrivial stakes in eight years, or since the federal government cracked down on illegal internet poker operations in April 2011.

“I stopped playing online poker due to a combination of the UIGEA legislation and realizing that I could make more money with less effort by betting sports,” he said. “Honestly, my poker skills are so rusty that my main goal is to get lucky.”

Many of Holzhauer’s closest friends are poker pros, including three-time WSOP bracelet winner and Las Vegas resident Ben Yu.

During Holzhauer’s record-setting run on “Jeopardy!,” Yu, who has $6.97 million in live poker earnings, told PokerNews that Holzhauer is one of the smartest people he’s met.

“In poker, the smartest people are probably like Scott Seiver, Isaac Haxton — (Holzhauer’s) right up there with them for sure,” Yu said. “He has a phenomenal gambling mind. We do a lot of sports betting work together, share a lot of information.

“He’s definitely someone I look up to.”

Still, Holzhauer said he hasn’t hit up his pal for a poker refresher course.

“Ben Yu is a close friend, but he has bigger fish to fry right now than teaching me how to play cards,” he said. “Other friends have encouraged me to play in the Series, but I think they might just be hoping to get more dead money in the field.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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Las Vegas handicapper Bruce Marshall is an analyst at VegasInsider.com. Each week, he provides the Review-Journal with NFL tech notes and trends.