Astros superfan Mattress Mack can’t lose, no matter who wins the World Series
Oct 25, 2022
David FlemingESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and FlemFile columnist for ESPN.com.
- Has written more than 30 cover stories for SI and ESPN.
- Author of “Noah’s Rainbow” (a father’s memoir) and “Breaker Boys” (stolen 1925 NFL title).
INSTEAD OF A bank vault or a Brink’s truck, the betting slips from what could be the largest payout in sports gambling history are being guarded by nothing more than an old, tattered Houston Astros backpack. The bag, which is worth millions, was found on the Gallery Furniture showroom floor in Houston. It belonged to Jim McIngvale, a Houston furniture magnate and Astros fan.
Lanky, with a charismatic delivery and wacky TV ads, McIngvale is a Houston household name. McIngvale states, “I just have what might be called a high tolerance of risk.” “Damon Runyon said ‘All horse players die broke.’ Although I know it is wrong to bet with your heart, it is hard to not and it’s much more fun. In 2017, McIngvale gained national attention for opening his doors and sheltering hundreds of victims of Hurricane Harvey for weeks inside his furniture showroom, something he also did after Hurricane Katrina years prior. After the storm, as the Astros continued their historic run to the 2017 World Series, McIngvale was in the news yet again, this time for an only-in-Texas furniture promotion through which anyone who bought a mattress from Gallery Furniture would get it for free if the Astros won it all.
McIngvale made a smart move in the early days of legal sports gambling by placing seven-figure wagers on the Astros to hedge his business losses. It was a good thing. He ended up having to refund more than $10 million worth of mattresses. “We take large bets from sports betting professionals of all stripes, however I’m not sure anybody does it with the same panache as Mack,” Ken Fuchs of Caesars Entertainment, head of sports, says. “That’s why Bill Veeck, Hall of Fame baseball promoter and owner, is my only comparison to Mack. He isn’t afraid to make a statement and take a chance, and it’s clear that he enjoys doing it. “
By the end of the 2017 MLB season, McIngvale was such a Houston institution the Astros brought him along as one of their own for the trip to the White House. Anita Sehgal (the Astros’ senior vice-president of marketing and communications) says that Mack was invited because he was a great example of what Houston and the Astros had experienced together that year. “Houstonians have seen him build his life in Houston and give back every step of it. They have a special relationship with him because of that. Mack believes it’s not all about words. It’s about actions. “
In more than one way.
Now, five years later, with the Astros poised to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, McIngvale’s original furniture promotion — and the epic sports bets behind it — have quintupled in size to what is about to be a record-breaking $75 million World Series squeeze play. By the start of the Fall Classic on Friday, McIngvale says he’ll have around $10 million (at an average 7.5-to-1 odds) riding on the Astros. In other words, the exact kind of nerve-frying, death-defying stakes Mattress Mack, 71, has been drawing aces his whole life.
We spent time with McIngvale on the eve the MLB postseason to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the extraordinary life and times of Mattress Mak and the moments that have led him to take such an enormous swing for his hometown team.
” I get bored to death by stability, which is what makes me like all of the big bets,” McIngvale shrugs as he faces the culmination all his business success and sports-gambling excess. “I thrive in chaos. With an entire furniture fortune riding on the Astros’ shoulders, McIngvale will have the time and the place of his dreams.
IT’S JUST AFTER noon inside the bustling, 110,000-square-foot original Gallery Furniture showroom on the north side of Houston, and McIngvale is where he always is and where he hopes to remain “until I die” — behind the front desk, noshing on an orange and taking customer service calls. While McIngvale, who is worth an estimated $300 million, checks on the delivery status of a bedroom set, visitors wander through the property, a mesmerizing wonderland of furniture, kitsch, memorabilia and community outreach. The warehouse that measures a football field is filled with mattresses in anticipation for another Astros title. McIngvale funds a daycare on the north side. A trade school is located to the south. This is a trade school. One 360-degree panorama near the entrance includes the customized Texas A&M presidential motor scooter that belonged to George H.W. Bush; four stuffed raccoons playing poker on top of a bar; a glass showcase overflowing with humanitarian awards; a 30-foot nutcracker doll next to a similarly ginormous Christmas tree; a series of paintings of steers relaxing on sofas; a framed excerpt from Thomas Paine’s 1776 “Common Sense”; a 5-foot wooden fish carved from a tree stump and painted like the Texas flag; a six-piece leather, reclining living room set (last one, as is — no returns); a giant slab from a 513-year-old African bubinga tree; a signed poster from the Chuck Norris movie “Sidekicks” and an ornately framed oil painting portrait of McIngvale’s north star, his father, George Sr.
In the 1960s Jim was a prep football standout at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, a school his father helped found. Jim claims that his junior high coach, Bob Barrett was one of the officers who arrested Lee Harvey Oswald at Texas Theatre. A few years later when a former high school teammate of McIngvale’s didn’t have the money or the means to get back to college, George McIngvale put him in his car and drove him 2,000 miles back to Dartmouth. McIngvale explains, “My father was a giver even though he didn’t have any money to give. But he died very happy.” McIngvale says that spontaneity, taking care of others, doesn’t require a lot of thought, but more a’ready-fire aim’ approach. It’s there. “
EVEN THOUGH McINGVALE was a member of the legendary 1969 and 1970 Texas Longhorns football teams that won 30 straight games and back-to-back national titles, you can tell the overall importance of this experience in his life by where the Longhorns team photo is displayed inside Gallery Furniture: right above the customer restrooms. McIngvale states, “I was a great footballer, but I had two small problems.” “I was too small and too slow.” Spending all that time on the sidelines, however, McIngvale became close with another major influence in his life, Frank Medina, the Longhorns trainer from 1945 to 1978. “He was all of 4-foot-10, but he was a fireball,” McIngvale says. McIngvale says that McIngvale would get up in your face and shout, “What are you saving it to, son?” Is that all you have? He also taught me the following line: “Ask, take, and give no quarter.” Also, never give up and never ask for anything. Do it yourself. “
Before he began selling furniture, McIngvale lived in Dallas as a “broke person” trying to run his first business, which was a fitness center. Around 1978, hoping to sell some gym memberships, he attended “Muhammad Ali Appreciation Day” at Market Hall in Dallas. In between fights, Ali, a three-time heavyweight champion, used barnstorming-type “exhibitions” to cash in on his popularity. He would spar with local heavyweights, and sign autographs for fans. Ali, the showman, quickly defeated a few local heavyweight hopefuls and grabbed the microphone to taunt the crowd. “
Only a single hand raised.
It was McIngvale’s.
“OK. Come on up, Great White Hope,” Ali shouted.
A trainer was putting McIngvale’s gloves on, and Ali leaned in to tell McIngvale about the plan. After sparring for a round Ali would drop his guard, and McIngvale would appear knock his lights out, then stand above Ali and taunt him. McIngvale did exactly what Ali instructed him to do. When McIngvale was turned on by the crowd, Ali miraculously rose to life and grabbed the microphone to confess to choreographing the entire act.
And it was not too soon.
” People in the crowd were already asking me, “Hey, aren’t you with him?” McIngvale said that people in the crowd were already asking my friends, “Hey, are you with him?”
McIngvale’s wife, Linda, was with him at the event. “It just showed how great Ali was, and Mack loved that side. Mack loved Ali’s ability to promote the sport. He was undoubtedly the greatest boxer ever. “
Says McIngvale: “I just seem like I stumble into these things. I am not afraid and have a high tolerance of risk. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“It’s almost like losing a million dollars in a bet. You just say, “What’s next?” It’s all you can do. I do know that we sold many gym memberships that day. “
AFTER GALLERY FURNITURE opened in 1981, a Texas oil bust forced Houstonians to tighten their belts and threatened to bankrupt McIngvale. Down to his last $10,000, McIngvale spent half on inventory and half on a TV commercial shoot. McIngvale was exhausted after three hours of being in front the camera. He had nothing to tape. McIngvale states, “I was stuttering, stammering, and down to my final take.” “I had the receipts for the day in my pocket so I pulled them out and waved them around. Gallery Furniture will save you money. MONEEEY!’ MONEEEY!’ It stuck.” The over-the-top spots started airing late at night on Channel 39 in Texas, where McIngvale enjoyed a long association with Houston Wrestling and WWE Hall of Fame announcer Paul Boesch.
Mattress Mak was born.
Combined with McIngvale’s longtime association with the Astros, it’s a character who immediately draws comparisons to legendary MLB owner and promoter Bill Veeck, the man who, in 1979, gave us Disco Demolition Night. Fuchs describes Fuchs as “someone who bets big, and bets with their heart, and has a colorful personality.” Mack, like Veeck, thinks big but is able to take action and execute his ideas. “
McIngvale’s catchphrase has been flooding the Houston airwaves nonstop since the 1980s. (He has screamed it while wearing a mattress, while nearly being trampled by livestock, while fighting Chuck Norris, tumbling with Olympians, arm wrestling comedian Joe Piscopo and posing next to pretty much every B-level celeb in Texas.) Mattress Mack is now a part of the community’s unconscious. McIngvale claims that he walked past an autistic teenager while shopping for furniture with his parents recently and the child, who is normally nonverbal, said, “Hiya Mack!” His mother broke down in tears.
“I have always been a bombastic person and wanted to be a big promoter, like W.C. Fields and Bill Veeck,” McIngvale said. “That’s what my dreams have been, and I’m finally living it.” “
McINGVALE’S APPETITE FOR sports gambling started in 2006 when he says he won $250,000 on Texas and Vince Young in the national championship game. He was inspired by two Peyton Manning enthusiasts who helped him to create the idea of hedging his furniture promos by placing massive sports wagers. It was kind of. In 2014, before the Broncos played the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, two employees convinced McIngvale there was no way on Earth that their boy Peyton would ever lose to the lowly Seahawks. Let’s go! McIngvale announced the offer that everyone would receive their furniture free of charge if the Seahawks beat Manning. He says that he didn’t hedge any of this. “It really got away from him in the last three to four days.” “
Gallery Furniture had sold all of its stock, including every sofa, every couch, and every ottoman, by Saturday. McIngvale declares that it was the “disgustingest promotion we have ever had.” “On Saturday night at seven o’clock, I stand on top of the desk in front of the store screaming at people that they must go home now, because we don’t have any furniture. It. Was. Unbelievable. Every piece of furniture we owned was sold. This has never happened before in our history. “
McIngvale knew he was on to something. He was thrilled. He was ecstatic right up to the point when he did all the math just before kickoff.
” I hadn’t told my wife nor anyone else about this, however we were on the hook to a lot if Seattle wins,” he said.
McIngvale spent three hours on the treadmill in his warehouse’s exercise room, far too nervous to watch the match. He doesn’t have a television at home. McIngvale was devastated when the Peyton Manning fans vanished. McIngvale could only wait for the postgame call that every gambler hates. “At the end of the game, the phone rang. I picked it up and asked, “Who won?” My wife said, “Seattle won you big dumbass,” and I replied, “Who won?” And I just spit it out: “Nine million.” McIngvale says that we’re out nine millions. McIngvale ran this story through the Mattress Mack Filter in recent times. An ESPN story from 2014 says he actually lost $7 million.) Let’s just say that she wasn’t a happy camper. I knew I had to find a way of protecting this stuff. “
In 2017, a day after Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston, Gallery Furniture inventory control manager Anthony Lebedzinski arrived at the showroom where, he says, McIngvale was already handing out keys to the company’s fleet of delivery trucks to any able-bodied adult willing to help rescue people from the floodwaters. Lebedzinski almost drowned later that day, while trying to reach a family trapped by the floodwaters. McIngvale states that Lebedzinski was only halfway to Galveston Bay when he saved his life. Daring rescues like Lebedzinski’s continued for days until hundreds of families were not only sheltering but also living in McIngvale’s showroom. Deirdre Ricketts, a Houston schoolteacher, says that Mack is always first. He’s the first to get in the water, to open his doors, and to help. Mack’s heart is bigger than most Houstonians, but it might be the largest. “
“People were curious as to how they could let them sleep on brand-new furniture. McIngvale says. McIngvale says, “What am I going do? Let them all drown?” That was it. It was nothing to me. It was the right thing. It was the right thing to do. I wanted my children to see me doing it. Our creator will judge us all at the end of it all. He won’t ask how much we made. Instead, he/she will ask us how much difference you made. “
McIngvale’s immediate, large-scale, open-arms policy set the tone and created a path forward in the terrifying, chaotic and critical early days of the city’s recovery. Sehgal said that Houston’s best was McIngvale’s immediate, large-scale, open-arms policy. People followed his lead and came together to help one another.
One of the temporary residents pulled out of the floodwaters and fed, clothed and sheltered at Gallery Furniture for several days was Khanh Doan, 31. Doan finally had the opportunity to meet McIngvale at a recent home Astros game.
Thank you for saving my life.
” No,” he replies. For saving my life, my father’s life, and my mother’s. “
During the past decade, McIngvale has also helped raise $12 million for tsunami relief, delivered 25,000 care packages to seniors during the COVID pandemic and opened his showroom again during last year’s winter storm and power outages. McIngvale and his Astros team raised money to send the children of the team from Pearland, Texas to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Sehgal states
“Mack is always the first to help Houston. “Big or small. “
IF YOU REALLY want to catch a glimpse of McIngvale’s electric Mattress Mack alter ego, don’t ask about Texas football, his Elvis memorabilia collection or even his weakness for racehorses and Ferraris. Instead, ask him about his life’s greatest achievement: The Promotion. McIngvale combined all his passions — furniture, community, sports and gambling — to create a type of gambler’s paradise. He found a way to wager millions upon millions of dollars on his Astros team and other teams, without ever losing a cent. This allowed him to increase his brand equity.
The way it works is that you pick underdogs and get favorable odds. Without the futures aspect, all of the math is meaningless. For example, this season McIngvale’s initial $3 million bet at Caesars for the Astros to win it all at 1000 covered him for the first $30 million in potential furniture refunds. Next, McIngvale makes the grand announcement, which is some variation of: Spend $3,000 or more on a mattress and accept delivery within 24 hours, and if the Astros go on to win it all, your purchase is free. Then, the more furniture he sells through the promotion, the more McIngvale bets on the Astros, whose line has moved from 10-to-1 to 8-to-1 to 4-to-1 to their current status as World Series favorites.
Fuchs believes McIngvale’s plan to use sports gambling in business hedges is unique. “He’s laying off risk with these wagers and covering one big loss with a big win,” says Patrick Everson, senior reporter at Vegas Insider. It’s a brilliant business move. He clearly has the money to lose. He isn’t losing any sleep. “
What McIngvale understands more than furniture, gambling, or promotions is human nature. For most people, even those who aren’t sure if they need a mattress, the chance to get something free is almost irresistible. McIngvale enjoys the thrill of putting ridiculously large bets. Sometimes he even takes a briefcase filled with cash. The more McIngvale’s sales increase, the more McIngvale can do what he loves the most: fly to Vegas to bask in the attention. “It’s just like in the movies, the briefcase gets its own seat on the plane,” says Gallery’s Gerald McNeil, a former Pro Bowl returner with the Browns in the 1980s who now works with McIngvale. McNeil began to keep a change of clothes in the car at work after his first few trips to Vegas with McIngvale. McNeil states, “I guess it is my job to save your suitcase if the plane crashes.”
Sports gambling is still illegal in Texas, so when he doesn’t feel like jetting to Vegas, McIngvale will simply drive roughly 125 miles east until the betting app on his phone pings to let him know he’s in Louisiana and free to drop another million or five. McIngvale made a $5 million Super Bowl bet on the Cincinnati Bengals. And this summer, as the Astros caught fire and the promotion exploded — until July, McIngvale was refunding double the customer’s money on mattresses and furniture — McIngvale flew to sportsbooks in Iowa and Vegas to bet another $4 million in a single night.
” I sweat these games due to these promotions and it causes so much anxiety,” McIngvale’s wife Linda says. “I don’t know how he doesn’t get anxious about this. I believe he does, but he pretends he doesn’t. “
“My wife claims that I have a gambling disorder,” McIngvale states. McIngvale says that McIngvale believes she has a promotion problem. “
They’re both likely to be right. If the chosen team wins, great! McIngvale’s losses will be covered and thousands of happy customers will blab for years about the time they won the Gallery Furniture lottery. Many of them then spend the refund on furniture.
After the Astros won it all in 2017, McIngvale got to live out every gambler’s dream, flying home from Vegas with that raggedy old Astros backpack of his stuffed with almost 50 pounds of the sportsbooks’ money. If the team loses, McIngvale wins. McIngvale “lost his $3. 35 million wager when the Braves beat the Astros in the World Series. McIngvale made every effort to win that bet. He packed a suite at Minute Maid Park filled with Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province nuns. They were known as the “Rally Nuns” after they lost 7-0 at home to the Braves in a game that was a forsaken Game 6. It wasn’t as devastating as you might think for McIngvale. The odds on that bet covered McIngvale for more than $35 million in freebies. Assuming the promotion brought in around $30 million in sales (during the fall, no less, which is typically a slow time in the furniture biz), at even a 40% markup, minus his wager, McIngvale confirms that he still came away with a cool profit, probably somewhere close to $9 million. McIngvale doesn’t even consider the value of the promotion, advertising, and goodwill McIngvale claims was “exponential” or the fact that itemized gambling losses are tax-deductible according to TurboTax.
“It’s definitely a win/win,” McIngvale states. These promotions bring the brand to life and give us brand equity that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Customers love it so much that they talk about it for years. It’s a great way to increase the number of people who follow the Astros because they have a real stake in the team. “
WHEN McINGVALE WAS a panelist at a gambling conference and trade show in New Jersey this summer, Everson says he heard minor grumblings from bettors about the whole Mattress Mack phenomenon. It’s unfair that McIngvale can place multimillion-dollar wagers, while sportsbooks limit the amount that an average person can bet. This is not McIngvale’s problem, but it does sound a lot like passengers on first-class flights who blame poor economic conditions on them. According to an insider in the sports gambling industry, McIngvale is loved by sportsbooks and allowed to bet bigger and more amounts because of the free promotion and the fact that he’s terrible at it.
During a brutal losing streak in 2022, McIngvale dropped $15.4 million on the Patriots, the Titans, the Bengals and Alabama. He was about to be out another cool $5.5 million in the NCAA tournament until Kansas came back from 16 down at the half to defeat North Carolina. Just before the tip, McIngvale sneaked off to Louisiana to bet another $1 million on Kansas at -190. McIngvale broke his rules about only taking underdogs and not gambling with the heart. He says, “Stupid bet.” “I see all these kids whenever I go to Vegas and it is the strangest thing because they all know me from my gambling. People think I’m a great gambler, but I’m not. “
After March Madness, McIngvale brought Jayhawks coach Bill Self into the store for the first day of the $14 million giveaway party. “First customers, a large family, comes up to thank Self and I ask them, ‘How much did you win?’ McIngvale puts his hand on McIngvale’s forehead. “Sixty-four thousand. Sixty. Four. Thousand. It almost knocked my over. “
Another reason McIngvale is loved by the books is what Vegas Insider refers to as the Mattress Mack effect. McIngvale’s large wagers on the Astros help to defray the sportsbooks liability on popular teams such as the Yankees or Dodgers, which would normally be a loss to casinos. McIngvale does not like limits. He says, “I think they should take bigger bets.” It’s almost like if a customer comes in and wants to spend a million. Well? Get out of your own way. What difference does it make to your life? The sportsbooks will have to hedge the bets, but they should have enough knowledge to do so. They will take big losses but they can also win big if they have the numbers right. “
This math will keep people like Fuchs awake at night until the Astros are defeated or sports gambling history is made. Fuchs doesn’t root for the Astros, even though it’s obvious he enjoys Mattress Mack and the promotional value of his big bets. He says, “It will be a lot fun to be on the roller coaster as they move through the postseason.” Mack’s hedge is a beautiful thing. It works for everyone. Well, unless we lose $30 million. “
IN THE END, few things can capture the inexplicable phenomenon that is Mattress Mack better than McIngvale’s Astros game attire. About an hour before the Astros faced the Diamondbacks on Sept. 27, McIngvale shuffled into the mezzanine level of Minute Maid Park by himself, sporting his signature look: well-worn black cowboy boots, a slightly askew orange-billed Astros cap, blue business slacks and an authentic Alex Bregman home white Astros jersey over a white button-down oxford, covered in a galaxy of black dots from the Sharpie McIngvale uses to take notes and sign autographs. McIngvale completes his ensemble by tucking in his game jersey. It works for him.
Apparently, $70 million in free furniture as an accent piece will do that for an outfit. McIngvale says that this number will continue to rise as long as the Astros win, the odds remain favorable, and the sportsbooks continue to take his bets. McIngvale is close with Bregman, a Astros player who shares his passion about racehorses. He insists that the players get a kick from his promotions and don’t feel any pressure to remodel the living rooms in Houston.
” This year, he’s done the right thing and if the Astros win it all, it’s so exciting both for him and the customers,” Linda McIngvale said. “Mack feels a strong connection to the team and he enjoys doing this. … It’s all good because the man works hard. McIngvale is mobbed by his fans from the moment he enters the park. It takes him an hour to walk the mezzanine between home plate and right field. And when he does finally reach his seat about 10 rows behind the Houston dugout, Section 122 erupts in a wave of applause. McIngvale’s arrival was met with a dramatic response by the Astros: three homers in four outfield at-bats to win the sixth. Sehgal, Astros SVP, says, “He’s an idol, I love him. He’s Mack to my eyes, not Jim McIngvale.” “He’s an authentic fan with a big heart. It puts a smile on your face. “
McIngvale is a fascinating character in the world of mega-sports gaming. He is something entirely different and much more influential in this city. Fans beam for three hours straight when they see Mattress Mack in Minute Maid Park. Some shout “Legend!” Others shout “Legend!” and continue walking to their seats. Others repeat his quirky catch phrase or reveal exactly how much free furniture they won in 2017. A little girl asks him whether he is a ballplayer. Some fans offer advice on gambling, including about the Texans or Oklahoma State. But the vast majority of people who stop do so to offer some heartfelt variation of the same message: “Thank you for everything you’ve done for this city the last 40 years. Go Stros! Let’s get those mattresses for free! “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.