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. On a recent Tuesday afternoon in Houston, with the MLB playoffs about to begin, the faded blue nylon bag — its contents worth potentially millions — sits on the floor of the massive Gallery Furniture showroom, just within arm’s reach of its owner: the Houston furniture magnate and Astros superfan Jim McIngvale, better known around these parts and in the world of high-stakes sports gambling as Mattress Mack.
Lanky and seemingly equal parts ears, teeth, cowboy boots and charisma, McIngvale has been a household name in Houston for decades thanks to his wacky TV commercials and his Ross Perot delivery. “I just have what you might call a high tolerance for risk,” McIngvale says. “Damon Runyon said ‘All horse players die broke.’ And I know I shouldn’t bet with my heart, but it’s hard not to and it’s a lot 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.
In a rather ingenious move at the dawn of the legal sports gambling era, McIngvale hedged his potential business losses by placing seven-figure bets on the Astros. Good thing. He ended up having to refund more than $10 million worth of mattresses. “We take large wagers from sports bettors of all stripes, but I’m not sure anyone does it with as much panache as Mack,” says Ken Fuchs, head of sports at Caesars Entertainment. “That’s why I bring in [Hall of Fame baseball owner and promoter] Bill Veeck as the only comparison with Mack. He’s never afraid to make a statement or take a risk and, clearly, he has fun 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. “We invited Mack because he had become such an example of everything the Astros and Houston had been through together in that year,” says Anita Sehgal, the Astros’ senior vice president of marketing and communications. “Houstonians have watched him build his life in Houston while giving back every step of the way. That’s why they have a special love for him. For Mack it’s not about words, it’s about action.”
In more ways than one.
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.
On the eve of the MLB postseason, we spent time with McIngvale for a look behind the scenes at the remarkable life and times of Mattress Mack and the moments during the past four decades that led him to take such a big swing on his hometown team.
“I just get bored to death with stability, which is why I guess I like all of these big bets,” he shrugs, even as he faces the culmination of all his business success, sports-gambling excess and Astros madness. “I thrive on chaos.”
If that’s true, with an entire furniture fortune now riding on the Astros, McIngvale is about to have the time of his life.
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 football field-sized warehouse out back is stuffed with mattresses in anticipation of another Astros title. On the north side of the building is a daycare funded by McIngvale. To the south, a trade school. (The saying around here is that since the hurricane this location has become a community center disguised as a furniture showroom.) 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 his junior high coach, Bob Barrett, was among the group of officers who arrested Lee Harvey Oswald at the 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. “My father was a giver, even when he didn’t have money to give, so he died without a lot, but he died very happy,” McIngvale says. “And that spontaneity, that taking care of people, that, maybe not a lot of thinking, but more just ‘ready-fire-aim’ approach to life? That’s where it comes from.”
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. “I was a great football player, I just had two small problems,” McIngvale says. “I was too small and I was 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. “He’d get right up in your face and scream ‘What are you saving it for, son? Is that all you got?’ And he taught me this line: ‘Ask, take and give no quarter.’ In other words: Never give up and never ask for anything. Do it yourself.”
Before he started selling furniture, McIngvale was a “broke failure” living at home in Dallas, trying to keep the lights on at his first business, a fitness center. Around 1978, hoping to sell some gym memberships, he attended “Muhammad Ali Appreciation Day” at Market Hall in Dallas. Late in Ali’s career, in between fights, the three-time heavyweight champ cashed in on his popularity with barnstorming-type “exhibitions” where he’d spar with local heavyweights and sign autographs for fans. After quickly dispatching a handful of local heavyweight hopefuls, Ali, always the showman, grabbed the ring announcer’s microphone and taunted the crowd: “Any y’all want to fight?”
Only one hand went up.
It was McIngvale’s.
“OK, come on up here then, Great White Hope,” Ali yelled.
Inside the ring, as a trainer laced up McIngvale’s gloves, Ali leaned in and told McIngvale the plan for the spectacle. After sparring for a round, Ali would drop his guard and McIngvale would seemingly knock his lights out, then stand over Ali and taunt the fallen champ. McIngvale did exactly as Ali told him, and when the crowd turned on McIngvale, Ali miraculously sprang back to life, grabbed the mic and confessed to choreographing the entire stunt.
And not a second too soon.
“People in the crowd were already asking my friends, ‘Hey, are you with him?’ And they were like, ‘Uh, no, no, we’re not with him,'” McIngvale says.
McIngvale’s wife, Linda, was with him at the event. “It just showed what a great personality Ali had, and of course Mack loved that side of Ali. [Ali] was obviously the greatest boxer of all time, but what Mack also loved was he was also the greatest promoter of all time, too.”
Says McIngvale, “I just seem to stumble into these things. I’m not shy, and I have a high tolerance for risk. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“It’s like when you lose a million-dollar bet, you just say, ‘What’s next?’ That’s all you can do. But I do know we sold a lot of 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. After three hours in front of the camera, though, he had nothing on tape he could use. “I was stuttering and stammering and down to my last take,” McIngvale says. “I had the day’s receipts in my back pocket, so I pulled those out and waved them around and said ‘Gallery Furniture will save you … MONEEEY!’ The producer said, ‘That’s it, that’s the commercial.’ And 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 Mack 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. “Someone who bets big and bets with his heart, with a colorful personality,” Fuchs says. “Like Veeck, Mack thinks about ideas in such a large way, but he’s able to act on them and execute them.”
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 has become a part of the community’s subconscious. McIngvale says he recently walked past an autistic teenager shopping for furniture with his parents, and the normally nonverbal child said, “Hiya, Mack!” His mother burst into tears.
“I’ve always been bombastic and wanted to be a big promoter like W.C. Fields or Bill Veeck,” McIngvale says. “That’s what I’ve always dreamed of being, and now I’m getting to live it out.”
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. But it was two die-hard Peyton Manning fans who helped him develop the idea to hedge his furniture promos with massive sports wagers. Well, 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. So — ready, fire, aim! — McIngvale announced that if the Seahawks somehow beat Manning, everyone would get their furniture for free. “I didn’t hedge anything on this at all,” he says, “and it really got away from me in the last three or four days.”
By Saturday, Gallery Furniture had sold every mattress, every sofa, every ottoman and every last lamp in stock. “The damnedest promotion we ever had,” McIngvale says. “On Saturday night at 7 o’clock I’m standing on top of the desk at the front of the store screaming at the people that they have to go home now, we have no more furniture. It. Was. Unbelievable. We sold every last stick of furniture we had. Never happened in our history before.”
McIngvale knew he was on to something. He was ecstatic. Right up until he did the math just before kickoff.
“I hadn’t told my wife or anyone else about this, but we were on the hook for a whole lot if Seattle won,” he says.
Far too nervous to watch the game, McIngvale ran on the treadmill in the exercise room at the back of his warehouse for three hours. (He doesn’t have a TV at home.) When the two Peyton Manning fans were nowhere to be found, McIngvale knew he was screwed. All he could do then was wait for the postgame call every gambler dreads. “The phone rang at the end of the game, I picked it up and I said, ‘Who won?’ and my wife says ‘Seattle won you big dummy, how much money did we lose?’ And I just spit it out: ‘Nine million. We’re out nine million,'” McIngvale recalls. (McIngvale has run this story through the Mattress Mack Filter in recent years. An ESPN story from 2014 says he actually lost $7 million.) “Let’s just say, yeah, she wasn’t a happy camper. That’s when I realized I needed to find a way to hedge this stuff somehow.”
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. Later that day while trying to reach a trapped family, Lebedzinski nearly drowned when he was sucked into the filthy floodwater by an open manhole cover. “He was halfway to Galveston Bay before he saved himself,” McIngvale says. Daring rescues like Lebedzinski’s continued for days until there were hundreds of families not just sheltering but living inside McIngvale’s pristine showroom. “Mack’s always first, first in the water, first to open his doors, first to help,” says Houston schoolteacher and Astros fan Deirdre Ricketts. “All Houstonians have big hearts, but Mack’s might be the biggest.”
“People asked, ‘How can you let them sleep on the brand-new furniture like that?'” McIngvale says. “What am I going to do, let them all drown? So that was it. To me, it was nothing. It was the right thing to do. And I wanted my kids to see me doing that. At the end of the day we’re all going to be judged by our creator, and he isn’t going to ask how much money we made. Instead, he or she will ask us how much of a difference did you make?”
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. It was the best of Houston, Sehgal says, the way people took McIngvale’s example and ran with it, coming together across the board to help each other.
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. At a recent home Astros game, Doan finally got to thank McIngvale in person.
For saving his life?
“No,” he says.
“For saving my life, my mother’s life and my father’s life.”
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. In August when the team from nearby Pearland, Texas, made it to the Little League World Series, McIngvale and the Astros raised money to send the players’ families to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“Mack’s always the first to step up for anything that’s impacting Houston,” Sehgal says. “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 about his life’s masterpiece: The Promotion. By combining all of his passions — furniture sales, community, sports, gambling and Texas-sized spectacle — McIngvale has achieved a kind of gambler’s nirvana by finding a way to bet millions upon millions on his beloved Astros and other teams without ever really “losing” a cent, all while pushing his brand equity through the roof.
Here’s how it works: It starts with picking underdogs and getting favorable odds. Because, without the futures aspect, none of the math works. 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 says McIngvale’s idea to use sports gambling as a business hedge is a different angle than anyone has ever seen before. “He’s laying off the risk with these wagers, covering one big loss with one big win,” adds Patrick Everson, senior reporter for Vegas Insider. “It’s kind of a genius business move, really. And, clearly, he’s got the money to lose. He’s not losing any sleep at all.”
What McIngvale really understands better than gambling, furniture or promotion, though, is human nature. Even the slightest chance to get something for free is practically irresistible to most consumers, especially those already on the fence about needing a new mattress. The more sales increase, the more McIngvale gets to do the thing he loves most: bask in the attention and fly off to Vegas to place ridiculously large bets, sometimes with a briefcase full of cash. “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. After the first few spur-of-the-moment trips to Vegas with McIngvale, McNeil started keeping a change of clothes in his car at work. “I guess it’s my job to save the suitcase if the plane goes down,” McNeil says.
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. On the eve of the past Super Bowl, outside a rest stop in Vinton, Louisiana (and on live TV, of course — this is Mattress Mack after all), McIngvale dropped $5 million on the Cincinnati Bengals, the largest Super Bowl bet in history. 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 because of these promotions and it is so much anxiety,” McIngvale’s wife, Linda, says. “I don’t know how he doesn’t get anxious about it. I think he does and pretends like he doesn’t.”
“My wife says I have a gambling problem,” McIngvale says. “I say I have a promotion problem.”
They’re both probably right.
If the chosen team happens to win, great, McIngvale’s losses are covered, thousands of ecstatic customers blab for years to everyone they know about that time they won the lottery at Gallery Furniture, and many of them turn around and spend the refund on more 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, well, that’s when McIngvale really wins. For example, last season McIngvale “lost” his $3.35 million wager when the Braves beat the Astros in the World Series. McIngvale pulled out all the stops for that bet, trying to appeal to a higher power by packing a suite at Minute Maid Park with nuns from the Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province. The sisters became known as the “Rally Nuns” until a 7-0 loss at home to the Braves in a godforsaken Game 6.
It wasn’t quite as soul-shattering a defeat as you’d imagine for McIngvale, though. 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. And that’s not even counting the value of all the free advertising, promotion and goodwill that McIngvale says is “exponential,” or the fact that, according to TurboTax, itemized gambling losses can be tax deductible.
“Oh, it’s definitely a win-win,” McIngvale says. “These promotions just bring the brand to life and give us a ton of brand equity that we wouldn’t have otherwise. The customers love it so they’re totally engaged and talk about it for years. Because it runs all season long it probably ups the number of people following the Astros, too, because now they have a real vested interest 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. Mainly, that it’s unfair how McIngvale is allowed to place multimillion-dollar bets while sportsbooks strictly limit what the average person can wager. Besides sounding a lot like airline passengers who blame the awful conditions in economy on the people flying first class, this really is an issue with sportsbooks policy, not McIngvale. One sports gambling industry insider said the reason sportsbooks love McIngvale so much and allow him to keep betting bigger and bigger amounts is all the free promotion they get out of it, and the fact that, well, he’s kinda 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. The wager broke all his rules about taking only underdogs and not gambling with his heart. “Stupid bet,” he says. “I see all these kids when I go to Vegas and it’s the weirdest thing because they all know me from gambling. People think I’m a great handicapper but I’m really 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 big family, comes up to say thanks to Self and I asked them, ‘How much did y’all win?'” McIngvale says, placing his hand on his forehead. “Sixty-four thousand. Sixty. Four. Thousand. It about knocked me over.”
Another reason the books love McIngvale is what Vegas Insider calls the Mattress Mack effect. McIngvale’s huge wagers on the Astros actually help defray the sportsbooks’ liability on more popular teams like the Yankees and Dodgers, teams that would normally be a loss for casinos. For the record, McIngvale doesn’t like the idea of limits, either. “I think they ought to take bigger bets,” he says. “It’s like if some customer comes in here and wants to spend a million dollars. Well? Knock yourself out. What difference does it make? Yes, the sportsbooks have to hedge it the other way, but they ought to have enough savvy to do that. They’re going to take some big losses, but they’re also going to get some big wins too if they have the numbers right.”
That math will continue to keep people like Fuchs up at night until the Astros are eliminated or sports gambling history is made. Although it’s clear he gets a kick out Mattress Mack, and the promotional mileage of his big bets, Fuchs stops short of rooting for the Astros. “It will be a lot of fun to be on this roller coaster as they progress through the postseason,” he says. “That’s the beauty of Mack’s hedge. It works out for everybody. 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 always completes this ensemble with the single most egregious sports-fashion crime of them all: tucking his game jersey into his pants.
And yet, somehow, on him it works.
Apparently, $70 million in free furniture as an accent piece will do that for an outfit. McIngvale promises that number will keep climbing as long the Astros keep winning, the odds remain favorable and the sportsbooks keep taking his bets. McIngvale is close to several of the Astros, especially Bregman, who shares his passion for racehorses, and he insists the players get a kick out of his promotions and don’t feel the least bit of pressure to help remodel the living rooms of half of Houston.
“This year he’s done it right, and if the Astros win it all it’s so exciting for him and the customers,” Linda McIngvale says. “Mack has this huge connection to the team now, and he loves doing this. … The man works really hard so, you know, it’s all good.”
Mobbed by fans the second he steps into the park, it takes McIngvale an hour to walk along the mezzanine from home plate to 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. The Astros’ response to McIngvale’s arrival is even more dramatic: three homers in four at-bats to blow the game open in the sixth. “He’s an icon, I love him, he’s Mack to me, not Jim McIngvale,” says Sehgal, the Astros SVP. “He’s just an authentic fan with a really big heart, the kind of person you can’t see without it putting a smile on your face.”
Outside of Houston, McIngvale has quickly become an irresistible storyline as a quirky curiosity in the burgeoning world of mega-sports gambling. Inside this city, though, he remains something completely different and far more impactful. For three straight hours inside Minute Maid Park, fans beam when they recognize Mattress Mack. Some yell out “Legend!” and keep 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 if he’s a ballplayer. A few fans bend his ear for gambling advice on the Texans and 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 free mattresses!”