Kyle King, a 30-year-old math teacher at a suburban Chicago high school, won Hawthorne’s live-money tournament on the Aug. 12 Arlington Million card to qualify for the first time to the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) Presented by Racetrack Television Network, STATS Race Lens™ and Treasure Island Las Vegas.

King’s wife, Elizabeth, had their first child, Evelyn, on New Year’s Eve. On his player bio, King wrote: “‘New dad wins NHC’ would make good headlines…’” and answering the question of what he’d do with the $800,000 grand prize, “I guess I’ll be buying diapers if I win.” The NHC, with a record field of around 700 entries, runs Friday through Sunday at Treasure Island Las Vegas. King, a University of Illinois math major who grew up in Lombard, Ill., is sharing his experience at the NHC with veteran turf journalist Jennie Rees.

This is the first of multiple interviews with King that will track his experience as a first-time NHC participant.

How did you get interested in horse racing?

“I’ve always been a math guy. I was drawn to the gambling aspect of horse racing first. My parents were big fans of horses and riding, but horse racing was just never something they did, though my grandpa was a racing fan and had a phrase, ‘Never bet on the gray.’ But I never went to the races with them. I went for the first time with some friends July 4, 2004, when I was going to be a senior in high school. I won the first bet that was placed on my behalf, and I was kind of hooked after that. When I was home from college in the summer, I would go to Arlington. When I was a senior in college, kind of luck of the draw, I ended up winning a four-figure Pick 4 and was hooked a little more. Then I got really interested, started reading books and teaching myself more and more.”

You were a math major at Illinois and are a math teacher. You have to beat the takeout, obviously, to win overall betting horses. Did you think there was a math angle there?

“A lot of what horse racing is, is understanding the math of it. Right when I graduated from college, about eight years ago, I got a little bit into computer programming. Slowly, over the last six years, I have written some proprietary coding to help me predict horse racing. I know there are big computer syndicates that do massive betting. I’m just a one-man show. That was taking a while, to collect the data and do the programming — 30,000-plus lines of code that I was just doing as a side hobby. I finished it last May, and decided to try it out.

“Right around that time was also when I read Peter Fornatale’s book on handicapping tournaments. I put some money on and messed around a little bit. I heard that Hawthorne had a tournament, so I went there on a whim and got lucky or got good or something. They had two separate tournaments. I went there on Friday and got, like, 13th place, then I came back on Saturday and won. I came close to winning that Friday as well. It was a live-money tournament. I hit a Pick 4 early in the day, then took all those winnings and rolled it into a bigger Pick 4 at Santa Anita and came within one race of one horse of winning that. I would have won that Friday had that horse — well, ‘shoulda’ is the story of every horseplayer. But in my eyes I was close the first night. I was thinking about everything driving here and back. I came back the next day and won.”

Do you keep changing your code?

“Yes. This is, like, version 1.0. This winter, I haven’t been playing as many tournaments. I’ve been taking my time fixing up the code. It’s certainly not perfect yet, and I’m not sure it ever will be. But I’m working to make it a little better.”

What does Elizabeth think of this?

“I’m slowly starting to win her over. What she knows mostly is I go down to my office and I disappear and she knows I’m working on my coding. But she enjoys going to the track and making a day of it. The whole competition aspect of it is a little unknown to pretty much everybody in my circle. In my circle of friends, nobody knows what I’m doing.”

Did you know what the NHC was when you started coding?

“No, I did not. When I started coding, I wanted a quicker way to handicap. I was like, ‘If only there was a way…’ And I slowly figured out there was a way. It just took me five, six years of hard work. There was that Horseplayers show on Esquire Network. That’s probably where I first found out about the NHC.

“I used (the coding) here and there just playing at the track. That’s how I finally justified I’d enter that Hawthorne tournament. The Sunday before my wife and I were at Arlington and I hit a nice Pick 3 where I won enough money to cover both days of entries into the Hawthorne tournament. I was like, ‘I guess this is a sign that I’ll go and try it.’”

Did you go to the Hawthorne tournament with the idea of making the NHC, or just testing your coding? 

“My goal was definitely to go to Vegas. Yeah, it was a bit of ‘Let’s go and see what happens.’ But I had a goal of how many dollars I thought I needed at the end of the tournament. I made the bets according to that, and I happened to meet my goal on the second day. I was going to go back in December — Hawthorne has winter tournaments — and try to win a second seat. Then my wife went into labor that weekend.”

What do you think about going to Vegas?

“I’m super-excited. Part of it is I’m so busy with the baby and work right now that I’m trying to find time to prepare for the horse-racing stuff, too. I frankly wish I had more time to do that. I’ll probably start running some coding tonight (Tuesday) or tomorrow on Friday’s races.

“The baby is 5-weeks-old, so we definitely had a talk about (going). But my wife’s parents are very excited to help my wife out this weekend. We bounced back and forth with the idea of my wife and baby coming with me. But she ultimately decided she’d rather go to her parents’ house and get some rest that way.”

Can you win? 

“I think I can. I’m going to give it my best shot. Just like when I went to Hawthorne, I have a number in mind and a couple of ideas of how to get there. We’ll just have to see if the horses are nice to me.”