School of hard knocks breeds a legend
Archie Karas, born Anargyros Karabourniotis in 1950 on the Greek island of Cefalonia, was well versed in the school of hard knocks. As a child, he was forced to earn money shooting marbles to avoid going hungry. At the age of 15, after a violent fight with his father, he ran away from home (he never saw his father again) then hopped on an international ship taking a job as a waiter. By the time his ship reached America, he understood not only what it took to survive, but had the wherewithal (and intelligence) to grow rich while doing what he loved. Considered by many to be the greatest gambler of all time, he once had the longest documented winning streak in gambling history. Known simply as “The Run”, Karas took $50 and in a little more than 2 years, turned it into $40 million. He then lost it all the following year. During the remainder of his life he experienced several more “mini-runs” before fading into shadows amidst claims that he may have used an ingenious, albeit illegal, means to outwit the world’s largest casinos.
When Karas arrived in America, barely speaking English, he jumped ship and took a job as a waiter in a Los Angeles restaurant. Located next door to a pool hall, Karas spent many hours honing his pool skills until he became so proficient at the game, he was making more money shooting pool than at his full-time job as a waiter. When his stream of pool victims finally ran dry, he moved to the Los Angeles card rooms to play poker where he quickly became an expert in the game.
Regardless of his newfound success in the games of pool and poker, Karas’s financial fortunes were inconsistent, seemingly moving up and down on a whim. With iron-hard courage (he had no fear of losing his money) and a drive to win at all costs, he could dominate his opponents, quickly building his bankroll to over $1 million, only to lose it just as fast. He once said:
“You’ve got to understand something. Money means nothing to me. I don’t value it. I’ve had all the material things I could ever want. Everything. The things I want money can’t buy: health, freedom, love, happiness. I don’t care about money, so I have no fear. I don’t care if I lose it.”
The events in the next three years would go down in legend as the greatest run in gambling history. What happened next, after the gambling world learned that one of their legends may have crossed the line, would go down in history as one of the saddest falls from grace.
“The Run” – Karas turns $50 into $40 million
By 1993, Karas had lost all but $50 playing high-stakes poker. In typical Karas fashion, rather than bury his head in the sand, he sought bigger games to reestablish his fortunes. With $50 left in his pocket, he drove to Las Vegas and began scouting pool table action where he found “a wealthy and respected poker and pool player” (out of respect, Karas has never revealed the player’s name) that was willing to lay it all on the line. Before long, Karas had amassed tens of thousands of dollars from the player after which, they raised the stakes to $40,000 a game. By the end of the matches, Karas had won $1.2 million from the opponent who “kept trying and failing and reloading and trying and failing”, before suggesting that they move to the poker tables. Karas won an additional $3 million before the battle was over providing him with a bankroll of $4 million on which to start his “run”. Karas recalled:
“I took that one million I won shooting pool with him and went on to win three million more from him playing poker in only a few days. We started at $4,000/8,000 Limit 7-card Stud and quickly moved up to $8,000/$16,000 Limit, which was unheard of in those days.”
With $4 million in hand, Karas spent the next three months leveraging his bankroll which he increased to $7 million. Word spread around Vegas that Karas was on a roll and soon, to his advantage, only the best players dared to challenge him. Karas sat at the Binion’s Horseshoe’s poker table with 5 of his 7 million dollars in front of him waiting for any players willing to play for such stakes.
“I easily had a $7,000,000 bankroll at this point, and my confidence was on top of the world. I remember getting ten racks of $5,000 chips, which is $5,000,000, and putting them in the middle of the poker room on a poker table at the Horseshoe. I was ready to take on all comers in poker, and this stirred up a lot of interest. Poker’s most colorful character, Puggy Pearson, began to circle the the room, chanting, ‘Step right up here, boys, and help yourself to some of this easy money.”
The first challenger was Stu Ungar, a three-time World Series of Poker champion widely regarded as the greatest Texas Hold’em and gin rummy player of all time. Karas quickly beat Stu, who was financially backed by the co-founder of Grand Casinos, out of $500,000 playing Heads-Up Razz poker before moving to 7-card stud. By the time Stu threw in the cards, Karas was up $1.2 million. “It didn’t take long to demolish Stuey,” boasted Karas.
The next challenger was the greatest cash game player in history, Chip Reese. After only 25 games, Reese was down over $2 million before bowing out. Karas continued pounding some of the world’s best players and after 6 months, when the poker action had dried up (top players refused to play because “the stakes were too high”), Karas had amassed more than $17 million dollars.
“Word spread quickly how tough I was to beat, and I couldn’t find anyone to play with after a while.”
With no more poker action to fuel his bankroll, Karas then turned to dice. Despite the massive risks inherent in the game, and to the chagrin of the casino bosses whose houses he raided, his fortunes continued to grow at an exponential pace.
“With each play I was making million-dollar decisions, I would have played even higher if they’d let me.”
His fortune quickly grew to tens of millions of dollars.
Moving millions of dollars around town
Just midway into his run, Karas was toting several huge bags of cash from casino to casino (Karas said he once weighed a million dollars and that it weighed 40 pounds). Transporting such a large amount of money became a problem for Karas as he was moving several millions of dollars around in his car every day.
“The more I won, the harder it became to find big enough boxes around town to put all my money in different banks. With long waiting lists for the bank’s biggest boxes, I was forced to keep more money than I wanted to in the boxes at Binion’s Horseshoe. The urge to gamble big amounts of money comes way too easy when millions of dollars are sitting in the casino’s boxes. The Horseshoe had a designated parking space for me in the valet, close to the door. I never let anybody know when I was coming, because I brought $3,000,000 to $5,000,000 with me all the time when I was going to shoot dice.”
“Many times I would return to the car with two security guards to get the rest, and quickly move the money inside. Quite often I would circle the hotel, looking for a door that had no strange people standing there, and would stop my car, sometimes leaving the motor running, while quickly scooting $2,000,000 through the door straight to the cashier’s cage! I’d tell them to count it, while I’d go back and move my car around to the valet.”
Breaking the bank
At one point, Karas very nearly “broke the bank” at Binion’s casino after winning all of the Binion’s Horseshoe casino’s $5,000 chips, which were the highest denomination chips at the time.
“I ended up winning every $5,000 chip at Binion’s Horseshoe, which was about $18,000,000 worth, that I kept in the boxes at the Horseshoe to gamble with. Each rack of chips had $500,000 in it, so I had accumulated about 36 racks of chips. Finally, one day, Jack Binion asked me to sell some of the $5,000 chips back to the Horseshoe, and I agreed to sell back about $10,000,000, leaving about $8,000,000 in chips to gamble with.”
By the end of his winning streak Archie “The Greek” Karas, who had begun with a mere $50 in hand, had won a fortune of over $40 million dollars – and then his world came crashing down around him.
Two years after the streak began, his string of luck wound down in a most depressing manner. First, Karas lost $20 million playing dice. He then switched to baccarat and lost another $17 million. Then switched back to dice. By 1995, Karas had lost all of his money in just three weeks.
Bluff magazine explained how it ended:
“When Karas was down to his last million, he made a terrible decision that cost him the remainder of his money and dignity. He headed to the Bicycle Club in Los Angeles and played Chan heads up. As soon as Karas arrived, a game was quickly arranged. Berman backed Chan, but both Berman and Chan played Karas heads up and alternated every two hours. Karas destroyed the tag-team duo of Berman and Chan and doubled up. However, his inner action junkie could not prevent him from heading straight to the craps tables. Karas kissed his last $2 million away shooting dice.”
Karas, who currently resides in Las Vegas, has experienced many other, albeit smaller, winning streaks since his record-breaking run. A year after losing the $40 million, he turned $40,000 into $1 million at the Desert Inn. He moved from Desert Inn to the Horseshoe and won $4 million more. Then he lost it all the next day. Karas once said:
“One day I might be driving a Mercedes, and the next day I might be sleeping in it!”
Down on his luck – bankruptcy and cheating tarnish a legend’s reputation
Kara’s loss of all the money he won during “The Run” was only the beginning of the long slope to ruin. Although it is generally believed that Karas did not cheat in poker and dice games, the Las Vegas Review-Journal shocked the gambling world when they revealed that he had been arrested several times for cheating, both before and after his infamous winning streak. As they reported, Nevada gaming agents had arrested Karas four times since 1988 for allegedly cheating at blackjack in Reno, Las Vegas and Laughlin casinos. Gaming Control Board Chief of Enforcement Karl Bennison was frank in his assessment of Archie Karas:
“We are quite familiar with him. He has a history with us.”
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, gaming agents first arrested Karas for marking cards in 1988 at Nevada’s Flamingo Reno (formerly the Reno Hilton). His next arrest came in 1992 at the River Palms in Laughlin for “another form of card cheating”. He was arrested four years later, in 1996, at the California Club in downtown Las Vegas and in 2007 at the Aquarius in Laughlin, both times for cheating at cards. Karas took plea bargains in each case, which reduced the charges from a felony.
It is well known that during “The Run”, many casinos began cutting off Karas, kindly asking him to take his business elsewhere. However, it is unlikely they felt he was cheating. As Karas explained:
“The problem started to be when they would cut me off and say, ‘We don’t want your business anymore.’ This unfair pattern of getting barred from the pit began to follow me, as the casinos would treat me as though I was John Dillinger or something. The only thing I was guilty of was winning a lot of money on the dice tables. Believe me, if they had any evidence to support their claims, they would have prosecuted me and had me sent to prison.”
After his 2007 arrest, with nearly a quarter-million dollars in credit card debt, Karas filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The 2013 arrest for cheating and fraud
Most recently, on September 27, 2013, Karas was arrested for the fifth time on charges of cheating and defrauding a casino after authorities say he was caught marking cards at a California blackjack table. According to prosecutors, Karas was spotted by surveillance cameras marking cards – using tiny smudges of dye secretly wiped onto the backs of jacks, queens, kings and aces – while playing blackjack in July at the Indian-owned Barona Resort and Casino in Lakeside, California. Prosecutors said the marks gave Karas an unfair advantage by helping him identify the value of cards before they were dealt as he chose whether to take another card, or hold, in an effort to reach the winning value of 21 without going over. District attorney’s office spokesman Steve Walker said the scheme worked so well that he managed to cheat the casino out of more than $8,000 before he was caught.
California Justice Department spokeswoman Michelle Gregory said Karas was doing the marking with dye inserted into a hollowed-out gambling chip that he would inconspicuously swipe over the cards while playing through a deck. A search warrant executed on Karas’s home turned up hollowed-out chips from other casinos, but so far no other gambling establishments have lodged complaints against him, Gregory said.
But authorities pointed out that Karas has been accused of cheating before.
“The Nevada Gaming Control Board has investigated Karas on multiple occasions,” said Karl Bennison, that agency’s enforcement chief. “Karas has been a threat to the gaming industry in many jurisdictions.”