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The greatest story ever told

From flat-broke to $40 million and back again, the story of Archie Karas is one quite unlike any other. Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie takes a look back at the unbelievable journey of the world’s greatest gambler

On first hearing, the story of Archie ‘The Greek’ Karas may sound like it was lifted from the most hackneyed of Hollywood scripts. It is the tale of a down-and-out gambler heading to Vegas with only $50 in his pocket and embarking on the most phenomenal gambling streak ever documented – a streak in which a fortune of over $40 million was won and lost again in the space of three years.

However, while the script and the sums involved sound as though they could only have been dreamed up by the most sensationalist storytellers in the business, the reality of Karas’s run to the top and down again is far more spectacular than any work of mere fiction could ever be. It is a one-of-a-kind story of gambling excess at the highest limits, the likes of which will probably never be witnessed again.

The sensational saga of Karas’s meteoric rise and fall begins as humbly as you might imagine. Born Anargyros Karabourniotis in 1950, the young Karas grew up in poverty on the island of Kefalonia, Greece. His father, Nickolas, was a builder and though Archie worked alongside him, money and jobs were so scarce that he often had to resort to shooting marbles just to earn enough drachmas to eat.

It was a tough existence for the Karas family and relationships were often strained, most notably one day when a fierce argument erupted between Archie and his father – an argument that resulted in Nickolas throwing a shovel at his son’s head. The confrontation was the final straw for Archie and, at the age of 15, he ran away from home. It was to prove the last time he would ever see his father.

Working on ships and freighters as a waiter for the next two years, Karas finally jumped ship when one of his voyages docked in Portland, Oregon. Seeing great opportunities in America, a 17-year-old Karas worked his way down to Los Angeles, where he began hustling games in a pool hall. Little did he know it at the time, but these sessions at the table would prove the foundations of his first bankroll.

As Karas reputation in the area grew he found no shortage of opponents on the pool table and even branched out into backroom poker games. As the stakes rapidly increased, so did the roll that Karas had to work with and people were soon queuing around the block to secure themselves a piece of The Greek’s action. By this stage Karas was playing for up to $40,000 a game and a downswing was inevitable.

According to Karas, at this stage of his life he was operating with a bankroll of some $2 million that had been accrued through 9-ball games and high-stakes poker, but he lost it all during a brutal run of cards in late 1992. Down to his last $50, Karas decided that the only way to get back on track was to go to Vegas in search of bigger games. It was the first step in a sequence of events that would go down in history.

On reaching Vegas, Karas convinced a player he recognised from the LA scene to loan him $10,000, which he quickly tripled playing $200/$400 limit Razz before returning the stake and 50% profit to his delighted backer. With a bit more than $10,000 of his own money now in his back pocket, Karas decided to risk it all against a pool player he has since only referred to as Mr X and won time and time again.

After he had won several hundred thousand dollars, Karas decided to raise the stakes back to $40,000 a game and wound up winning $1.2 million from Mr X. He then beat him for a further $3 million playing poker as his winning streak really began to gain momentum. Over the next three months, Karas would go on to spin his $4m up to $7m and would sit with it all in Binion’s Horseshoe waiting for a new challenger.

At those stakes, only the best in the world were prepared to stand toe-to-toe with Karas – and amazingly the boy from Kefalonia beat them all. The legendary Stu Ungar was his first opponent and Karas comfortably beat him at his strongest game – heads-up Razz – for $500,000. The pair then switched to playing 7-Card Stud, but the results were just as damning for Ungar as ‘The Kid’ lost a further $700,000.

A legendary clash with the late, great Chip Reese followed, with the man widely regarded as the greatest ever cash game player on the receiving end of a $2 million trouncing playing $8,000/$16,000 limit Hold’em. Though word of his success spread through Vegas, Karas continued to play and beat the biggest names in the game, with Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson and Johnny Moss all losing to him at the table.

Indeed, the only man who defeated Karas in a cash session during his unprecedented run was two-time world champion Johnny Chan, who came back from losing his opening two games with The Greek to record a profit of $900,000. Despite the setback, Karas had still managed to build his bankroll to $17 million in the space of just six months in Vegas – but now his action was beginning to dry up.

Due to his fearsome reputation at the table and the nosebleed stakes that he insisted on playing, Karas soon found that people were no longer willing to play him and he had to instead resort to shooting dice for up to $100,000 a roll. By this stage, Karas had become an almost mythical figure in Vegas and was accompanied everywhere he went by casino security due to the vast sums of money he carried on his person.

A successful stint playing dice for the highest stakes available saw Karas reach his high watermark of $40 million – a sum which resulted in him owning all of the $5,000 chips in Binion’s casino. However, despite his immense fortune, money held very little meaning to Karas and the pleas of his friends for him to set some aside for the future fell on deaf ears. In hindsight, he would have done well to heed their advice.

As is usually the case with high-stakes gambling, what went up eventually came crashing down in the space of three weeks in 1995. Having previously treated him so well, the dice turned cold for Karas and a crushing session saw him drop $11 million almost as fast as he’d earned it. Sensing that his aura of invincibility had faded, Reese then returned to win back the $2 million he lost to Karas all those months ago.

Feeling a need to recoup some of what he’d lost to Reese and the casinos, Karas turned to playing high-stakes baccarat as quick-fix to repair his damaged bankroll. It would prove the worst decision he ever made as he soon sent $17 million back into circulation in Vegas’ casino economy. Now down to $12 million and needing a break from gambling, Karas returned to Greece to try and make sense of his stunning loss.

When he returned to the Horseshoe, however, Karas resumed his downward spiral of shooting dice and playing baccarat for $300,000 a bet and eventually lost all but his last million. Though 99.9% of the world would cut their losses and still retire a millionaire at this point, Karas had other ideas and decided to put the last of his cash on the line against Johnny Chan and Lyle Berman in a one-off $1 million freezeout.

Karas duly defeated the duo and doubled his money, but it was to no avail as he proceeded to gamble it all away on his favourite high-limit games anyway. Just like that, Karas had burned his way through a fortune of $40 million and come full circle to the $50 he’d had in his pocket when he first arrived in Vegas. A series of mini-streaks have followed since, but nothing ever came close to matching his initial run.

It is a testament to Karas’ gambling legacy that even in these crazy days of million- dollar poker pots online, even the most unflinching of players would find it hard to stomach the swings that became part and parcel of his Vegas lifestyle. He was a one-of-a-kind gambler driven by a force far greater than mere monetary gain and – win-or-lose – Karas will always be worthy of his place in gambling folklore.
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