Steve Hill investigates the remarkable story of Archie Karas – poker legend, pool hustler, and quite possibly the world’s sickest gambler…
What would you do if you won $ 45m? I’m thinking along the lines of a celebratory fish supper, a couple of weeks in Tossa Del Mar and then the rest of your life watching sport on a slightly larger TV. But then maybe I don’t have ‘the gamble’ in me. One man who categorically does, however, is the mysterious Archie ‘The Greek’ Karas, who won that staggering amount during an incredible streak in the early 90s, then pissed it away in the blink of an eye.
That’s the popular version of events anyway, part of a near-mythical story that sees one Anargyros Karabourniotis rock up in Las Vegas with $ 50 in his arse pocket and roll it up to a mind-boggling figure, before swiftly doing his bollocks. The truth, as ever, is slightly less romantic, if no less jaw-dropping. For starters, it’s not as if Archie was fresh off the boat. A seasoned hustler, he had reputedly won and lost a million up to 30 times during a long and varied spell of gambling in Los Angeles.
In fact, his punting appears to be deep-rooted, going as far back as his austere childhood spent in Greece. Karas has been quoted as saying, ‘I had to shoot marbles for money sometimes and needed to have a steady hand when I did. Back in those days, we would play for drachmas, which was the currency then. It took 30 drachmas to make one dollar, so to win two and a half drachmas, it meant I could win half a loaf of bread to avoid going hungry that day.’
Fleeing Greece, Karas found himself working as a waiter in Los Angeles at the age of 17, where he went from shooting marbles to shooting pool, proving himself a highly adept hustler. High stakes poker also loomed large, leading to some enormous swings. In December 1992, having lost $ 2m at poker, Archie decided to up his game and headed to Vegas where he stepped into Binion’s Horseshoe with his anecdotal $ 50. There he spotted a friend and promptly tapped him up for a $ 10,000 loan which he used to play a $ 200/$ 400 Razz game. A consummate Razz player, he tripled his stake in three hours, thus beginning the streak that was to write him into Vegas lore.
Shooting pool for $ 40,000 a game, he soon ran his bankroll up to $ 1.2m, enough to start taking on the big boys at poker. Specialising in heads-up, he took on and beat the superstars of the day, including Bobby Baldwin, Stu Ungar, Chip Reese, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson. On one particular day he took Chip Reese for $ 700k playing Seven-card Stud, had a bite to eat, and then casually took half a million off Stu Ungar at Razz.
This incredible streak of form is widely known as ‘The Run’ and saw Karas boost his bankroll up to a cool $ 17m, while continuing to play dice at giddy limits. As Karas himself has pointed out, ‘Poker gives a person a better chance to win money, but it’s a lot more work. I might win $ 1m to $ 4m in ten to 30 minutes at dice, as high as I like to play, while it might take me 24 hours to win $ 1m to $ 2m in poker, playing someone heads-up. It’s a lot of work that is exhausting. I do it because I love to play poker.’
Go for broke
Between 1992 and 1994, Karas is reckoned to have hit the $ 45m mark, but ultimately dice was to prove his downfall. Having lost $ 2m in one session, he ordered Binion’s to drill out his moneybox and proceeded to lose another $ 11m. Tilting dangerously, he switched to baccarat and in ten days lost $ 17m. In the midst of this, a rare poker defeat to Chip Reese saw him shed another $ 2m. Clearly on the downslide, in the space of three weeks he had shipped $ 30m. Astonishingly, with his final million he drove to LA to take on Johnny Chan, doubled it up, and then spunked the lot in the pit, thus ending a remarkable run.
It’s not necessarily the end for Archie Karas, however, who still lives in Vegas. Journalist Tom Sexton (brother of WPT host Mike Sexton) is one of the very few people to gain access to Karas, and describes him as living in ‘stealth mode’. Sexton has spent some 60 hours interviewing him, and is now urging Karas, still only in his late fifties, to make a comeback. Something of an authority on Karas, Sexton has charted the full story on his blog (www.sextonscorner.com) and shared his thoughts on the man, the myth, Archie Karas…
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