When it comes to gambling, few know as much about winning as Archie Karas. Unfortunately, he knows at least as much about losing. Karas holds the distinction of one of the most impressive winning streaks in gambling history, turning $50 into $42 million — only to lose it all. This is the story of the man who knew when to hold ’em, but not when to fold ’em.
Archie Karas was born into poverty in Greece in 1950. He ran away from home as a teenager and got a job working on a ship for the paltry sum of $60 per month. He saved his money until he had enough to bring him to the United States. There, he put his talents for gambling to work, and eventually built his bankroll up to $2 million.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know when to stop, and he lost it all while playing poker.
The man who briefly enjoyed millionaire status went to work as a waiter. In his spare time, he played pool for money and got back into poker. According to Karas, he won — and lost — millions of dollars several times over.
If you are scratching your head at this point, you must understand Karas’ philosophy about money. He 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.”
In 1992 he put his money where his mouth is when his latest round of losses left him with a total of $50 to his name. He took that money and drove to Las Vegas. He somehow managed to secure a loan of $10,000. With that money, he started on a gambling spree that staggers the imagination.
In December of that year he played $200/$400 limit Razz and made $30,000. With that, he paid off his $10,000 loan, along with $10,000 interest. This left him with $10,000.
Not wanting that money to burn a hole in his pocket, Karas went to the Liberace Plaza and entered into a series of high-stakes 9-ball pool games with a fellow gambler known as “Mr. X.” They started playing for $5,000 per game, raising the stakes with each successive round. When Karas was up by a few hundred thousand dollars, the stakes were set at $40,000 per game. Before it was over, Karas pocketed $1,200,000. Having tired of pool, Karas and Mr. X made their way to Binion’s Horseshoe, where they engaged in a few hands of poker. This brought Karas an additional $3 million.
By the time Karas finished his third month in Las Vegas, he had managed to transform his initial $50 life savings into $7 million. His reputation as a high-stakes player and winner spread, and before long, the best poker players in the world were lining up to challenge him. 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 won their first game for the $500,000 stakes. Next, they played 7-card stud for $700,000; Karas won that hand, as well.
Unger decided he had enough and released his seat to Chip Reese, who had the reputation for being the best cash game player around. After 25 games, Reese had enough, having given up $2,022,000 to Karas.
A number of top players went against Karas in those days. The only one to beat him was Johnny Chan, who won in a $900,000 stake hand. Karas made up for it, though, against Chan and others. By the time six months in Las Vegas came to a close, Karas was up by more than $17 million.
Karas’ reputation for winning and for playing extremely high stakes chased away poker competitors, so he turned to a different outlet for his gambling compulsion: dice. His winning streak was so impressive that casino owners quickly learned to put limits on the size of the bets. Even so, Karas quickly amassed an additional $3 million to his total earnings.
This went on for two and a half years, with Karas winning in excess of $42 million. In the process, he managed to win all of Binion casino’s $5,000 chips.
With such an incredible fortune, you can safely assume Karas banked away the lion’s share of the earnings so he would never have to revisit the poverty of his youth, right? Well… not exactly….
In 1995 his luck took a bit of a turn. In the span of three weeks he lost $11 million while playing dice. Then he lost another $2 million when he lost a game of poker to Chip Reese.
That’s when he learned his lesson.
Instead of continuing to lose at dice and poker, he switched to playing baccarat. That move cost him another $17 million.
Now having lost $30 million of his $42 million, Karas did what seems to be the smartest thing possible. He left Las Vegas. He returned to Greece with approximately $12 million in his pockets. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay there.
Karas returned to Las Vegas and went straight to Horseshoe, where he resumed his games of dice and baccarat, laying down $300,000 per bet. It took him less than a month to blow through $11 million.
With $1 million left — certainly enough to allow him to live comfortably for the rest of his days — there was only one sensible thing left for Karas to do. But, of course, he didn’t do it. Instead, he went to the Bicycle Club and laid all $1 million down for a freezeout match against Johnny Chan. He won that round, doubling his money. He then went back to the dice and baccarat, where it took just a couple of days before all $2 million was gone, and Karas had less money than he did when he left Greece as a teenager.
Since that time Karas has been in the news once or twice. About a year after losing everything, he managed to get a loan and turn $40,000 into $1 million at the Desert Inn. Later, at the Horseshoe, he won and additional $4 million.
The next day, he lost it all.
The most recent time he was in the news was for a new low. Karas was arrested on September 24, 2013, after being caught marking cards at a San Diego casino’s blackjack table. He was charged and convicted of burglary and winning by fraudulent means. He received a sentence of three years probation.
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