Sexton's Corner, Vol. 31: Archie Karas, 'The World's Biggest Gambler,' Part 1
Can you imagine anyone driving to Las Vegas in 1992 with $50 in his pocket, then borrowing $10,000 to start playing $200/400 razz and seven-card stud, and in six months, running it up to a $17,000,000 fortune shooting pool, playing poker, and shooting dice? Then, instead of cashing out, he decides to gamble sky-high and runs his bankroll to over $40,000,000, before losing it all back by 1995? Meet the biggest gambler in the world, Archie Karas. You're about to take a journey down memory lane to the most legendary high-roller story that ever happened in Las Vegas. Be sure and fasten your seat belts!
This story is true, and deserves to be written in a best-selling book, followed by a blockbuster motion picture. Archie Karas, a Greek immigrant, was born Anargyros Karabourniotis. He grew up in the city of Antypata, on the Greek island of Kefallonia, which is in the Ionion Sea between Italy and Greece. The Greek Island was mostly rock, with very little fertile land for growing crops. The people depended on rain for water, as there was very little other water available.
Archie's dad was Nickolas, who built houses from the ground up. He worked hard and was a very talented builder, but the villages were very poor. He made a hard living, but it was difficult to make much profit, if any sometimes, to support the family. Poverty was prevalent. As Archie related it, "I had to shoot marbles for money sometimes and needed to have a steady hand when I did."
Archie recently stopped over at my house in Las Vegas, to talk about his modest beginnings, and in a moment of deep reflection said, "Tommy, the hairs just stood up on my arms, just thinking about those early days when I was growing up, having to gamble to win money by shooting marbles! 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 a half of loaf of bread to avoid going hungry that day."
A major incident and falling out between Archie and his dad happened one day, when Archie was working for him in construction. Archie hated working with cement in his hands, as he said it was burning his hands one day. His dad blew up, started cussing at him, and actually threw a shovel at him very hard, barely missing Archie's head. That was it for Archie, as he ran away from home at the young age of 15, never to see his father again. His father died of cancer only four years later, when Archie was 19.
Today, Archie Karas is 57 and lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. His family all resides in Greece. His mom, Mariana, is 87. Pete, his older brother, is 63 and owns a restaurant/pub. His older sister, Helen, is a homemaker, and his youngest sister, Dionysia, 45, is a school teacher. Archie stays in frequent touch with his family by phone, and tries to travel back to Greece at least once per year. Twice he's brought his mom to Las Vegas for six-month visits, and this is when Archie was swimming in millions. His brother and sisters also visited, and can you imagine the family's reaction at seeing Archie rich, beyond any dreams from those early poverty days from back home? They were amazed at the stacks of cash filling his many money boxes! What mom or family wouldn't be amazed?
Pete, Helen, Mariana, and Archie Karas on Fremont Street
Archie says, "I feel lucky to have such a supportive family, as I realize for many others, who might have gone through the ups and downs in life as I have, the family ties might evaporate. Even though I went to the mountaintop and back, losing a fortune, my family is still there for me. My mom used to tell me in her own way, a Greek poem, that basically says, 'When you're a big mountain and the snow melts once per year, there are two more big storms on the way to hit you.' She has always been very wise, yet gave me the freedom to make my own way in life. I loved her for that and still do."
Let's look at what happened to Archie after leaving home back in Greece when he was only 15….
Archie spent the next two years working on ships and freighters, making $60 per month, mostly as a waiter, before he jumped ship once it docked in Portland, Oregon. After two years at sea, this was the first time any ship he was on sailed to America. With great hope and expectations of finding a better life, the 17-year-old Archie began the pursuit of his dreams. Alone and vulnerable, he didn't even speak English when he first arrived. He worked his way down to Los Angeles, and started out as a waiter in a restaurant. He had to pick up English on his own, the best he could. Today, Archie speaks three languages quite fluently: Greek, English, and Spanish.
Amazingly, this was his first job he would ever need, as by the age of 18, he didn't need a job anymore! Right next to the restaurant was a bowling alley and a pool hall, and Archie became quite the pool player, spending many hours hustling games and making more money shooting pool than waiting on tables. The owner of the restaurant was well off and loved to shoot pool. However, he was no match against his 17-year-old waiter, but he loved the action. In a short period of time, Archie won a ton of money from him, and found many other fish, not only in the pool hall, but in poker games in the back room. Archie had a lot of natural card sense, and a ton of gamble, right from the very beginning.
With his victims from the pool hall thinning out, it became clear he needed to turn to high-stakes poker in the LA card rooms to continue his run. In the beginning, Archie thought if he had a bankroll of $10,000 he would be set for life. With his natural tendency to gamble high all the time, he would change that standard to $50,000, then $500,000, and finally to $1,000,000. Through his twenties and thirties, Archie was widely known to win and lose a million dollars as much as fifty times over, mostly playing in the L.A. area. When broke, he would find a new backer to start over. Archie said, "One day I might be driving a Mercedes, and the next day I might be sleeping in it!"
Karas in his heyday
One of the rare qualities Archie always possessed was his desire to play the highest limits with the best players. He was always fearless at the tables, unlike most of us. Archie says "I don't really value money. The things I want, money won't buy: health, freedom, love, and happiness. I have no fear, and play like I have no fear of losing it. Even as a kid back in Greece, I wasn't afraid to bet it all, be it marbles or anything else."
The stress of being up and down with such large swings would eat most of us up, but not Archie. He has always felt that no matter how big a hole he might find himself inside, he had the talent and courage to climb back out. In December, 1992, Archie lost $2,000,000 playing high-stakes poker. Left with only $50 in his pocket, Archie decided to re-evaluate his situation, and felt he needed to take it up a notch and head to Las Vegas to gamble higher. I think you'll agree that most of us would figure our best bet would be to slow down and drop down in limits, to reduce our risks. Archie is wired differently than the rest of us, as he gets an adrenaline rush enjoying the chase. He is that rare, bona fide high roller, who always believed his destiny was to be the biggest gambler the world has ever seen. This was his mindset, and with only his $50 bankroll and a full tank of gas, he headed down Route 15 for Las Vegas.
What happened next in his life was so incredible, it defies explanation. He was ready to take on all comers in Las Vegas, but Vegas wasn't prepared for the likes of Archie. The first casino he entered, with his hefty $50 bankroll, was Binion's Horseshoe, where a tournament was in progress along with big, juicy side games. While scanning the room, Archie spotted a well-to-do poker player who was familiar with Archie's talent playing razz or seven-card stud. With his incredible up-and-down gambling runs back in LA, would this be the moment in his life where he might launch something historic? Nobody in the room new it then, but Archie Karas was on the verge to do something unthinkable!
Remember, Archie had just lost everything in his life, a few nights earlier, with that big $2,000,000 setback in LA. A normal human being's confidence would have to be shaken. Not for Archie, though, with his nerves of steel and the mindset that he couldn't lose.
Archie asked his friend for a $10,000 loan to get staked in a $200/400 razz game. Actually, nobody played razz as good as Archie, and he came out of the gate blazing and tripled his money in three hours. He quickly went over and paid his $10,000 personal loan off, plus a 50% profit for the happy investor. At that point, Archie was on track to play for himself, and his legend in Las Vegas poker lore was ready to be written.
Along with many others, I recently attended Chip Reese's funeral. The large numbers of friends and fellow gamblers that attended were both inspirational and overwhelming. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought Archie Karas was part of the family, as I noticed him meeting, greeting, and shaking hands with many at the front door and lobby. I could see that it was Archie, though, who was there to pay tribute to his fellow competitor, Chip Reese. Ironically, many of the guests and younger poker players probably had no idea who Archie was, as his gambling streak happened about 15 years ago.
The truth is, many of the high-limit poker players, for many years, wouldn't talk to Archie after he went broke. Most of the greats that tried to take him on, playing such high stakes, heads up, learned quickly that Archie was too fearless and too tough to handle. The high limits Archie wanted to play at literally took most of them out of their comfort zone Yet, after all this time, here was Archie showing up to say good-bye to Chip, to pay his deepest respects to both the man, who was such a class act and also Archie's former adversary on the green felt. Archie looked at Chip as a great gladiator who had survived playing high stakes for 30 years.
As I watched Archie and how he handled himself there, the thought occurred to me that there was nobody at the funeral that was ever able to defeat Chip Reese at the poker tables, other than one guy in the world — Archie Karas. He wasn't there to gloat; he was there to pay tribute to Chip like everyone else.
I was walking across the parking lot after the funeral, and noticed this isolated figure walking to his car. I did a double-take and then realized it was Archie, so I went over to talk to him. The experiences he had with Chip were unlike anyone else's in the world. Nobody on the planet had won more money from Chip playing heads-up, high-stakes poker overall, or played higher limits at the time, than Archie. In the parking lot Archie told me, "Tommy, of all the opponents I ever played, and I have played all the greats, Chip had more class than all of them put together."
Although they weren't close friends, who talked to each other for a number of years, here was Archie paying his respects with a quiet reverence, almost unnoticed by most of the large crowd who didn't know who he was. After going broke, he was in stealth mode for a dozen years, hoping not to be barred from the casinos. To the casinos, Archie represented a dangerous, fearless gambler in the pit, one who might not win a few chandeliers, but the whole joint!
Archie says, "Poker gives a person a better chance to win money, but it is a lot more work. I might win $1,000,000 to $4,000,000 in ten to 30 minutes at dice, as high as I like to play, while it might take me 24 hours to win $1,000,000 to $2,000,000 in poker, playing someone heads-up. It's a lot of work that is exhausting. I do it because I love to play poker."
In poker, Archie compares his story as Chip, defending his championship status, against himself, defending his life in the Roman arena. Archie's amazing story between 1992 and 1995 was a journey beyond belief, including his amazing battles against the king, Chip Reese. You'll enjoy more from that here in the next several columns.
The interesting thing about highlighting his story is he is personally going to be our guide. Archie has agreed to several personal interviews to document The Run, the most audacious run in Vegas history and certainly an important chapter in gambling lore. So, as I said at the top… fasten your seat belts, and stay tuned for Part 2!
The Cab is Parked,
Tom Sexton is a featured columnist for PokerNews.com. Tom attended the University of Oklahoma on a full gymnastic scholarship, where he was captain of the team four straight years, becoming the first NCAA All-American and Big Eight Champion in OU's gymnastics history in 1968. The Sexton family is well established in poker and includes Tom's brother Mike, the World Poker Tour commentator and poker's "First Ambassador", as voted by his peers. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his articles. His e-mail is TSStarbuck1@aol.com.