Sexton's Corner, Vol. 32: Archie Karas' Story of Shooting Pool
Do you know anybody off the top of your head that will shoot 9-ball for $40,000 per game, play heads-up poker for millions, and shoot dice up to $1,800,000 on the layout at one time? This is more than a short list, as there is only one member of the club. His name is Archie "The Greek" Karas. Jack Binion says, "Archie had more gamble in him than any person I ever met." As revered and respected as Jack is to everyone in the gambling world, we can safely say, Jack has seen them all. According to Jack, Archie was by far the biggest and most fearless gambler he ever saw.
Archie's story of winning over $40,000,000 in Las Vegas started in a bar that had a pool table, adjacent to the Liberace Plaza on East Tropicana. Archie reflected for a moment: "Who could ever dream or imagine going into a bar for a beer, and then start shooting a little pool for money, would result in the beginnings of accumulating a fortune? Life takes mysterious turns!"
I asked Archie to tell us what actually happened, and he said, "Tommy, I'll tell you the sequence of what happened shooting pool, under one condition."
I said, "What's that?"
"I won't tell you the name of the person I played pool with, out of respect for him and his position. Let's just refer to him as Mr. X."
Since it was the story of Archie detailing how he could win so much shooting pool, I said "OK, that's fine. So tell us, what really happened shooting pool?"
"Well, I walked into this bar and noticed Mr. X shooting some pool. We knew each other from the past, and it took no time at all to agree to play a game of 9-ball. We started shooting 9-ball pretty small, like $5,000 per game."
I said, "You call that betting small, shooting one game of 9-ball, where you can lose if the opponent knocks in the 9-ball in a few seconds on the break?"
Archie laughed and quickly added, "It's interesting you bring that up, Tommy, as I'll tell you a story that happened to me in a few minutes that was unbelievable. First, I'll just say, as I continued to win more 9-ball games than my opponent, we both agreed to increase the limits to $10,000, then $15,000, $20,000, $30,000 and eventually to $40,000 per game. We met many times after that first night around town, and probably played over a two-and-a-half-month period altogether.
"Each time we met, the sessions lasted pretty long. After the first four meetings, I found myself up $1,100,000! After each long session, we would usually pay off the next day. It would be too easy to get heisted, carrying big amounts of money around into bars or pool halls around town. The large amounts we were playing for would always attract a crowd at the rail, so we preferred to rotate around quietly to various places when we played.
"My opponent had a lot of money, so this seemed pretty sweet, until the fifth time we met, and I ran into a big buzzsaw. That one night, I lost $740,000 shooting 9-ball, and everything that could go wrong seemed to happen. This session completely turned into a nightmare disaster for me, and I knew I better find a way out, before I lost everything. We mostly played $20,000 and $30,000 per game, before increasing the stakes to $40,000 per game."
"Did you just tell him you were going to quit for the night?" I asked.
"No, not exactly. What happened was, I was lining up a very easy shot on the 9-ball to finally win a game, when a pretty lady, who was with my opponent, inadvertently walked by the table, right where I was aiming to sink the 9-ball. She didn't mean to, but as she stopped to see if I was going to make the shot, slightly leaning over… I missed the shot!" I went off like a rocket and slammed my $2,000 cue stick down on the floor and stomped on it, until it was busted. That ended the night's session. Mr. X quickly offered his own cue for me to shoot with, but I said no. I'll just meet you tomorrow down at the Horseshoe, where my money is in the box, and pay you the $740,000 I owe you."
"The next day, when I pulled into the valet at Binion's Horseshoe to make the payoff, I first had a big problem with my partner riding with me, who had 30% of me. He grabbed my right arm, as I was the driver, and said, 'Don't do this, Archie! This guy is too good! You don't need to ever play this guy again. We are talking about $740,000. That is money we can't get back if we give it to him… $740,000! Listen to me, Archie, let's just tell him we got heisted, and not pay it!'"
"Did you think he was just joking?" I asked.
Archie immediately said, "No, he was very serious. This guy, how do I say this, had a little outlaw in him, and he was dead serious."
"The two of us had quite a verbal battle, as I was worried he might scoot over when I got out and take off on me. He had money in a separate box, and had to pay his share of the loss. When he did get out of the car, I almost ran right behind him, leaving the motor running in valet. I didn't want him to dart in one door and out another, to avoid the payoff.
"He had said I had no chance of beating Mr. X. He, like the two good players that advised me, kept saying Mr. X had a better break than I did, and it was too hard to overcome. All three thought Mr. X should spot me the 8- and 9-ball, to make the match fairer, but I said, 'I'll spot him the 8- and 9-ball, if I have to, to keep on playing him!' I'm going all the way with him, even if I go broke. Of course, gambling everything I had left was something I really meant, but I was joking about spotting him the 8- and 9-ball. I just wanted my partner in pool to know that my mindset was to keep playing, no matter what.
"This argument in valet was a defining moment for me in retrospect. My partner thought I was crazy and wanted out of any future dealings. He wanted to cash out whatever he had left. He thought I was doomed to go off the edge of a cliff, if I continued playing him. He begrudgingly walked with me to the cashier's cage, once we got inside the Horseshoe to make the payoff. We pulled out $1,000,000 out of the money boxes and let personnel count out $740,000 at the cashier's cage. About that time, Jack Binion walked by and stopped, noticing this big-money transaction going on He sort of smiled and said 'Hey what's going on here?' I said, 'Well, I lost a little money shooting pool last night.' With that, Jack chuckled a little bit, wished us well, and went on with his duties of running the hotel.
"After the payoff, my partner was still very upset and told me our partnership was over, and that I would be totally on my own, if I was crazy enough to play Mr. X again. He took what he had left and bailed out on me, after once again reminding me that I was going to go broke for sure, if I kept playing him.
"My now ex-partner and two good pool player friends, who were warning me to quit, were right in the sense that if I failed to get over the next hurdle, I would quickly be wiped out. In my mind, though, here was a guy willing to gamble sky-high shooting 9-ball, and I believed I could find a way to beat him. I knew this was my big chance to hit a big score, and I was excited, since I now had 100% of myself in future action. It was true I was on the ropes a little bit now with a lower bankroll, as I basically understood I would have to win my next two sessions, or I would be finished. I wasn't looking for a cinch, I was looking to gamble.
"Now, I was truly on my own, with about $500,000 to $600,000 left in my bankroll from poker and pool. I got plenty of rest, which is so important before shooting pool, and met Mr. X a few days later to resume our battle. The next time we played, I got out of the gate fast and won some big money, running it up to about $1,500,000 after several sessions. My former partner wanted back in, of course, but I told him, 'You can't jump in and out when it suits you…you're either in or you're out.' He was a pretty rough guy, but he understood, respected, and accepted it."
Archie continued with the tale. "My ex-partner came to the matches, even though he no longer had a piece of me. He was curious to see if I would go broke!" Archie began to laugh hard when he remembered a funny time his ex-partner was off at a distance behind the bar, in the dark. Archie said, "Every time I looked over in his direction, all I could see was his two glowing white eyes in the dark. The more I won from Mr. X, the bigger his eyes got, beginning to realize all the money he was losing out on, as I kept winning big.
"I was pumped up and felt invincible. Then my opponent did something to me that seemed impossible: Out of about a ten-game stretch, he knocked the 9-ball in on me on the break, eight out of ten times."
"How much is that at $40,000 per game, Tommy?" I asked. "With the 9-ball going in on the break eight times, you must have lost $320,000 in about 40 seconds between those games…wow!"
Archie said, "Can you imagine how I felt standing there holding my cue stick, watching this lucky streak he put on me? I think he had made three 9-balls in a row on the break, then missed once before hitting three more in. After one more miss on the break, Mr. X hit two more in a row on the break. For the high stakes we were playing for, I was stunned!
"I don't rattle easy, but that rattled me, as I didn't even get the chance to shoot one ball in those games. It is hard to fade, believe me. It felt like I was throwing $40,000 at a time, right out of a car window in seconds, over and over again, and my hard-earned money was flying off into the wind."
I asked, "Archie are you sure he knocked in the 9-ball in eight out of ten breaks? Because it sounds almost impossible."
"Tommy, the difference was the size of the table we were playing on. In this bar, it was smaller than a full-size table. It isn't easy to knock in the 9-ball on the break, but the smaller table makes a huge difference. The balls move around much faster on the break. I've been playing pool 40 years, and I've seen three or four times in a row, but never eight out of ten breaks. I told you earlier my advisors thought Mr. X had the edge on the break. It is kind of like a golfer who only drives his tee shot 200 yards versus his opponent, who hits it 300 yards. It is a big edge."
"Did you ever play anything other than 9-ball, like straight pool?" I wondered.
"No, that takes too long…I'm an action freak, who likes it fast and dangerous. It is just the way I am. However, that night was the extra straw that broke the camel's back. I couldn't fade the skill and luck factor of Mr. X's break, and I knew it. This was the night I laid my cue down, and said 'That's it, I can't fade this. If you want to gamble with me, let's go play some poker.'"
I asked Archie, after everything that happened, "What was the final scorecard shooting pool and playing poker against Mr. X?"
Archie said, "After all of this, I was still up about $1,200,000 from shooting pool. I had succeeded in winning that $740,000 back that I lost from that one night, and had a healthy bankroll to play heads-up poker sky high. There isn't anyone in the world that can beat me in heads-up poker. I started with Mr. X, who is a world poker champion himself, and took that $1,000,000 I won shooting pool with him, and went on to win $3,000,000 more from him playing poker, in only a few days. We started at $4,000/8,000 limit, playing seven-card stud, and quickly moved up to $8,000/$16,000 limit, which was unheard of in those days."
Looking back at Archie's shooting pool with Mr. X, it definitely appeared to be the seed money he needed to begin playing high stakes heads-up poker and dice. Remember, Archie's friends, who shot pool well themselves, had warned him emphatically that Mr. X was too good, and that Archie shouldn't play him. Somehow, though, Archie found a way to win.
Archie seemed to know what he was doing, like Muhammad Ali did with his rope-a-dope strategy that worked on George Foreman in 1974. All of Ali's corner people were going crazy in the corner the night they fought, imploring him to get off the ropes. They thought their man was going to get killed with that tactic. Ali didn't listen to his advisors, as his strategy was to wear out the bigger, stronger opponent, and at the right moment, go for the kill. Ali knocked George Foreman out that night in Zaire, Africa in the eighth round, which was Ali's defining moment in his career. Archie's most defining career moment was to gamble high stakes with Mr. X. His advisors had warned him not to do it, but Archie instead shocked the whole town, winning big-time money that would set the stage for the amazing performance to come.
Archie 'The Greek' Karas
I asked Archie, "Did you ever play higher than $40,000 per game shooting pool with anyone?"
Archie said, "Only one time, and that was later on in my streak, two years after my encounter with Mr. X. I later played a great player, named Tobey, at one-pocket pool. He was a world-class player and he spotted me 12-to-5, which meant he had to make 12 balls in his designated pocket, while I only had to make five balls in mine.
"We played for $40,000 per game, but there were three or four poker players at the rail who wagered another $35,000 on side bets every game. That meant I was playing for $75,000 per game. The funny thing is I wanted to bet $150,000 per game, but they wouldn't do it. A few rail bettors were Howard Lederer, Steve Zolotow, and perhaps someone representing Chip and Doyle. As it turned out, I had the worst of the matchup, and I was normally the best handicapper in making the match at least an even gamble. In this match, though, I ended up losing about $700,000 over three days."
Looking back, it seemed to be Archie "The Greek" Karas against every sharpie and world-class poker player in town. He was a one-man army, a green beret, able to defeat a whole battalion of the world's best poker players, as you'll find out in future columns.
When you think Archie literally started with nothing when he came to town in December of 1992, and was now in position to do what he always dreamed and believed he could do, be the biggest gambler in the world, his story is truly mind-boggling. Stay tuned for more on Archie's legendary story in Part 3.
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.