Sexton's Corner, Vol. 37: Archie Karas, Part 7 — The Downslide
Everyone experiences obstacles or hurdles during their life's journey, but how one handles the adversity is the measure of his character. Archie "The Greek" Karas did what no other person on the planet has ever done, when he started with $50 and parlayed it, gambling on pool, poker and dice, to over $40,000,000. Archie reached the top of Mt. Everest in the gambling world, though it took over two years, but he lost it all back! The most frequently asked question is: "How could anyone win all of that money, without putting some of it aside for himself?"
This is a good question, and in this week's story, we will be talking about a few mistakes Archie made that have never been made public before. The magnitude of winning and losing such a fortune is hard to even imagine for most of us. To put this kind of money in perspective, let's pretend you needed a ride from New York to L.A., and say the drive would take four days to complete with stops each night. During the ride, the only requirement you had to meet was to allow $5,000 in cash with a bank wrapper to be placed in your left hand, and another $5,000 to be put in your right hand. After looking at the $10,000 and what its purchasing power might buy, you were told to put both packets in your right hand, while rolling down the car window with your left hand. Next you were directed to simply toss the $10,000 right out the car window. Each of the four days during your trip, you would have to repeat this process 1,000 times daily to go through $10,000,000, and if you did it all four days during the trip, you would then have thrown $10,000 out the window 4,000 times, for a total of $40,000,000!
Of course, by throwing this money party every 20 to 30 seconds on your trip, you'd make a lot of people ecstatic across the highways and towns of America. Archie threw a money party for sure over two years, but lost most of his $40,000,000 back to Binion's Horseshoe. This hypothetical example of hurling $10,000 out the window every few seconds over four days does underscore, for the rest of us, just how much money $40,000,000 really is.
I've interviewed Archie for over 60 hours now, have gone to dinner with him, listening to his remarkable tales many times, and have had the opportunity to look into his mindset of how he accumulated so much money gambling, including what elements or mistakes he feels he made contributing to his downslide. Late at night, I've met Archie around town to get a firsthand look at the world he lives in now, and his planned comeback that I'll write about in the last episode of this ten-part story. Archie Karas is a very complex figure who is this fearless, genius gambler, who simply doesn't value money the way most other people do. If he did, he never would have won so much money to begin with. The late Chip Reese once said, "You can't tell if Archie has $5 in his pocket, $5,000, $50,000, or $30,000,000 in his boxes. He is always the same. Nothing seems to bother him." Doyle Brunson would tell you the same thing, and every other great player who has done battle with him. They have never seen anyone quite like Archie… ever!
Before we highlight Archie's biggest mistakes in his downslide, it is important to make it crystal clear that he didn't lose his fortune by playing poker. He won big time playing poker. We aren't talking about playing ring games; although Archie has won lots of money in ring games over many years, he has also had his share of losses in them as well. What he prefers is playing heads-up poker if possible for huge amounts of money. Archie has said, "I liked to play the highest limits possible, where other people might look on but couldn't afford to sit down and play. I preferred playing heads up, because there is more skill needed to win. I wanted to eliminate the luck factor. There is more luck in the ring games, where other players will make mistakes and it will cost you."
Archie continued, "You have no idea what I went through for years, as I might start up a heads-up match, and players would try and slide into the game on me. In boxing or pool, you face one opponent, not nine others at the same time. If you play against one guy you're at 50% to win. If there are ten players in the game, your chances of winning are 10%. It takes more skill and aggressive strategy to win at heads-up poker. You can't wait for aces or kings playing heads up. Waiting for hours and hours is what you have to do in a ring game. Guess what? I don't want to wait anymore. I was a waiter; I was a waiter 40 years ago at 17, and I don't want to wait anymore! I love action on every hand. Boxing is pure skill, one on one. Shooting pool is pure skill, one on one, just as playing heads-up poker is. The best players with the most skill are going to win the money! In heads-up poker, you better mix it up on every hand, like a boxer has to do in every round, or you are going to get yourself knocked out!
"When I had the big money, I had the power. I set the terms of the matches. They lined up to take a shot at me, and I always had to play the best players. I was like Fort Knox with all the gold, and if they wanted to take it from me, they would have to try it one on one. They tried everything, and a few might win one or two sessions, but in the long run, no one really beat me heads up. All they did was add more millions to the millions I had already won. It is funny, as some of the biggest names in the poker world might brag they beat me three times when they played me, but they need to jog their memory a little bit. In ring games it is very possible they won, while I lost in the session, but playing heads up, there is no person on the planet who could ever handle me. If any reporter or person in the news media hears a player say otherwise, they need to press them on this distinction. Playing ring games verses heads-up poker are two completely different worlds!"
At this point of the conversation I asked Archie, "Was there a point during your 1992-1995 streak, where these great poker players stopped playing you heads up?"
Archie said, "Yes, which is why I had to start playing dice and baccarat more. I played and beat the best poker players heads up, including Chip Reese, who I must have played 25 matches with. Word spread quickly how tough I was to beat, and I couldn't find anyone to play with after a while. I had to start shooting dice, and ended up running my $17,000,000 bankroll up to over $40,000,000 as a result."
I said, "Archie, we know now what you did, and there is no bigger story in the history of Las Vegas, of taking $50 and running it up to over $40,000,000. But like an airplane that goes straight up, it eventually stalls out and takes a nosedive. Here you were, now playing house games like dice and baccarat. In dice you actually got Jack Binion and the Horseshoe to increase their maximum betting limits 15 times higher from $20,000 to $300,000 per bet! Just doing that itself, is some sort of unique world record if you ask me. I've never seen any story, article, or anything on Google that highlights what you feel were your biggest mistakes from your point of view. How did you lose $40,000,000 and end up with nothing? What happened or what were your biggest mistakes you feel you made going back in time?"
With these questions Archie stared at me for quite a while without saying a word. Then he said, "Tom, I've never really talked about this in detail all of these years. I blame myself for losing all that money back, not Jack Binion or Binion's Horseshoe."
Archie continued with his philosophy, that he said he learned from another high roller named Jack Perkins: 'If you are going to be a sucker, be a quiet one.' "I lost, but have taken it like a man. I've been gambling for 40 years since I was 17, and have won and lost a million dollars over 50 times in my lifetime. I admit, losing over $40,000,000 was a first for me or anyone else. I've gone over this in my mind over and over again, so let me list for you some of my biggest mistakes.
"One: Obviously, not pulling up at some point goes without saying. You have to be a gambler to understand just how hard this is to do. I once said to Jack , 'Some friends of mine told me you were planning to pull up on me and quit. Is that true, Jack?' Jack quickly said, 'Not yet, not yet.' and assured me there was no truth to that rumor. Jack was a smart man, because if he answered that question differently, I would have definitely pulled up first. I always wanted to play higher and higher. I wanted to play no-limit in dice, where I could bet $500,000 per bet, and would have bet it all from $1,000,000 to $10,000,000 on the pass line if they would have let me. I remember Jack Binion sitting on top of the desk in a side room saying, 'Archie, I'm doing all that I can right now,' as his voice trailed off as though he was almost out of breath.
"Two: If I had known there was a poker boom right around the corner, I would have parked $10,000,000 to the side, even if I had to wait ten years to play. Poker has always been my bread and butter. I'll point out that between 1992 and 1995, who could have guessed there was going to be such a boom in poker by 2003? Back then, I couldn't wait three hours to get in action. Dice is the fastest action in the world, where I could win or lose a million with one roll of the dice.
"Three: Keeping too much in my money boxes at the Horseshoe was a big mistake. The urge to gamble it off was way too strong. During my two-and-a-half-year gambling spree, there was a three-week period of time where I lost $30,000,000, which I could never fade! What happened was I lost $11,000,000 one night at the dice table. This was the night I had to have my money boxes drilled open to continue playing, as I forgot the keys to all the boxes except for the one I had $2,000,000 in. I lost the $2,000,000 in a half hour, and got the urge to keep gambling. I was sick that night, not so much because I lost, but because I didn't quit after that first $2,000,000 loss, and should have called it a day. I switched games after this disaster dice session to play high-limit baccarat. I got Jack to let me raise the limit in baccarat up to $300,000 per bet as well, and quickly lost a few million more. In between all of this, I played Chip Reese $10,000 and $20,000 heads-up poker, and finally lost $2,000,000 to him. I wasn't focused on poker when this happened, as my head was swirling over how many millions I lost in dice and baccarat. What I'm describing is the heart of my downslide, as I went straight back to baccarat betting $300,000 per hand, and within ten days lost $17,000,000 in baccarat! With a little math you can see in a three-week period of time I lost $11,000,000 in dice, $2,000,000 in poker, and $17,000,000 in baccarat, which added up to $30,000,000! After this disaster, I took a couple of months off on vacation to go home to Greece. I still had about $12,000,000 left in the banks, and needed a break.
The Downslide: Karas cleans out one of his boxes
"Four: The biggest mistake I made was not pressing Jack to give me odds when I bet $300,000 per bet. In reflection, when I was rolling and winning, I would have won over $80,000,000, and the chance I might say that's enough or he might have pulled up, just might have happened then. I feel like I would have parked $20,000,000 to $40,000,000 to the side at that point, with a big bankroll to keep on gambling. I once told Jack, I was going to cash out and invest the money, and he didn't even flinch. He said, 'That would be good, Archie, because we could win more money from you then, if you made more.' I didn't call his bluff, as Jack knew I was strictly a big cash guy. My mindset wasn't to invest, to potentially lose it or reduce my gambling bankroll, and Jack was smart enough to know it. When I had the money I had the power. I could have gotten better odds, at least single odds with $300,000 flat bet and $300,000 odds. In my mind there was no bigger mistake I made than this one!"
I then said, "Archie you said you still had $12,000,000 left after that $30,000,000 mistake. What happened to it when you came back from Greece? Do you remember what happened when you were literally down to your last million?"
Archie replied, "Well, I went back where I left off shooting dice and playing baccarat at $300,000 per bet, and in less than a month got down to my last million."
I asked, "What did you do with your last million?
"I wanted to try and double up, so I went to the Bicycle Club in LA with my last million in a big bag and played Johnny Chan heads up in poker, who was being backed by Lyle Berman. In fact they would switch off about every two hours against me, which was okay by me, as Johnny was a tougher player. I still remember dragging my last $1,000,000 with me to the table, opening the bag to show I wasn't broke, then placing my last million out of the $40,000,000 under the table by my feet, and start the game for my whole life!"
I shook my head in disbelief hearing this, as I said, "Archie, this totally boggles my mind. Of all places to gamble off your last million, you chose to play it all against a living legend, Johnny Chan! I don't know anyone else who would have the balls to do that. Did you lose? Is that how you lost the $40,000,000 down to the last dollar?"
Archie smiled and said, "No, I won and doubled my money that day. Like I said, nobody can beat me heads up. I had just lost all of my poker customers, as they learned I couldn't be beat playing heads up. I think today Johnny and Lyle have about 15 gold WSOP bracelets between them. I have none. I've always been the heads-up poker king, and truly am the uncrowned champion. If they gave away bracelets for heads-up poker, I would have 80 of them for sure. After getting back to a $2,000,000 bankroll, I quickly lost it at dice and baccarat betting off at the highest limits in just a few days. This is the true story of how I came to Las Vegas with $50 and won over $40,000,000, only to lose it all back. To some, the biggest mystery of all was how I lasted so long, gambling this high over two years. Going up and down, I had to have wagered over a billion dollars during this amazing streak!"
Stay tuned for next week's Part 8, you will be amazed at what Archie did next, within four months of losing his whole $40,000,000 fortune. Most guys would completely wilt away, like they were in the twilight zone, after what Archie went through. But no other guy is quite like Archie "The Greek" Karas, the world's biggest gambler!
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.