Sexton's Corner, Vol. 40: Archie Karas, Part 10 -- The Comeback
Forty years after Archie Karas arrived in America and won, then lost, a $40 million fortune, will it be possible for him to make a genuine comeback? We are all a product of our experiences, and his ups and downs over the past 40 years have been beyond belief. The first nine stories written here on Archie's life have revealed many facts never before made public, making anyone shake their heads in amazement. Archie has made many comebacks during those past 40 years, but not one that could be called a genuine comeback.
What is a genuine comeback, then? In my opinion, a genuine comeback is when you win a big score, and figure out how to keep it. Archie won that $40 million between 1992 and 1995 and lost it all back. Then he demonstrated what a brilliant gambler he was over the next four or five years, with a series of mini-streaks that added up to about $10 million more. Again, he ended up broke. These past seven or eight years have been Archie's biggest challenge of all, as he has slowly been choked off from even being allowed to play in the pit in many casinos. As Jack Binion pointed out in Part 9, "When a player can run a toothpick into a lumberyard, it makes him a tough and dangerous player. Archie fits this bill exactly, which is why so many places are scared to take him on."
I've interviewed Archie Karas over 60 hours during the last three months, and have gone to dinner many nights with him around town. One night I looked at Archie and said to him, "Archie, may I take a few moments and be honest with you?"
"Sure, Tom, I respect your opinion… go ahead."
I said, "When somebody writes a book or does a movie on someone who has an amazing story, the one thing that is always needed is an ending. I have to be honest with you… your ending right now is pretty fu**ing sad! You won a fortune, winning over $40,000,000 in two years from a $50 starting bankroll, but you ended up completely broke! Most people feel anybody who could do that is a complete idiot! It is hard for them to rationalize how you could do such a thing, without putting at least a few million to the side for yourself! Right now, there are three possible endings to your story. First, the ending you currently have, which is a sad one: You won $40,000,000 and then lost it all back. Second, you die… this is an ending, of course. You may die, but your story never will. Third, you decide to turn your life around and make a big comeback. People love to see comebacks, especially by an underdog who seems to face tremendous odds!
"If you look back over your last 40 years, from age 17 to age 57 today, you have won a million or more over 50 times, not to mention your legendary run of winning that $40,000,000! Jack Binion referred to this as gambler's ruin, where an individual doesn't know how to pull up. They gamble as high as they can until it is all gone. For you, do you think there is any chance for you to become rehabilitated?"
At this point Archie interjected with a mild tone of voice, "Tom, I know you're right. Of course I have no one to blame but myself. I think when you are younger you think you are invincible, and even if you lose a lot of money, you can always go out and get it back. I've done that most of my life, where I've won a few million and then lost it back. I think, with regret, about the $40,000,000 I won and lost every day, though, and I feel like that actor in the movie Shawshank Redemption, played by Morgan Freeman."
I asked, "What do you mean?"
Archie said, "He played a guy named Red who was in prison 40 years, going in front of the parole board. They asked him if he thought he was rehabilitated. He told them he wished he could go back in time when he was a young man and try to talk to him, shake him, and tell him how things are today, but he can't."
In a moment of self-reflection, as to some of his mistakes over the last 40 years, Archie's analogy of that scene in that movie intrigued me. The character Morgan Freeman played was imprisoned 40 years, while Archie has been entrapped in a 40-year period of time, winning and losing in the gambling world. Both had regrets that couldn't be undone. I rented that movie and looked up that scene Archie referred to:
A five-member prison parole board is waiting to see Red, played by Morgan Freeman, as two unlocked doors open up when he enters the room. He is asked to take a seat. The chairman of the parole board says, "The files say you have been locked up here for the past 40 years. Do you feel rehabilitated?"
Red looks at him and says, "Rehabilitated… well, let's see… rehabilitated, I don't have any idea what that means."
The board member says, "That means, are you ready to re-enter society?"
Red says, "I know what you think it means, sonny. To me it is just a made-up word, a politician's word so young fellows like yourself can have a suit and tie to have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?"
The parole board member responds, "Well, are you?"
Red says, "There is not a day that goes by I don't feel regret. I look back on the way I was then, a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him, and try and make him see the way things are, but I can't. That kid is long gone. This old man is all that is left. I've got to live with that.
Those who know Archie will tell you one consistent observation: Archie seems the same whether he has $50 in his pocket or millions in the money boxes. His disposition is always at an even keel, as far as losing all of that money from the past. We all have to ask ourselves if we could do the same. Most likely, most of us couldn't measure up against facing such adversity. Sometimes Archie must feel like he is standing up in a shaky rowboat, trying to keep his balance in a big storm with a huge tidal wave approaching. The odds seem insurmountable to come back from the depths of despair he has had to face!
Still, the inherent spirit of human beings never ceases to amaze me. There are so many examples of mind over matter, such as Jeff Blatnick and Gail Devers. Prior to the 1984 LA Olympics, no American had ever won a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. Super heavyweight Jeff Blatnick ended the drought by winning a gold medal at the LA Games. Amazingly, only two years before his Olympic victory, Blatnick had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and had his spleen and appendix removed! He didn't give up though, as he made it to the top of his world. Gail Devers suffered from Graves's disease, a debilitating chronic thyroid disorder, between 1988 and 1991, and was close to having both feet amputated! Doctors were worried if she would ever be able to walk again. Amazingly, she overcame this setback and won the 1992 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters in Barcelona, the 1996 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters again, and another gold medal in the 100 meter hurdles in Atlanta! She went on to make four Olympic teams, and won five more gold medals in the World Championships between 1993 and 1999. From near amputation of both feet, to become Olympic sprint champion back to back as the fastest woman on the planet, is about as inspirational as any story in sports could possibly be.
As my 60 hours of interviews came to an end, I felt we had become good friends. Archie had come to trust me to tell his real story for the first time. I wanted to help motivate him to think about making a major comeback in the poker world. I discussed these inspirational stories cited above, to point out to him his problem isn't so bad. I said, "Archie, all you did was lose a little money! (As we both laughed together.) It was only a little over $40,000,000! The rare talent you have at the poker table is a given. You beat the best players your whole life. The money you lost wasn't through poker, but house games like dice and baccarat. You missed the poker boom as it went around you, while you got side-tracked. I see you as a gem in the rough for a sharp stakehorse out there, who is looking for a thoroughbred racehorse to get into the winner's circle."
Another legendary high roller, Nick "The Greek" Dandolos, died broke playing $5 poker in Gardena, California. He was a class act who was raised from wealthy parents, and had been sent to formal schools and educated in philosophy. With all of his charm, he had a lot of gamble in him, and was known more for his big losses than his wins. His famous five-month match with Johnny Moss in the fifties led to those famous words, "Mr. Moss, I'm going to have to let you go."
Karas at Binion's 'back then'
I said, "Archie, you came from poverty without a formal education. A runaway at the age of 15, you came to America, not speaking a word of English. You fought many fights your whole life, and had to outmaneuver all the hustlers from the streets. You've told me in previous interviews about many actual physical fights you have had to survive in many pool rooms and poker rooms from your younger days, as you had to be able to protect yourself just to survive! Some of these stories will be brought out in your book down the road. My point is, you're only 57 and you don't have to end up broke like Nick the Greek did. You still have your health, don't drink or do drugs. I sense in all of our interviews, that you don't want to end up like Nick the Greek did… completely broke. You still have time to do something to change your situation, if you put your mind to it. You have one of the strongest mindsets of anyone I have ever met. Stop thinking about playing those house games, and get back to the road that will save you… poker!"
Archie said, "Tom, I want to say thank you for motivating me to seriously make a comeback. I needed that pep talk. I know in my heart, you were the right guy to write my story. I also know you're right… the path I should take is getting into the poker world again. The days of shooting dice for $300,000 per bet are gone, and my answer is definitely getting back to playing poker."
I said to Archie, "I only hope you remember what I told you — to make more than a comeback… but a genuine comeback, where you end up with the money versus handing it back over." As George C. Scott was quoted in the original movie classic, The Hustler, explaining the real world to Fast Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman, "You keep score real simple. You add up your money at the end of the game to see who won."
Karas at Binion's now
Players, those of you getting ready for the 2008 WSOP, look out for the return of the legend, the one and only Archie "The Greek" Karas. He is mentally and physically back, and ready to go!
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.