Greek gambler Alex Karas became a living legend with the worst losing streak in gambling history.
Whether real or mythologized, the world of gambling is full of spectacular rises and heart-breaking falls. We love to hear of the backstreet card shark who strikes gold in Vegas or the son of a peasant who makes it good in Monte Carlo. But human nature has a bitter streak as well. As much as we enjoy seeing success, most of us get more pleasure out of watching others fail.
Legendary losing streaks and misfortune at the cruel hand of the gambling gods capture our imagination more than any success story. Some oft-told tales of tragedy include Robert Maxwell’s losing $2 million on roulette in a single minute and Omar Sidduiqi blowing $8 million in a single day. The greatest stories happened before the advent of online casinos in the UK during the 1990s, when one had to enter a casino or underground card room to make a great gambling story.
The legend of Archie Karas is truly special. Talking about rags-to-riches, Karas couldn’t have come from humbler beginnings yet became one of the most successful gamblers in history. On the other side of the coin, he lost everything in what is considered the most epic downfall in gambling history.
Mr. Karras goes to Vegas
Archie Karas was born in 1950 on the Greek island of Cefalonia, the son of a poor construction worker. He started gambling at a young age before moving to Los Angeles and making a name for himself as a pool hustler and card shark. There he got his first taste of rise and fall, making gambling news by building a bankroll of $2,000,000 before losing all of it in high stakes poker games. But this was nothing compared to what he would do in Vegas.
• Archie Karas first made a name for himself hustling pool and poker in Los Angeles before going to Las Vegas
• He arrived in Vegas in 1992 with only $50 in his pocket; three years later he had turned this in to $40 million
• The tragedy: over a three-week span in 1995 Karas lost the entire $40 million playing craps and baccarat
In 1992 Kara drove from Los Angeles to Vegas with only $50 in his pocket. He quickly set to work doing what he did best: making big money on pool and poker. He ran into a fellow poker player LA who loaned him $10,000, which he quickly turned into $30,000 playing razz poker. Before long Karas had $1.2 million in his pocket.
This allowed Karas to win an additional $3 million, at which point he took his $4 million bankroll to the Vegas casino scene. His winnings at the hands of mysterious Mr. X (an opponent whom Karas refused to name) had become legendary, and even many Vegas high-rollers refused to play with him. Nonetheless, he won high-stakes games against American poker room legends Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar. All said he turned his initial $50 into $17 million in only six months. By 1995 he had built a bankroll of $40 million.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
In three years Karas turned enough money for one meal at an expensive restaurant into one of the most impressive bankrolls in history. It took him only three weeks to make that stack of cash disappear. Maybe he had done something to anger the gambling gods and his seemingly divine luck ran out. Maybe he went wrong by switching from poker and pool to dice. Whatever the reason, Karas’ downfall in Vegas made his $2 million loss in Los Angeles look losing a wallet with a ten-dollar bill in it.
Perhaps bored with his accustomed success at poker, Karas started playing craps primarily. This proved to a bad decision. Karas was a proven expert at poker, a game of skill in which the player controls his own destiny. But he turned to dice, a pure game of chance in which the player has no opportunity to affect the outcome. Karas told friends and reporters that he was attracted to craps because he could win larger amounts in smaller time periods than when playing poker. He sometimes won $3 million in a matter of hours playing dice for $100,000 per roll, a figure which would take him days or weeks to win playing poker. And there is no question that he became addicted to the surrender of control involved in games of chance.
But he paid dearly for it, losing $20 million dollars throwing dice in the early days of his collapse. Karas still had $20 million left in his pocket and proven poker skill, so he could have won the money back. But he made another bad decision: switching to baccarat, another game of pure chance. In a short amount of time he had lost $17 million in high-stakes games. With only $3 million left he took another stab at craps, losing big again.
How to lose everything by making poor decisions
Just three weeks after carrying around a $40 million bankroll, Karas was disgraced and down to only $1 million. At this point he finally did what he should have done much earlier: go back to playing poker. He challenged pros Johnny Chan and Lyle Berman to take turns against him in a game for the remainder of his dwindling roll. He defeated both of them, doubling his money in a single night.
But Karas was not to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. He walked directly from the poker table to the craps table, where he promptly lost the $2 million and left himself penniless. This wasn’t the end of his story; he later went on smaller streaks, even winning and losing $4 million less than a year later. But he is remembered for his fabulous run from 1992 to 1995, which was considered by many to be the greatest gambling story in history. Until his subsequent downfall, that is.