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Hits and Runs

Many wish to win in Vegas, few have the brass it takes to score big.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

Most people enter a Las Vegas casino with the hope of winning enough money to pay for dinner and a show. Get onto a real big run, and maybe you can rack up a few thousand dollars in casino chips. This is not what Archie Karas had in mind when he entered the casino of Binion's Horseshoe back in 1993. The dapper, well-groomed gambler, who's famous for flashing his $20,000 Rolex, had already turned a $10,000 loan into more than $1 million in winnings. He had started by playing high-stakes pool in a little hall across the street from the Liberace Museum. Now he was going in for the kill.

In the Horseshoe's poker room, Karas began playing heads up with the biggest gamblers in town. Becky Binion Behnen, who now owns the   Horseshoe, remembers that big-money players were lining up to take a crack at the guy with all the dough. But he seemed impossible to beat. Poker gods like Puggy Pearson, Chip Reese and the late, great Stu Ungar all tried to take him down. They all failed.

Following marathon poker sessions of super high-stakes hold'em and razz, Karas proceeded to the craps table with a $10 million bankroll and--through skilled, lucky, daredevil play--he spent the next year or so running that up to $26 million. Jack Binion, who oversaw the Horseshoe at the time, feared that Karas's ultimate goal was to play long enough and high enough to win the casino. Mike Sexton, a gambler who chronicles Las Vegas's high-stakes world, says, "It wasn't about the money. Archie's mission was to become known as the biggest gambler of all time."

And for a while he was. "He had all of our $5,000 chips," recalls Behnen. "I had to buy them back from him."

Karas plowed some of his winnings into a Mercedes-Benz and a van. Ultimately, however, most of it wound up back in the Horseshoe's coffers. Karas went bust, blowing through the $26 million stake with the same breathtaking consistency that went into building it up. Behnen figures that once the smoke cleared, the casino lost $1.3 million to Karas (a sum that he unsuccessfully wagered elsewhere around town). But, between the international publicity that his run generated and the reality of how crippling the eight-figure beating could have been, she felt like a winner.

Considering how things wound up for Karas--he even lost the couple million dollars that he had stashed away in his home country of Greece--it's easy to wonder why he didn't take a chunk of the dough and, say, invest it in real estate. "That would have been the worst thing he could have done," Sexton says with a wave of his hand. "As soon as he got broke he would have sold the land for half of what it was worth, just to get back in the action. I've seen that happen to people."   Karas and everyone else who's had an exceptionally big haul in Las Vegas is living out a well-publicized dream that draws people to America's city of light. The allure--or at least the fantasy--of making a big score is sufficiently strong that Las Vegas is perennially in competition with Orlando, Florida, for the title of the nation's top tourist attraction. But for all the promise that exists on the green felt tables, those who are in the know realize that most people don't give themselves a fair chance to hit it really big. "Most players are happy to make any kind of score," says Sexton, pointing out that this is what makes a run like Karas's all the more remarkable.

"The big edge for casinos is that losers go off for huge amounts of money, trying to catch up, while winners are happy to walk away with small profits. There are only a few exceptions who are not afraid to gamble when they are ahead. So it's hard for a normal person who has to work for his money to understand the mind-set of a high-stakes gambler. You can't think of every roll of the dice or turn of the card as representing a house or a boat." Indeed, it's the kind of mentality that allows somebody like the lanky 1996 World Series of Poker champion Huck Seed to casually bet $100,000 that he could do a back flip and land on his feet. He spent six months perfecting the stunt and collected his six-figure payout from several astonished poker players who were on the other side of the wager.

While you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who played high stakes as consistently as Karas did, he is by no means the only gambler to walk into Binion's Horseshoe and risk a fortune on a game of chance. Though the downtown hotel--currently looking a bit tatty and rumored to be lurching toward bankruptcy--lacks the glitz and flash of bigger operations on the Strip, it has long had a reputation as the place where there was no limit to the money one could wager.

This was so clear that the Desert Inn used to limo its highest rollers to the Horseshoe so that they could place the big bets that the D.I. wasn't game enough to cover. For anybody who wanted to see how it felt to win or lose a half million dollars on a single roll of the dice, the Horseshoe, founded in the 1950s by Texas-based gambler Benny Binion, was really the only game in town.

Las Vegas has never suffered a shortage of whales. (A few years ago enough of them got lucky at the Las Vegas Hilton that the chain's quarterly profits were off by 19 percent as a result.) The biggest whale of them all, right now, seems to be the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer. Though he recently set a record by losing nearly $27 million playing blackjack at the elegant London casino Crockford's, he's had extraordinary luck in Las Vegas. Packer reportedly won $31 million in the MGM Grand's blackjack pit, and he has been known to share the wealth with those who inadvertently help to make him richer: following a multimillion dollar run at the Mirage, Packer added $1 million to the dealers' tip pool.


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