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Tables of Dreams

With a Stake of Borrowed Money, Archie Karas Won a Fortune
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

Las Vegas is a city built on myths. Lies, really. They range from the innocuous--"Certain slot machines are 'ready' to pay off"--to the inane--"You can beat keno with the right system." None of the Vegas myths are bigger, though, than the one that goes like this: "It's possible to drift into town with only a few bucks and leave a week later with a fortune." That's the elemental Vegas myth, the one that turns normally responsible men into fools and pensioners into paupers. Were it not for the gambling public's unwavering faith in the Big Myth, Las Vegas casinos wouldn't win billions a year. Hotel rooms wouldn't cost $39. And shrimp cocktail couldn't be had for 99 cents.

With every quarter dropped into a slot machine, every dollar bet on blackjack, every parlay card wagered at the sports book, a gambler harbors an inchoate, fantastic hope that his meager plunge will lead to something big. He dreams that he might be the lucky soul who makes the Vegas myth come true.

The fact is, it never happens.

Sure, countless suckers have built a piddling bankroll into several thousand dollars, and, yes, the nationwide, megabucks progressive slot jackpot gets hit every so often, making someone an instant millionaire--over a 20-year pay-out period. Statistical deviations do happen.

But nobody, nobody has ever churned mere bus fare into truly big money. Mansion-in-Bel-Air-and-yacht-in-the-Caribbean money. Mythic money.

Nobody, that is, until Archie Karas. In a six-month period, Karas parlayed a borrowed stake of $10,000 into $17 million. That's right, $17 million.

If not for the John Gotti hairstyle and two demure gold-and-diamond pinkie rings he sports, you might think Karas was some sort of businessman, an executive at a respectable corporation, not an inveterate gambler. Karas, 43,dresses stylishly but prepossessingly, forgoing the loud tracksuits and ostentatious gold-chunk bracelets many of his colleagues favor. He's got more than one $20,000 watch, but most days he wears a Seiko. His clean-cut grooming is impeccable--far from the haggard visage of someone who spends entirely too much time in the stale environs of a casino. And his nails are always clean.

But the boardroom is not his domain; it's the card room.

Karas likes to be referred to as the undisputed champion of gambling. "I've gambled more money than anyone in the history of the planet," he claims. "What most gamblers make in their whole life I gamble in one roll of the dice. Unless the casinos decide to raise their limits after I'm gone, I don't think anyone will ever gamble more than I have. I'm the biggest ever."

Prior to 1992, Archie's story was similar to other gamblers'. He'd win; he'd lose. One day he'd be driving a Mercedes-Benz, the next he'd be sleeping in it. When he was broke, he'd borrow a grub stake and start over. The usual. His career, if you can call it that, had been a series of nadirs and zeniths--and not much in between. "I've been a millionaire over 50 times and dead broke more than I can count. Probably 1,000 times in my life," Archie recalls. "But I sleep the same whether I have ten or ten million dollars in my pocket."

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