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.
He displays far less generosity toward showy Americans who like to brag about their wealth. When a Texas oilman once sidled up to him in a Vegas casino and bragged about being worth $100 million, Packer considered that for a moment before replying, "Are you really worth $100 million? Tell you what, I'll toss you for it." Considering that Packer is said to be worth $3.6 billion, that's a bet he could lose without forsaking too much sleep. In light of that, even his biggest casino wagers are the relative equivalent of pocket change. Maybe for that reason, the real high-stakes heroes are anonymous rich guys who willingly put good chunks of their money on the line, amounts of cash that have real meaning and real consequence for them.
Such was the case with Bill Bergstrom, a diminutive fellow in his 20s who came into money via the gold and silver boom of 20 years ago. He sauntered into the Horseshoe wearing Western duds and a cowboy hat, carrying a pair of suitcases--one empty, the other loaded with $777,000. He placed it all on the "don't pass" (a craps wager in which you bet that the seven will come up before the point number). He made that single bet, won, and left the casino with two suitcases full of hundred dollar bills. Soon after Bergstrom's big score, a call came in to the bedside phone of Benny Binion. It was Bergstrom on the line.
He wanted to know if he could pop by Becky Binion Behnen's home--where Benny, whose health was failing, had been convalescing--for a visit. Benny OK'd it. While at the house Bergstrom proved to have a bit of a Binion obsession. The hat he wore during his visit had once belonged to Benny, and the three sevens in his craps wager corresponded to the phone number of Benny's ranch in Montana. Despite the creepiness of all that--Benny, after all, had seen far weirder--the visit went fine. When Bergstrom called again, it was to inquire about making another big bet. "He came to my house, laid $540,000 on the kitchen table, and wanted to bet that money," says Behnen, recalling that Benny OK'd the wager, and Bergstrom once again cleaned up on the "don't pass."
For Benny's 80th birthday, Bergstrom had something special in mind. "He plopped down $1 million on the 'don't pass,'" remembers Behnen. "But this time we won, so he ended up $300,000 ahead, and that was the end of the story." But it really wasn't the end of the story. "He had a complex emotional life," Behnen continues. "I know that he had a male companion, but I don't know if he was 100 percent gay. And a couple years later he committed suicide. In his note he said that he wanted to be cremated and to have his ashes put in an urn that would be displayed at the Horseshoe. On the urn he wanted a plaque that said 'The Million Dollar Kid.' His parents wound up burying him in a cemetery, and I'm really not sure whether or not we would have put the urn in the Horseshoe anyway."
Those who were at the Horseshoe when Bergstrom raked in his craps winnings remember that he took it in stride and left the casino alone, his money in hand. Others, though, treat their big wins in more celebratory fashion. For instance, on the night Stu Ungar hit a pick-6 horse race for $870,000, he packed his friends off to the Olympic Garden, a topless bar where the VIP room happened to be having its grand opening. "We went in there and Stuey ordered Cristal champagne," recounts Mike Sexton. "He asked for them to send in the prettiest girls, and he immediately slipped a $100 bill into each of their G-strings. We drank so much Cristal that the bar ran out and Stuey had to slum down to Dom Perignon. I remember him being furious about that."
Nobody else really seemed to mind. "The girls," continues Sexton, "who were usually happy if you bought them a beer, that night they drank Dom like it was water. The bar tab came to $9,600 and there's no telling how much Stuey spent on the girls. I think you can say it was a career night for each of them. For me it was one of those nights that you put in a frame and hang on the wall."
Another memorable evening was a New Year's Eve back in the '80s, when Ungar and Chip Reese aimed to turn a profit as they rang in the year. They each put up $5,000 and began playing blackjack with the agreement that they would get it up to a million or go bust. They didn't quite hit their target, but they did manage to clear $500,000 before deciding to divide the proceeds.
For Ungar, though, wins like that one quickly slid through his fingers. He was a notorious sucker when it came to sports betting and golf. From his very first day on the golf courses of Las Vegas, he provided serious windfalls for his fellow gamblers. It all began when one of them, a high-stakes poker player named Jack Strauss, convinced Ungar that the really big action was at the Las Vegas Country Club. "But," he warned Ungar, who was New Yorkbred and a total stranger to the game, "before you bet anything, get a fundamental skill level and practice a little bit."
He began by taking Ungar to the LVCC's putting green and showing him how to hone a short game. "Next thing you know," remembers Sexton, "Jack's giving him a stroke a hole on the putting green and they're betting $200 on each putt. Then they went from $200 to $500 to $1,000. In two hours' time Stu Ungar lost $78,000 without even getting onto the regular golf course. In the history of America, I guarantee you, that has not happened before or since." One of the most notorious gold mines for golfers was a huge-stakes player named Jimmy Chagra. Texas based, Chagra was a high-rolling drug dealer who liked to recklessly wager his ill-gotten gains. He was famous for showing up at the Las Vegas Country Club carrying two shopping bags full of cash and being flanked by bodyguards.
In the casinos he was known as a lavish tipper. Following a sky-high run at a Caesars Palace craps table, he tipped the croupier $600,000. In his locker there, he routinely stashed $900,000 in cash. "He'd go into gambling situations with $1 million or $2 million on him," remembers a Vegas-based career gambler. "It was possible that he could win, but usually it was a question of how much you could take from him. If he lost $200,000 or $300,000 to a couple of us, well, that was a pretty good day for Jimmy Chagra."
Though Chagra was indicted on conspiracy charges for the murder of a Texas judge and is serving a life sentence in federal prison on related charges, he was loved in Las Vegas. Then again, anybody who went through money as quickly as he did would be absolutely adored in Vegas. "I beat him and I beat him and I beat him; I probably won $600,000 from him," says Puggy Pearson, most likely lowballing the true figure. "He tried to play a lot of everything. He was in the dope business and he wanted to look like a gambler. I beat him at poker and golf and I might have played some bumper pool with him. He lost a lot of money to those of us who were in Vegas at the time. He lost well into the millions for sure. Then the gamblers would take their winnings from him and lose it at the race book or craps. Hell, they got to get rid of their money one way or the other." Puggy looks momentarily wistful, probably missing the big hauls that Chagra made possible. Then he adds, "Yeah, Jimmy was a good boy."
High-stakes golf is a funny game in Las Vegas. It's one of the few wagers in which the better man does not always walk away with the lion's share of the money. Usually when golf is being played for high stakes, the winner is the person who can negotiate to receive the most advantageous number of strokes. Sometimes the looks of a player can be deceiving. Such was the case when poker studs Jimmy McHugh and Chuck Sharp were approached by an acquaintance who offered to make a substantial wager on 18 holes of golf.
Being good players and high-stakes gamblers, they were interested. But they needed to see the second guy they would be up against. "It turned out that the fourth member of the group was a guy named No Arms George," remembers Russ Hamilton, who hosts The Gambler's Golf Tournament and is about to launch a Web site for online gaming. "They called him that because he had no arms. Of course Chuck and Jimmy were only too eager to make the bet. Well, it turns out that this guy has got special attachments for his stubs, and he chips and putts like God. Chuck and Jimmy wound up losing $80,000 to a golfer with no arms."
It's the kind of loss that the big players, the ones who put themselves into positions to snag truly major hauls, must learn to take in stride. They know how to win and lose mind-boggling sums without seeing the money as a retirement fund or a mortgage payment. One of the finest illustrations of this can be seen in how Archie Karas dealt with a terrifically bad stretch of luck at the craps table that intersected his $26 million run. "I saw him lose $1 million in 10 minutes," remembers Sexton, still marveling at the display of insane, breakneck gambling. "In less than a minute $330,000 was gone with a few rolls. Then I saw him do it two more consecutive times. Finally he put up the last $10,000 and lost again. I watched that with my own eyes and it was pretty fascinating. But he took it very well. He simply shrugged and walked away from the table. Like he was having a moderately bad day."
RULES OF THE GAMES
Before you can make a killing, you need to know the basics.
Providing more action than any other casino game, craps is a game of dice in which a player, "the shooter," tosses from one end of a felt-topped table to the other. If the dice total 7 or 11 on the opening throw, then everyone who bets on the pass line (the most basic wager) will be a winner. If the numbers equal 2, 3 or 12, pass bettors lose. "Don't pass" bettors win on 2 or 3, but for them 12 is a push. If the dice come to 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 or 10, the shooter needs to hit that number, his "point," a second time without rolling a 7 (or crapping out) in order for pass-line players to win. An array of arcane side bets are offered, but remember: the more space they take up on the felt, the better the house's odds.
In blackjack, each player is pitted exclusively against the dealer. The object is to attain a total value of cards as close as possible to 21 (face cards equal 10, aces count 1 or 11) without going over. Going over makes you an instant loser regardless of the dealer's outcome. Each player bets and then receives two cards face up. The dealer takes one of his two face down. An ace with a 10 or a picture card (or "blackjack") is an automatic winner, and pays 1 1/2 times your bet. Players with less than 21 have the option of taking additional cards ("hitting") to improve their position. Rudimentary strategy suggests considering the card the dealer shows before deciding to hit or stick. (For instance, if the dealer shows 10, chances are good he has 20.) Keep in mind that the dealer must hit with any hand under 17, and he must stick with 17 or more (a good strategy to emulate); if you tie (a "push"), neither the player nor the dealer wins or loses. If you receive a pair of the same value cards, you are allowed to "split"--that is, break up the cards, get dealt one more for each, and play both hands. Players may also double their bets (or double down) after the deal, but may then take only one additional card (a good strategy if your first two cards equal 11).
Despite its James Bond mystique, baccarat is a game with simple rules. Initially, the player and the dealer are each dealt two cards. The object of the game is to get as close as possible to 9. Face cards and 10s have no value, and when the total of the cards dealt is greater than 10, the left digit from the total is dropped. For instance, an 8 and a 9 (totaling 17) would be viewed as 7. Perhaps baccarat is considered elegant because players do very little of the work in influencing the outcome. Winning hinges mostly on the luck of the draw.
The spinning roulette wheel, with its 38 numbered slots (including a zero and a double-zero) and careening white ball, offers a plethora of wagers, none of which are very complicated. Betting on a specific number generally pays off at 35 to 1 odds (casino odds vary, and this should be kept in mind for all the games described). Other popular bets include a "street bet" (in which a row of three numbers is covered and the payoff is 11 to 1), a "dozen bet" (stack your chips in the box marked "1st 12," "2nd 12" or "3rd 12" and you will be covering one of three groups of 12 numbers for 2 to 1 odds). The shortest shots are bets on a group of 18 numbers (odd or even), a color (18 slots are black and 18 are red), a low number (1 through 18) or a high number (19 through 36). Payments on those bets are even money, and the house maintains its edge by not including the zero and double-zero in any of the more sprawling bets.
The great thing about poker is that it's the one casino game in which you compete against other players rather than against the house (the casino receives its money in the form of a "rake," a percentage taken out of each pot). The cheapest poker you'll find in any Las Vegas casino is seven-card stud, with the bets ranging from $1 to $5. From there the games have a panoply of esoteric variations--in terms of the betting as well as the rules. On a great night at the Bellagio, the stakes can rise limitlessly, with each player stacking a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of chips in front of him--while, just 20 yards or so away, there'll also be low rollers occupying $1 and $5 stud tables.
Michael Kaplan is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado. He plays low-stakes poker.