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."
After immigrating to America from Greece at 17--working on a freighter for $60 a month, he jumped ship in Portland, Oregon, and got a job as a waiter in a Los Angeles restaurant. The restaurant was next door to a bowling alley. In that bowling alley were several pool tables. Around those pool tables were dozens of marks ready to be fleeced. A hustler was born.
Still a teenager, new to the land of opportunity, Archie learned to play pool and poker, eventually cleaning out the restaurant's owner. He had the kind of epiphany that comes to most people upon retirement from a lifetime of labor, or after hitting the lottery: "I knew at 18 that I'd never have to work again." He also thought if he ever won $10,000, he'd be set forever. That figure was revised upward to $100,000, then $500,000, finally to $1 million. Now he knows he'll never stop.
In December 1992, Archie had lost nearly $2 million in high- stakes card games at the legal casinos in the Los Angeles area. For the billionth time in his life he was broke.
He drove into Las Vegas with $50 in his pocket.
Unlike the social-security matron with a couple of $20s in her stockings or the drunk with three rolls of quarters stuffed in his pockets, Archie knew his dearth of capital wouldn't prevent him from making a score. No hole was too big to climb out of.
He headed to the Mirage, where a fellow gambler lent him $10,000 to take a shot at the biggest action in the card room, a $100 to $400 Razz game. (Razz is Seven-Card Stud played for low, the best hand being A-2-3-4-5.) He promptly won $20,000. After returning half the profits to his backer, who was thrilled to realize a 100 percent gain in only a few hours, Archie had the seeds of a bankroll that would eventually lead to what Vegas cognoscenti now refer to simply as The Run.
Archie bristles at the suggestion that his streak was anything more than just another series of gambles in a lifetime of wagering, that he momentarily got luckier than anyone's ever gotten. Even as a kid, he'll tell you, he always bet everything he had, and he always played the best--only champions. The Run, he insists, was no different. Only bigger.
It started, as many of Archie's adventures have, at a pool table. There, playing against a high-ranking executive of a well-known hotel corporation for stakes that sources say were $10,000 a game and up, Archie won between $1 million and $2 million. For the sake of his opponent's reputation, Archie refuses to discuss details of the match, saying only, "the pool was no big deal. I played against a lot of people, and I'm not going to confirm or deny any amounts that have been talked about--I'm not going to make any comment." Despite his diplomacy, the "facts" of Archie's pool match were reported in the local paper, The Review Journal, and his victim's identity is widely known among the gambling community.
This man, call him Mr. X, is a world-class poker player, whose victories over the toughest competitors on the planet have been well documented. Realizing pool was clearly Archie's kingdom, Mr. X suggested moving the battle to another green-felt arena, the poker table, where Mr. X thought he was the prohibitive favorite. In early 1993, after a week of heads-up play, Archie beat him out of another $1 million.
The reason you and I will never win several million dollars at gambling is because we are rational, reasonable people. We'd never get to the lofty point where millions of dollars are on the line, because we would quit as soon as we won $50,000 or $20,000 or even $10,000.
But Karas doesn't know the word quit.
After crushing Mr. X, Archie welcomed all comers, defying anyone to beat him at a one-on-one poker match. In April 1993, during the World Series of poker at Binion's Horseshoe, his first challenger was David "Chip" Reese, one of the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame and generally considered the best all-around poker player in the world.
Reese is a fat man with thinning blond hair, an omnipresent cellular phone and a poker pedigree rivaled by few others, living or dead. He and his equally accomplished pal, two-time world champ Doyle Brunson, consistently play in the largest games in town and have probably beaten more contenders and pretenders out of the richest pots in Vegas than anyone who's ever held a busted flush. Multimillionaire businessmen, knowing they have little chance of winning, often play with the duo just to say that they lost to the best.
In the middle of the Horseshoe's tournament room, where $25-$50 and $50-$100 games are common, Karas, with his newly minted bankroll, and Chip, competing with the financial backing of a famous hotel owner, played Razz and Seven-Card Stud for unthinkable stakes: $3,000-$6,000, $4,000-$8,000 and eventually, according to Archie, $8,000-$16,000 limits. In approximately two weeks, Archie beat the putative champ for $2,022,000.
Resigning from the game, Reese supposedly told Archie: "God made your balls a little bigger. You're too good."
Rather than plowing his winnings into long-term certificates of deposit or even, heaven forbid, a savings account, Karas started "investing" his winnings at the Horseshoe's craps tables. Throughout the late spring and early summer in '93, he rolled the dice regularly, betting $100,000 and more on every toss of the cubes. "With each play I was making million-dollar decisions," Archie says. "I would have played even higher if they'd let me."
At his request, the Horseshoe closed down a table for him, providing a solitary battleground for Karas and his compulsion. As armed security guards surrounded the table and dozens of awestruck onlookers craned for a peek at the numbered layout laden with chips, Karas rolled to winning sessions of $1.6 million, $900,000, $800,000, $1.3 million and $4 million. At one point he had all of Binion's chocolate-colored $5,000 chips.
He also claims to have booked losers of $2 million, $2.5 million, $2.3 million and $1.5 million.
Exactly how much Archie Karas won (or lost) playing craps is difficult to verify, and in some ways, irrelevant. For no matter the final tally, this much is clear: Archie was rolling for millions; six months earlier the man had had $50 in his pocket.
The craps, Archie told me, was merely a diversion when the poker action dried up. "I know I'm taking the worst of it with the dice," Archie said. "But nobody would play poker with me for that much."
Indeed, after vanquishing Reese, few players had either the gumption or the bankroll to tangle with the man who was calling himself the uncrowned world champion. One who did was Stu Ungar, another two-time world champ known for his hyperaggressive, raise-it-to-the-roof style. Yards away from where his picture hangs in Binion's Gallery of Champions, playing $5,000-$10,000 limit Stud and Razz with a backer's money, Ungar lost $900,000 to Karas in just six hours.
Next, the legendary Brunson took his shot at breaking Karas. The best he could do was break even. "We stopped after awhile," Karas reports. "He didn't want to play high enough."
In quick succession, Hall of Famers and world champions came and went, including Mr. X, Puggy Pearson and Johnny Chan. Of the poker community's elite, only Chan beat Karas--after losing to him three straight times.
At the end of the The Run, Karas had busted 15 of the world's greatest and won $7 million at the poker table.
"Playing poker at this level is like boxing," Karas says. "You have to keep defending your title. But a boxer gets six months to recover between fights. I take them on one after another.And I only play champions." He shrugs. "Nobody wants to play me anymore."
Jim Albrecht, the poker manager at the Horseshoe, witnessed some of Karas' epic run. He thinks that part of the reason none of the top poker players will compete against Karas is because of the stakes. "Even if you think you have an edge, playing cards at $5,000 or $10,000 limits is like Russian roulette," Albrecht observes. "If I use a gun with two bullets, and I give you one with one bullet, you're a big favorite to live longer than me. But are you going to play? It's suicidal."
Karas, according to Albrecht, reminds him of another famous gambler with the same heritage, Nick "The Greek" Dandalos. "Nick's credo was always: 'Find me the biggest and best, and we'll play until someone is broke.' "
Karas has a standing offer: he'll play anyone for any amount, preferably for $500,000 or more. I asked him whether he'd be willing to compete for every penny he has, if, for instance, the Sultan of Brunei wanted to play a friendly freeze-out for, say, $15 million.
"In a second," Karas says.
"You've got to understand something. Money means nothing to me. I don't value it," Karas explains. "I've had all the material things I could ever want. Everything. The things I want money can't buy: health, freedom, love, happiness. I don't care about money, so I have no fear. I don't care if I lose it."
In two months, Karas may be broke again. He may be sleeping in his car, scrounging to buy into a high-stakes poker game. He may be just another lonely soul staring at the boulevard's flashing lights, dreaming of parlaying his last handful of change into a mountain of cash.
But he'll always know that for several glorious, odds-defying months, he made the Vegas myth come true...to the tune of $17 million.
Michael Konik is the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado.