You might not have heard the Archie Karas story. And the odds are you'll never hear a story quite like his again. It is the stuff of both fantasy and nightmare, of both shrewd intellect and reckless ambition. It's a story so fantastic that you can't help but approach it with some degree of cynicism, preparing yourself to fall somewhere between fact and myth along the way.
It's the story of how someone turned $50 into $40million in little over 2 years in what has become referred to in gambling mythology as simply 'The Run'.
It's also the story of a man who lost it all.
Karas claims to have gambled more than anyone in the history of gambling. In the history of the planet he says. And it started from an early age. Born into poverty on the Greek Island of Cefalonia, Karas bet on his innate skill at the childhood past-time of shooting marbles to help keep himself from hunger. Then in his early adult life, Karas found work on a ship that eventually took him to the United States. It was there, in Los Angeles that his career as one of the most successful (and arguabley unsuccessful) gamblers would begin.
In Los Angeles, Karas became a pool shark, fleecing his opposition, and in the process making a great deal more money than he was in his more conventional employment as a waiter. Soon however, Karas' found fewer and fewer targets for his pool playing talents. It was then he decided to turn his abilities to playing poker and he began to frequent Los Angeles card rooms honing his skills. Karas soon built his bankroll to $2million. But by December of 1992, he had all but $50 remaining.
This lost fortune might have caused any other gambler to mutter and mope. It might have caused anyone of a more conservative nature to seriously reconsider their life trajectory. But not Karas. He upped the ante and moved to Las Vegas. And it was there that 'The Run' began.
Arriving in Las Vegas with just $50 to his name, Karas managed to massage a loan out of a fellow poker player that he knew from the Los Angeles card scene, quickly turning that loan into $30,000 paying back $20,000. With the $10,000 remaining, Karas returned to his first talent, playing pool.
It was playing pool where Karas met 'Mr X', a highly regarded pool and poker player. Karas and Mr X proceeded to go on a gambling binge. Playing pool they began betting at $10,000 a game which then soon climbed to $40,000. With some of the biggest names in Vegas watching on night after night, Karas eventually took Mr X for $1.2million. But they weren't done yet. They turned their prolific appetite for high stakes gambling to poker where Karas continued to fleece Mr X for the eventual sum of $3million.
Karas' talents as a poker player swiftly circulated the Vegas scene. As word of his near $4million take of Mr X got around, very few of even the most gifted poker players dared to take him on. With his bankroll quickly climbing to $7million, the legend goes that he would sit at a table every night with $5million in chips in front him, almost baiting any would be challengers to take their shot.
Stu Unger was such a challenger. Backed by businessman and fellow professional poker player Lyle Berman, the 3 time WSOP champion Unger went toe to toe with Karas. Despite being considered the best Texas-Holdem player of all-time, Unger lost $1.2million to Karas playing a variety of card games.
Chip Reese was the next to take on Karas. Like Unger, Reese was no match, eventually conceding that Karas took him for more money than anyone he had ever played against. In just 25 games, Karas had taken Reese for just over $2million.
Few others would challenge Karas. Some of the best poker players in the world attempted but failed and many stayed away simply because Karas' appetite for high stakes was way beyond anything they were prepared to play. During this early run, only one player, poker legend Johnny Chan came away a winner, taking close to $1million from Karas.
Six months into his run, Karas had amassed a bankroll of $17million. With his reputation for high stakes scaring many would be challengers away, Karas turned his talents to dice rolling. Betting $100,000 on a single roll, Karas bankroll ultimately grew to $40million.
It took Karas just 3 weeks to lose his entire fortune.
In mid-1995 Karas' legend grew even greater for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, he lost $11million throwing dice. Then $2million to Chip Reese. Then $17million playing baccarat. Then following a short break from gambling with a visit to Greece, Karas returned to Vegas to lose everything but his last $1million throwing dice at $300,000 each bet.
With his last $million in hand, Karas took on both Johnny Chan and Lyle Berman. Karas was victorious, doubling his bankroll. He lost it just days later playing baccarat and dice. Every penny. Gone.
In the years since, Karas has not shied away from the Vegas lifestyle, and has gone on streaks of a smaller more modest stature, perhaps still hoping for yet another run to match or even eclipse his previous exploits.
As now a figure of Vegas mythology, Karas' appetite for the violent turbulence of high stakes gambling, reminds me of another figure of mythology, that of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again, and do so for an eternity. The French philosopher Albert Camus suggested that we must imagine Sisyphus as happy, as a man who has conceded that meaning in life comes in our efforts to transcend not in reaching the heights themselves. And so, even though we might feel an almost vicarious regret for his lost fortune, in his own myth, Karas appears almost as a modern day Sisyphus, compelled to build his bankroll to great heights above the Vegas skyline, only to see it dwindle to nothing again and again and remind us, in his own way, that when you leave this life, you can't take it with you.