Archie Karas and the Greatest Gambling Run of All Time

The casino may hold the advantage over the long run, but anything can happen over the short run. Those nights when all the right cards turn up just when we need them, when the dice seem loaded in our favour – those nights are the reason we keep coming back for more. Taking £50 to the casino and turning it into £200 is such a great feeling.

As nice as it is to go on a good little run, it’s also nice to imagine what it would be like if all the planets aligned one day and we went on the run of a lifetime. If you hang around Vegas or browse gambling discussion forums long enough, you’re bound to hear the occasional story of some lucky gambler hitting it big and making a ridiculous amount of money in a short amount of time.

A Greek gambler by the name of Archie Karas may very well lay claim to the biggest run in the history of gambling. At the very least, his run in the early to mid-90s was the greatest that the public ever became aware of. His subsequent downfall may have also been one of the most painful of all time.

Over a course of three years spanning from 1992 to 1995, Archie Karas turned a measly $50 bankroll into more than $40 million. This includes an initial stretch in which he turned that first $50 into $17 million over the first six months. Archie had some incredible downswings over that period, but he always managed to turn things back around – until he didn’t. Sadly, Mr. Karas lost it all within a year.

The early stages of his run read like some kind of motivational piece – a guy with $50 in his pocket hops on a boat, makes his way to Vegas and turns himself into a multi-millionaire within just a few short years. However, the final chapters of story reveal that Archie Karas provides us with a prime example of how not to gamble.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Early Years

Archie Karas, birth name Anargyros Karabourniotis, was born in Greece in 1951. An old Tom Sexton article reveals that Archie had a tough childhood with a father who built houses but had little money to show for his hard work. At some points, Archie resorted to shooting marbles just to try and win enough money to buy another day’s worth of food.

As he recounts for Tom Sexton, Archie said:

“…those early days when I was growing up, having to gamble to win money by shooting marbles! Back in those days, we would play for drachmas, which was the currency then. It took 30 drachmas to make one dollar, so to win two and a half drachmas, it meant I could win a half of loaf of bread to avoid going hungry that day.”

We can see from an early age that Archie had a propensity for gambling habits that today we would call “unhealthy.” One of the basic rules of smart gambling is to never gamble to get money you need. But back then, the young Archie either didn’t know, didn’t care or had no other choice. These gambling habits would one day play a part in both making him rich beyond his dreams and dead broke once again.

The story goes that Archie ran away from home at the age of 15 after a particularly nasty argument with his father. His father, enraged over some long-forgotten disagreement chucked a shovel at Archie, nearly striking him in the head. What their relationship was like before that is anyone’s guess, but this was the last straw. Archie decided it was time to make his own way in the world. He would never speak to his father again.

At some point, he took a job as a waiter on a cruise ship and eventually made his way to Portland, Oregon. He headed south from there and eventually landed in California where he took up a job waiting tables. It was there that things began to change for the young and directionless Archie Karas.

Legend has it that Archie could play a mean pool game. The then-17-year-old did not cut an imposing figure, but he amassed a sizable bankroll reeling in unsuspecting suckers and taking them for their money. The money in pool eventually dried up as Archie earned a reputation as a skilled player. It was around this time he began hitting the California card rooms to play poker.

Thus began Archie’s first run to the big time. He hit the California poker scene hard, move up to ever-higher stakes and eventually amassed a seven-figure bankroll. That would have been a epic rags-to-riches tale in its own right had it ended there. Archie, however, was just getting started.

He persisted on the California poker and was said to run up a million-dollar bankroll, blow it all and then do it all over again. Paul McGuire of Bluff Magazine reports Archie was said to repeat this process dozens of times in California card rooms.

At one point, Archie’s poker bankroll hit a high water mark in the range of $2 million. The high stakes poker games got the best of him once again and Archie Karas soon found himself with just $50 to his name. The former millionaire was nearly dead broke.

When gamblers go broke, they tend to do one of two things. The responsible types will call it a day, cut their losses and go on to tell the tale over rounds of beers for years to come. The irresponsible types take what little money they have left and gamble it all in the hopes of turning things back around. Naturally, Archie figured the best course of action was to stuff his last $50 in his pocket and make the drive to Las Vegas.

The Run: $50 to $40 Million

Archie’s streaks up to this point were impressive in their own right, but those would soon pale in comparison to what was to come in Las Vegas. Looking back, what happened next isn’t as surprising as it seems on the first read. Take a prolific gambler like Archie Karas, who was already riding 7-figure swings in California, put that guy in Las Vegas and wait for the fireworks.

Archie Karas made it to Las Vegas and did the only thing a dead-broke gambler should do to turn around a huge downswing: ran into a friend and immediately took out a $10,000 loan. (Editor’s note: this is actually the exact opposite of what a gambler should do in the midst of a bad run!)

His friend apparently knew Archie or knew of Archie from his California poker days. Archie had a reputation as a tough Razz player. According Tom Sexton, Archie took that money right then and there and joined a $200/$400 Razz table at the Horseshoe.

Archie paid off his loan plus 50% interest three hours later. With his loan paid off and then some, he had a bankroll of his own once again. Las Vegas was his for the taking.

He next met up with a wealthy pool and poker player whose name Archie would never reveal in later interviews out of respect for the man’s privacy. The two began playing games of pool at $5,000 a game and quickly ramped up the stakes to as high as $40,000 per game.

Archie’s opponent dropped a million dollars relatively quickly, but then went on a heater of his own and took nearly $750,000 back off Archie. They met up again and again at various Vegas-area pool halls and Archie managed to win all of it back plus an extra half a million.

Later, they decided to switch to heads-up poker, and this where things really began to take off. The pool player was also a highly skilled poker player, but Archie played a fearless and aggressive game, eventually winning $3 million off the yet-unnamed player.

With new bankroll in hand, Archie returned to the high stakes poker games in Vegas and played all who dared to face him. At various points, Archie squared up with some of poker’s legends to include Stu Ungar, Chip Reese, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and others. A combination of skill, insane luck and fearless play made Archie almost unbeatable at this time.

Within six months of his arrival in Vegas with $50 in his pocket, Archie Karas had a bankroll of $17 million. I know what you’re thinking right now. Yes, I too would have called it good right there and retired to a life of luxury. Archie Karas, however, was still just getting started.

He continued to play poker, shoot pool and play in high stakes craps games over the next two-and-a-half years. By the end of it all, nearly three years after he had started, Archie Karas was worth $40 million.

The Downfall of Archie Karas

A run as crazy as the one Archie Karas experienced in the early 90s was bound to come to an end at some point. Even accounting for his skill, Archie had run way too hot and the gods of luck were bound to come collect their due sooner or later. And considering how bold Archie was during his heyday, I’m sure you can imagine that the downfall would be brutal.

And indeed it was.

Archie lost every last dollar over a span of three weeks in 1995. Word of his skills had spread in Las Vegas and it was nearly impossible for Archie to get the action he needed to continue his run. In fact, Archie attributes the majority of his climb from $17 million to $40 million to craps. Dice would also be his downfall.

The downward slide began with a particularly rough session at the craps tables where he lost $11,000,000 in one night. He switched to poker but couldn’t get his head in the game and lost more there. As his descent continued, he switched back and forth between poker, baccarat and craps, losing money all the while.

What ever happened to Archie?

Even after his epic run and brutal downfall, Archie Karas remains a gambler to this day. He recounted with Tom Sexton that he went on several other memorable runs over the following years – including one time turning his last $200 into $1 million.

He continued to play poker and, until recently, could be seen around Vegas and at high stakes tournaments from time to time. He appeared in an interview with Poker News during the $10K Stud event at the 2008 WSOP where he talks a little more about his poker game, including one surprising tidbit in which he reveals that Stud was his main game even more than Razz.

It seems he never was able to shake his bad run. Archie Karas has been arrested numerous times since 1988 for cheating in cards. In the most recent case, Archie was arrested for marking cards at blackjack at a California casino in 2008. He has taken plea bargains in every case and has so far avoided jail time for his transgression. His latest case resulted in three years’ probation.

The Nevada Gaming Commission added him to the Black Book in 2015, which makes it a crime for him to enter any casino in Nevada. His name also appears on a similar list in California. We haven’t heard anything from him since, but hopefully he’s doing well and playing it straight these days.