Las Vegas, NV
Archie Karas on Day 1
(Photo credit: Benjo)
"Archie Karas showed up with just $9 in his wallet," said Tom Sexton.
Tom Sexton and I were often teamed up together at the 2007 WSOP when we both worked for Poker News. During the breaks, we'd hang out and he'd tell some amazing and mind-blowing stories about hijinks with his brother Mike and Stuey Ungar. I love to soak up stories about the poker scene in the 1970s and 1980s. I'd rather sit down and listen to Flipchip, Johnny Hughes, or Tom Sexton recant stories about the real Las Vegas and the seedy side that has been glossed over. The media and the corporations running Vegas did an amazing job at cosmetically enhancing poker. But if you want the straight dope on Sin City, you have to rely upon the oral history from the grizzled veterans who survived the war of attrition on the casino floors and back alleys of Las Vegas.
The worst thing that could happen these days is getting flamed on a 2+2 forum. Twenty or thirty years ago, if your conduct was deemed uncouth, you got the beat down of your life in some dark alley behind Glitter Gulch. The troublemakers caught on real quick otherwise they would find their fate at the bottom of a ditch in the middle of the dessert.
Last summer, Tom Sexton told me stories about Archie "The Greek" Karas. He would become the subject of a series of posts for Tom's column at PokerNews called Sexton's Corner. Karas was legendary for running up $50 into a $40-50 million bankroll... then he lost it all. And my favorite Archie Karas story is how on one single day, he played Chip Reese and Stu Ungar each heads up and beat them for a combined $1.2 million.
Archie Karas was the biggest swinging dick in Las Vegas at one time before he pissed away his fortune. He's flat broke today as he began his comeback. He got staked in the $10,000 World Championship of Seven-card Stud and will also be playing Razz, which at one time, he was regarded the best in the world.
Karas hung tough against one of the deepest fields so far at the WSOP. Out of 158 runners, he was among the 80 players who advanced to Day 2. Karras ended Day 1 with almost 55K in chips, which was good enough for 17th place overall. That's an impressive feat considering he hasn't been seen at the WSOP in years. I vaguely recall Karas making the final table of the Razz event at the 2005 WSOP. I had not seen him since.
Archie Karas grew up in Greece and ran away from home when he was 17. He worked on different ships in various jobs. While on a stop in America, Karas jumped ship and never went back. He eventually showed up in Los Angeles and barely spoke English. He learned English and Spanish and was soon hustling in pool halls and bowling alleys. But it was poker where he could make the most money.
In his 20s, Karas was a rounder in high stakes games in different Los Angeles card rooms. His bankroll always fluctuated. He'd run it up to over a million over a couple of months then go busto in a weekend.
"Archie was widely known to win and lose a million dollars as much as fifty times over, mostly playing in the L.A. area. When broke, he would find a new backer to start over," said Tom Sexton.
"One day I might be driving a Mercedes, and the next day I might be sleeping in it!" explained Karas.
In December of 1992, Karas had hit rock bottom. He lost the last of his $2 million bankroll in various games in Los Angeles. He had $50 to his name and did what any action junkie would do. He gassed up the car, drove through bat country, and headed for the tables in Las Vegas.
Karas showed up at Binion's Horseshoe. He spotted a friend and boldly asked him for a $10,000 stake so he could sit in a 200/400 Razz game. Karas was known as one of the best Razz players in the world and got bought into the game.
"He came out of the gate blazing and tripled his money in three hours. He quickly went over and paid his $10,000 personal loan off, plus a 50% profit for the happy investor," said Tom Sexton.
Within three hours of his arrival in Las Vegas, Karas had a bankroll. It would just be the beginning of his rollercoaster ride.
"Archie (Karas) had more gamble in him than any person I ever met," said Jack Binion.
And it was true. Karas would shoot pool for up to $40,000 a game. Karas took down one gambler for $1 million inside of four lengthy sessions of nine-ball. Karas couldn't be beat yet his opponent kept trying and failing and reloading and trying and failing. However, Karas took a tremendous hit during th fifth session and lost back $740,000. Before he went to pay his opponent the outstanding debt, Karas' backer unsuccessfully tried to convince Karas to not pay the debt and say that they got robbed. In 1992, $740,000 was a sizable amount. It's still a lot of money by today's standards. Instead of weaseling his way out of paying his debts like his backer suggested, Karas did the stand up thing. He went to his box at the Horseshoe, took out $740,000 and paid his debt.
His backer dropped him and Karas returned to pool hustling. He won back 1.2 million and was up about 500K when his pool opponent (who was also a world champion poker player) suggested they switch to heads up poker.
"I took that one million I won shooting pool with him and went on to win three million more from him playing poker in only a few days. We started at $4,000/8,000 limit seven-card stud and quickly moved up to $8,000/$16,000 limit, which was unheard of in those days," said Karas.
In 1993, a statistical anomaly occurred in Las Vegas. Archie Karras went up against the best players in the world and inside of three months, he turned $7 million in $17 million. His streak has been called "The Run" which is the greatest single winning streak in poker and one of the most noteworthy in the history of gambling.
"I easily had a $7,000,000 bankroll at this point, and my confidence was on top of the world," said Karas. "I remember getting ten racks of $5,000 chips, which is $5,000,000, and putting them in the middle of the poker room on a poker table at the Horseshoe. I was ready to take on all comers in poker, and this stirred up a lot of interest. Poker's most colorful character, Puggy Pearson, began to circle the table and the whole room, chanting, 'Step right up here, boys, and help yourself to some of this easy money... $5,000,000 just waiting for you... step right up!' Puggy was comical and appeared to be like a carnival barker, continuing, 'Archie will take on all comers... step right up to his office!'"
Karas took on Stu Ungar heads up. Lyle Berman staked Ungar $500,000 for the game. They played Razz and Ungar was outplayed.
"It didn't take long to demolish Stuey," said Karas who won a half o' mil of Berman's money.
A couple of days later, Chip Reese wanted a shot at Karas and the two arranged a game of Razz. The match lasted eight hours and when it was over, Karas emerged $500,000 richer. He went to dinner and when he got back, Ungar and Berman were waiting for him. Karas played Ungar a second time. Four hours later it was over and Karas beat Ungar for $700,000 more of Berman's money. In one day, Karas beat Stu Ungar and Chip Reese for $1.2 million and won over $1.7 million from them in total that week. Karas wasn't done and continued to hunt down the biggest sharks in Vegas.
"The most money I ever lost in poker was $2,022,000 in one night, playing $8,000/$16,000 limit against Archie Karas," said Chip Reese.
That fateful night happened right after Karas' magical $1.2 million day. During The Run both Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson took cracks at Karas with less than stellar results.
Karas reflected, "Many of my opponents want to add games or play half razz and half seven-card stud. I want to play one game only, so razz being my best game, the opponents usually played seven-card stud 90% of the time. Once Johnny Chan wanted to add a few games, and I quickly said, 'John, I'm not looking to add any games. I'm looking to take one away. Tell you what I'll do, if you want to play another game: Let's play six-card razz. He went for it, and lost a quick $300,000! If you're a great razz player, playing six-card razz is even more of an edge. You have to be quick-minded and smart in this shark-infested world in order to survive. Like a boxer, you have to protect yourself at all times."
Karas was also an action junkie and could easily lose millions at the craps tables. Karas craved for those miliseconds of anticipation as the dice danced on the felt. One night he had a bloody awful run which found him stuck $11 million. He was still tilting the next day when he showed up at the Mirage to play Chip Reese. He blew through his buy-in and had to borrow $2 million from Chip Reese just to stay in the game.
"I've never loaned $1,000,000 to anyone in a poker game, let alone $2,000,000," said Reese who eventually loaned Karas the money when he explained he had several million in his box down at the Horseshoe.
Karas lost it all to Reese. After the session at the Mirage, the two drove to the Horseshoe. Karas paid $2 million back to Reese. That would be the last time they played heads up.
"I had to start playing dice and baccarat more," explained Karas. "I played and beat the best poker players heads up, including Chip Reese, who I must have played 25 matches with. Word spread quickly how tough I was to beat, and I couldn't find anyone to play with after a while. I had to start shooting dice, and ended up running my $17 million bankroll up to over $40 million as a result."
Tom Sexton said, "My brother, Mike, saw (Karas) lose $1 million in about five minutes at the dice table in 1993. (Karas) bet $10,000 on the pass line with $100,000 odds, and bet two come bets the same way. (Karas) sevened out on the fourth roll each of three successive times in a row, losing $330,000 each time."
"The most I won in one session was $12 million but that night I was already stuck $4 million first. So I netted $8 million for the evening. I went up and down for over two years, winning $5 million scores on the dice tables on many occasions," said Karas.
It was a matter of time before Karas lost it all.
"There was a three-week period of time where I lost $30,000,000, which I could never fade," said a regretful Karas.
Karas lost his bankroll at the dice and baccarat tables. When Karas was down to his last million, he made a terrible decision that cost him the remainder of his money. He took his last $1 million to the Bicycle Club in Los Angeles. He played Johnny Chan heads up. Chan was backed by Berman and both Berman and Chan alternated every two hours playing Karas heads up.
Karas doubled up but his inner action junkie could not prevent him from heading to the craps tables. He said goodbye to his last $2 million shooting dice.
Since then, Karas had faded away into obscurity. Sure, his name was whispered from time to time. Some of his feats were often dismissed as urban legends, but sadly, his incorrigible highs takes gambling got the best of him. The house always wins. Karas will be the first to tell you that. He should have stuck to poker, but the games dried up for him. His thirst for action got him into trouble as he gravitated towards -EV games.
"If I had known there was a poker boom right around the corner," said Karas. "I would have parked $10 million to the side, even if I had to wait ten years to play. Poker has always been my bread and butter. I'll point out that between 1992 and 1995, who could have guessed there was going to be such a boom in poker by 2003? Back then, I couldn't wait three hours to get in action. Dice is the fastest action in the world, where I could win or lose a million with one roll of the dice."
The legendary Nick "The Greek" Dandolos died broke and was last seen playing $5 poker in California card rooms. Archie "The Greek" Karas doesn't want to go out in a similar way. Karas showed up at the 2008 WSOP in Las Vegas with $9 and riding a wave of nostalgia. He sat down in the $10K Stud Championship hoping that he could replicate his magical run of turning $50 into $50 million.
Karas carefully navigated his way through Day 1 and returned among the chipleaders for Day 2. As the field thinned out, Karas' stack failed to increase and suddenly found himself among the shortstacks. Karas' comeback fizzled out when he busted out in 23rd place, only five spots off the money.
Tomorrow is another day. Based on his gutsy performance against the best players in the world, I'm sure Karas would have no trouble finding backing for a few more WSP events. Heck, I'd even take a piece of him in the Razz event if it's available. After all, he beat Chip Reese and Stu Ungar for millions in Razz.
Vinny Vinh's empty chair
(Photo credit: Wicked Chops Poker)
Vinny Vinh made headlines again at the WSOP. The empty chair made an appearance on Day 3 of the $1,500 Limit Hold'em event. For almost an hour media reps took turns taking photos of his empty chair and whispered rumors about his whereabouts.
Vinh wandered over to his seat. If he had arrived on time, he would have been the chipelader. Since he arrived late, his lead slipped a bit.
Vinh was high on something... and it wasn't Christ. He was a lit monkey. It could have been a combo of cough syrup and diet pills or maybe just some old fashioned crack cocaine. Most likely, Vinh was cranked out of his mind, which explained why he couldn't sit still.
For someone that wasted and far gone, I'm shocked he kept his shit together enough to advanced to the final table. Despite all the screaming, standing up, muttering phrases in broken English and Vietnamese, and glancing over at the thugs on the rail, Vinh overcame it all and finish in third place in a WSOP event.
During dinner break, I spotted Vinh shrieking in the hallway as he babbled some things to CK Hua and Men the Master. He disappeared outside and returned from the break more inebriated than before. He never bothered to restack his chips after he won a pot and played with a dirty stack for the remainder of the final table.
Vinh wasn't even supposed to play in the WSOP, but Tommy Vu pleaded with his backer to give him a shot. After all, if the guy is not working how can he pay down his debts?
Vinh was eliminated in third place. On paper, he won $99,099. I wonder how much of that he got to keep? I'm gonna guess... $0. The thick-necked thug on the rail was there to make sure the people he worked for got their cut... first.
To final table any WSOP event is a major milestone. To achieve that daunting task under the close scrutiny of fans, media, players, Harrah's suits, and thick-necked thugs seemed almost impossible, yet Vinny Vinh pulled it off. It's a sad and tragic story in one sense and a total reminder of the heinous side of poker and addiction.
The Vinny Vinhs, Stu Ungars, Eskimo Clarks, and Archie Karases of the world betrayed their craft. They were given a cherished and rare gift from the poker gods and squandered away their talents in a futile attempt to quench a thirst that can never be satisfied whether it was drugs, sex, craps, booze, or flipping coins.
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