Gambling is, by nature, a risky activity that involves betting your livelihood on games of chance. You can even get carried away and bet real money that’s meant for other bills and expenses.
But the good news is that even if you lose, you can come back and fight another day. With any luck, you might even turn into a winning gambler.
However, a rare breed of gamblers is willing to risk far more than just money. They’re willing to put their lives on the line!
I’m going to discuss some gamblers who made the ultimate bet and were unsuccessful. Most of these people knew that they faced certain death by losing, although one had no idea what was coming to them.
1 – Niagara Falls Swim
Niagara Falls has been the site of many deadly incidents. At one time, many people (unsuccessfully) attempted to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Matthew Webb attempted a different death-defying feat involving the massive waterfall that separates the US and Canada. He set out to swim in Niagara’s whirlpool rapids and come out alive.
Webb was no stranger to the daredevil game. He was the first person to swim across the English Channel without any artificial aids.
The English Channel swim made the former steamship captain famous. Webb performed a number of stunts in the aftermath and even became a professional swimmer.
Perhaps the latter caused Webb to overestimate his abilities by taking on Niagara Falls’ whirlpool rapids. Successfully swimming the rapids is thought to be an impossible feat.
Nevertheless, Webb set out to be the first to pull off the impossible in 1883. He staged a series of unsuccessful funding ventures to make money from the attempt. Despite failing to generate much money, he embarked on the swim anyway. He started swimming near the waters under the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge.
Many accounts claim that he probably survived the first portion of the swim. But he eventually drowned around the entrance of the whirlpool. He was later buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
Bobby Leach, who was the second person ever to survive the Niagara barrel plunge (behind Annie Taylor), attempted the same feat decades after Webb.
He tried to swim the rapids multiple times and failed each time. On one particular attempt, he had to be rescued by a famous riverman named William “Red” Hill.
2 – Soviet Pilot Alexander Kliuyev
Attempting an extremely dangerous bet is a bad enough idea by yourself. The situation only gets worse when bringing other people into the matter.
Soviet pilot Alexander Kliuyev made such a wager with his co-pilot, Gennady Zhirnov, on June 28, 1979. Flying commercial aircraft Tu-134A, Kliuyev and Zhirnov were nearing a landing at Kurumoch Airport.
During the approach, Kliuyev bet his co-pilot that he could pull off an instrument-only approach with curtained cockpit windows. Simply put, he thought that he could land the plane without seeing the ground.
The bet was already going badly for Kliuyev when he received ground proximity warnings at an altitude at 65 meters (213 ft). He should’ve aborted the landing and performed a go-around based on the warning.
However, Kliuyev kept trying to stick the blind landing. The aircraft hit the ground at 280 km/h) and came to a stop upside down.
As for Zhirnov, he tried to save passengers after causing one of the deadliest plane crashes in Russian history. He died of cardiac arrest while being taken to the hospital afterward.
Kliuyev survived the crash and was sentenced to 15 years for his role in the bet. He only ended up serving six years of the term.
3 – Jack McCall and Wild Bill
James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill,” is the one gambler on this list who didn’t make a single bet realizing that it could result in death. However, gambling did lead to his untimely murder.
Wild Bill became a folk hero in the Wild West. He was a jack of all trades, serving as a soldier, spy, scout, wagon master, lawman, actor, showman, and gunfighter.
He earned his notorious reputation in different ways. However, he also fabricated tales about his exploits and became more myth than man. Hickok became very familiar with death and gambling early on. He had a duel with Davis Tutt over a watch that he lost to the professional gambler.
Wild Bill asked Tutt not to wear the watch in public, because he was embarrassed by the loss. Tutt failed to oblige and continued wearing the watch around Springfield, Missouri.
Hickok would be on the receiving end of such an incident later in his life. He badly beat Jack McCall in a poker game in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
Wild Bill loaned McCall money and bought him breakfast afterward. However, McCall was allegedly insulted over the affair.
McCall later returned to the same saloon and shot Wild Bill in the back of the head. McCall was arrested and acquitted of murder charges in a Deadwood courtroom.
He was later arrested, though, in the Wyoming Territory. McCall was retried and hanged for the crime on account that Deadwood wasn’t an official US jurisdiction at the time.
4 – William Bergstrom: The Mysterious Binion’s Craps Player
William Bergstrom briefly became known as the biggest high roller in history during the early 1980s. Unfortunately, his high-rolling ways would contribute to his suicide.
Born in Austin, Texas, Bergstrom made a small fortune by buying and selling properties in the Lone Star State. He eventually took his profits and begin gambling them at Las Vegas casinos.
He first showed up to Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in September 1980. Bergstrom earned the nickname “Suitcase Man” after bring two briefcases during the trip, one with $777,000 and the other empty.
Benny Binion, the casino’s owner, always honored a gambler’s first bet, regardless of the size. Bergstrom, who was anonymous at the time, gambled the entire $777,000 (approx. $2.4 million today) on the don’t pass line.
The shooter established a point of six. They then went on to seven out two rolls later. This result gave Bergstrom a $777k win, the largest ever recorded at the time.
The Suitcase Man packed his insane win in the empty suitcase and left immediately afterward. He wouldn’t return again until March 1984, three and a half years after the original win.
This time, he wagered $538,000 on a single roll. Bergstrom was successful and proceeded to win three more wagers worth an extra $117,000.
He came back in November of the same year with a $1 million bankroll. The amount consisted of $550,000 in cash, $310,000 in cashier’s checks, and $140,000 in gold Krugerrands (South African coin).
He wagered the entire million on the don’t pass line. The shooter immediately tossed a seven winner on the come-out roll.
Bergstrom lost the entire amount and committed suicide just a few months later in February 1985. He swallowed pills in his home and soon passed away.
Bergstrom’s family was initially unsure why he chose to kill himself following the $1 million loss. After all, he still was doing alright fine financially.
A suicide note from Bergstrom later revealed that his suicide may have been triggered by his breakup with a man who was 10 years younger than him.
The reasons for death-defying bets range from people wanting to show off to being in a mentally bad place.
David Webb wanted to prove that one could swim in the Niagara Falls’ whirlpool rapids and survive. However, even as accomplished at swimming as he was, Webb couldn’t pull off the feat and drowned.
Alexander Kliuyev made the most careless wager on this list. He risked the lives of 94 people to win a bet made with his co-pilot. Kliuyev landed a passenger plane upside down due to the wager and killed 70 people.
Wild Bill never bet his life on a game of chance. However, his gambling ways eventually got him killed. You might have thought that Hickok would’ve given up gambling after shooting Davis Tutt over a lost gold watch. But he kept playing poker and was later shot in the head by Jack McCall.
William Bergstrom was unfortunately suffering from depression when he began a brief high-rolling gambling stint. He was initially successful, winning sums of $777k and $655k on two separate occasions.
However, he lost a bet of $1 million dollars on real money craps and later died by overdosing on pills. Bergstrom’s suicide note revealed that he was depressed about an ended relationship.
Luckily, not many bets result in deaths like these. But there’ll no doubt be similar deadly gambling incidents at some point in the future.