Even for the most mathematically-minded of players out there, stepping into the casinos in Las Vegas inspires the same visions of grandeur shared by gamblers everywhere.
You hit the casino floor and imagine walking away an instant millionaire. That’s the dream that unites gamblers from every walk of life. But for almost all gamblers who make their way to Las Vegas every year, beating the odds to build a fortune remains just that—a dream.
So, what if I told you a gambler once strolled into town with just $50 to his name before proceeding to win $17 million over the next six months?
That story might sound like a fable passed around from gambler to gambler.
In a 1994 interview with CigarAficionado.com, published during the height of “The Run,” Karas made it clear to gambling reporter Michael Konik that he’s the biggest “whale” Sin City has ever seen.
Maybe you’ve heard of Karas and “The Run” before, or you’re learning his name for the first time today. In any event, this page was written with you in mind, so sit back and soak in the unbelievable details of Las Vegas most infamous winning streak.
Brief Biography of Archie Karas
On November 1st, 1950, Karas was born as Anargyros Nicholas Karabourniotis on the Greek island of Cephalonia.
Hailing from a poor working-class family, the young Karabourniotis yearned for a taste of another world, one he knew would never be possible on his home island. After a fight with his father, 17-year old Karas ran away from home and began working as a waiter on a freighter ship. The gig paid $60 per month, but when his ship pulled into the Portland, Oregon, port, Karas seized the opportunity to start a new life in America.
After jumping ship in Portland, the teenaged Karas made his way down the California coastline to Los Angeles. There, he found work waiting tables in a restaurant attached to an adjacent bowling alley.
Karas was a talented pool player, so he spent his spare time gambling real money on the bowling alley’s tables. Quickly realizing he could hustle his way to a sweet supplementary income playing pool, Karas’ life as a gambler was born.
Following an invite to his bosses’ weekly poker game, Karas’ natural talent for gambling produced a massive win, which cleaned out the restaurant owner. His boss fired him on the spot.
Karas spent the next two decades grinding the LA gambling circuit, playing poker and pool while alternating between big wins and even larger losses. Here’s how he recounted that “boom and bust” cycle all hardcore gamblers know well when speaking to Konik:
“I’ve been a millionaire over 50 times and dead broke more than I can count. Probably 1,000 times in my life. But I sleep the same whether I have ten or ten million dollars in my pocket.”
By 1992, the now 42-year-old Karas went on a particularly brutal downswing playing high-stakes poker and burning through his entire $2 million bankroll in short order.
Looking for a change of scenery to improve his luck, Karas pocketed his last $50 and drove straight to Las Vegas.
Karas Goes on “The Run” of a Lifetime
After arriving at the Mirage poker room, Karas quickly caught up with a few of his old gambling buddies from LA.
Karas parlayed his relationship into a $10,000 loan to get in the game, then took a seat in the biggest game offered at the Mirage back then, a $100/$400 limit Razz table. Before long, Karas’ aggressive style and card sense combined to turn him a $20,000 profit.
To reward his backer’s faith, Karas tossed his pal $20,000 for an instant double-up, before pocketing his newfound $10,000 bankroll and heading for the closest pool hall.
Flush with confidence, not to mention 10 large, Karas found his mark in a local casino executive. While the casino mogul is widely believed to be Bobby Baldwin—Karas will only dub him “Mr. X” out of respect shared amongst high-stakes gamblers—the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper can confirm that the man lost $1.2 million playing for $10,000 per match.
When he was up several hundred thousand, the stakes were raised to $40,000 per match, money Karas gobbled up like clockwork.
Deciding to mix things up, Mr. X—who just so happened to be an elite poker player like the four-time WSOP gold bracelet-winning Baldwin—challenged Karas to a high-stakes mixed game session. Once again, Karas’ fearless play and willingness to go “all in” in games like No Limit Texas Hold’em made him the favorite. In the end, Karas won $3 million more from Mr. X, while setting the Sin City’s gambling scene on fire seemingly overnight.
Karas then issued a challenge to the high-stakes poker community, inviting all comers to sit and play for previously unimaginable stakes. At a time when most poker rooms capped their action at $500 or $1,000 limits, Karas battled the late David “Chip” Reese at $3,000/$6,000 limits.
A three-time WSOP gold bracelet winner himself, Reese was universally known as the best poker player on the planet during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Armed with a network of fellow sharks backing him, Reese eventually turned the dial up to $8,000/$16,000 limits, all while Karas continued to crush the game.
Upon reaching the end of his rope, a $2.2 million loss in this case, Reese reportedly congratulated Karas in a way only grizzled gamblers can appreciate:
“God made your balls a little bigger. You’re too good.”
Over the next year or so, Karas played ultra-high-stakes poker games against such luminaries as the late Stu Ungar (a three-time WSOP Main Event champion), 10-time WSOP gold bracelet winner Doyle Brunson, and 1973 WSOP Main Event champ Puggy Pearson, among many others.
Karas couldn’t lose during this meteoric rise portion of “The Run,” beating many of the greatest poker players to ever live while building his bankroll to $17 million.
When his poker action shriveled up like a raisin in the scorching Las Vegas sun, Karas could’ve easily decided to call it a career and retire as a multimillionaire. Instead, he headed downtown to Binion’s Horseshoe casino, where then-owner Benny Binion was well-known for catering to high-stakes gamblers by spreading the highest limits in town.
Over the spring and summer of 1993, Karas played with a $300,000 per roll limit on the pass line and come bets, but Binion’s negotiated a “no odds bet” provision to limit their liability. Karas could also place buy bets on the 4 and 10 for $100,000 per roll, creating one of the most volatile craps games Las Vegas has ever seen.
Asked about his transition from a skill game like poker to a chance-based gamble like craps, Karas told Konik that he could care less as long as he was still in the action:
“I know I’m taking the worst of it with the dice. But nobody would play poker with me for that much. With each play, I was making million-dollar decisions. I would have played even higher if they’d let me.”
Karas might have been game to play for bigger stakes, but Binion’s wasn’t in any position to do so, not after the Greek gambling god piled up another $23 million in craps winnings.
As legend goes, Karas at one point owned every last one of Binion’s chocolate-colored $5,000 chips. In fact, had a few rolls late in “The Run” gone his way, Karas reportedly would’ve won the deed to Binion’s itself from a despondent Benny and the Binion family.
In his 1994 interview with Konik, a confident Karas proclaimed his willingness to play a $15 million poker game against the Sultan of Brunei.
But Karas also provided an ominous warning which seems to have foretold his fate:
“You’ve got to understand something. Money means nothing to me. I don’t value it. 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.”
Downswing Ends “The Run” and Destroys Karas’ Bankroll
Every true gambler knows how this story ends…
Refusing to relent, Karas kept rolling the dice for six figures at a time against Binion’s, only to see his good luck dry up in a hurry. One year after his interview with Konik, craps losses of $11 million had eaten into Karas’ bankroll.
He lost $2 million more to Reese playing poker, then decided to tempt fate by gambling on the pure game of chance known as baccarat in the US. The guessing game cost Karas another $17 million, and despite a brief reprieve from gambling spent visiting Greece, he returned to Binion’s and dusted off his last $10 million at the dice table.
In light of several previous arrests for cheating, the Nevada Gaming Commission (NGC) entered Karas’ name into its official List of Excluded Persons, a.k.a. the dreaded “Black Book.”
While his eventual fate as a disgraced gambler banned from every casino in the Silver State is certainly unfortunate, Karas will always be best known for “The Run.” Thanks to the sanitized world of corporate owned casinos, which institute strict limits on high-stakes players nowadays, somebody turning a small stake into $40 million will likely never happen again.
But thanks to a few incredible years spent betting it all in the Las Vegas limelight, Karas has left today’s generation of gamblers with a legendary success story of truly epic proportions.