Archie Karas: The Greek Legend

Seeking the ‘American Dream’
Anargyros Nicholas Karabourniotis better known as Archie Karas was born on November 1, 1950, on the island of Cephalonia in western Greece while Europe was still under reconstruction from the ravages of World War II. With limited resources, he aspired to go to America and join his aunt in Los Angeles, California to pursue the ‘American Dream.’ Only 15 years old, his father signed the papers so that he could join the crew of a merchant ship and worked as a steward. His journey took him to India where the ship loaded a cargo for Japan. In Japan, the ship was docked there for over a month until it departed for Portland, Oregon. Without any legal paperwork, Archie jumped ship and made his way to L.A. to join his aunt. Working in a restaurant there, he played no limit seven card there after closing hours or he played pool improving his skill level. When he turned 21, he branched out to the cardrooms in Gardena although pool was his best hustle. He played California which is five card draw high with blinds and jacks back which means you need jacks or better to open and if no one opens, it reverts to lowball.

Journeyman Years
He would go to Vegas and play 7 card stud and razz; a game dealt like stud but played low where the best hand is A-2-3-4-5. The days turns into weeks and the months would go by until years have past as Archie went up and down playing poker but kept hustling pool successfully by matching up skillfully. The California poker boom started in early 1987 when hold-em and other games were deemed to be legal by a California judge: The History of Hold-em in California – Yosh Nakano

During the late 80’s I played occasionally with Archie at the Bike. He had the reputation being barred from shooting craps because he had the ability to kill a die. That may have been urban legend as he recently told me it wasn’t true. “How can you kill a die when both dice have to hit end of the table?” he asked me. One time a couple of players were discussing shooting craps. They said they were referred to by the crap dealers by Mr. and the initial of their last name. Archie said, “they call me faded.” Years later I found out what that meant.

In 1991, I was the high limit host at the Regency, a now defunct casino that was formerly the Bell Club in the city of Bell. Archie stopped in and asked me to stake him in a 10-20 limit hold-em game. Until the Moneymaker effect in 2003, hold-em games were primarily limit. I would stake him for $500, he would cash out $1500 and he would give me my stake and half the profits. The same thing happened about a month later. At the Regency, my partner Stephen Wolff said that we can get credit for introducing comped food in the high limit section and introducing cordless phones. Until then, players received calls from pages by the central operator and had to go to the house phones by the wall. We got a cordless phone in our high limit room so the players could receive their calls without getting up from the game. Later that summer, cell phones became smaller and more popular. A wealthy elderly whale named Jay Johnston showed us his new phone. When it rang, he picked it up and starting saying hello turning his phone up and upside down. I told Jay, he had to press the green button to answer a call and the red one to end it. He said he never had to do that before.

The Streak
We played in the same game off and on in 1992. Archie could always find a game because in the ring games he was live. His style was better suited for short-handed or heads-up. Later that year, I heard he had won over a million dollars shooting pool against who he prefers to call Mr. X. I read in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Mr. X had lost $2.3 million shooting pool. The internet was still fledgling and print was still prevalent for news. I had heard this newspaper article killed the pool action but Archie said he quit the pool because he had thought Mr. X might have been better and it started to show up. They then moved the action to poker at the Horseshoe playing high limit stud and razz with big antes. Stories about his exploits were the talk at the poker table as rumors circulated. He was playing the best players in the world heads-up, winning and losing 7 figures a session. He played Stuey, Chip, Doyle, and Johnny Chan.

Chip in particular had been losing steadily to Archie. I don’t remember everything but I do remember some things very well. Archie had told me that he had met up with Chip at the Mirage and started playing on paper. The high-limit players had a reputation to maintain and it was not uncommon to play on credit referred to as paper. Players having 6 figures on paper was not uncommon but 7 figures was new territory. They were playing $15,000-$30,000 limit half stud and half razz with $5k chips. It was one $5k chip ante and one chip bring-in. Chip’s philosophy was never to quit as long as he had an earn but finally, he said, “Buddy, this is the most by far, I’ve ever had anyone on a sheet and I think it’s time to settle up.” Archie met Chip at his box at the Horseshoe and opened his massive box and took out $11 million. He told me Chip tried to look over his shoulder on his tiptoes trying to glimpse into the box. Archie turned around and said, “Buddy, there’s 30 million more in there and you can win it all, but we have to play 30-60.” He said Chip thought about it and got back on his tiptoes peering back into the box and thought some more. He finally said, “No Buddy, I better let you go.” Chip told me later that he ended up ahead of Archie but he didn’t mention any figures.

Sometime during his streak, he came by the $400-$800 mix game during the WSOP. Everyone said hello to him. I asked him, “Archie, how do you beat the craps.” He said, “I don’t gamble. I grindz them out.” “Grindz them out?” I repeated quizzically. “Yeah, come on, I’ll show you.” I walked over to the crap table with him. Of course they recognized him and greeted him with “Mr. K, how are you?” He replied with a salutation and the crap dealer asked what they could do for him. He said, “10k on the pass.” The dealer places a lammer for $10k and said, “10k passing. You’re faded Mr. K.” After a point is made, Archie asks for full odds. The dealer placed a $100k lammer behind the pass line bet and says, “100k full odds, you’re faded Mr. K.” Their procedure is to repeat every call bet to confirm. Archie calls for $10k coming and again the bet is repeated and a 10k lammer is placed on the come out. A new number moves the lammer to that number on the layout and a $100k lammer is placed with half of it on the come out bet indicating an odds bet. The same thing happens for a 3rd point with $10k more coming. He now has 3 $10k bets with $100k odds each and $10k coming. As a point is made, they pay the lammers with chips. I’m eyeing and counting the chips grow in front of him on the rail. It’s at $750k when there is a 7 out. He says he’s done and puts his chips on the table. The floorman comes over and counts them out for the cameras. He then writes it down for Archie’s signature and he signs it also. 20 minutes had gone by.

The Gambelero
Gambling affects the ‘pleasure center’ of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). This is the same part of the brain affected by addictive drugs including nicotine, alcohol, sex and food. These activities stimulate the production of dopamines which are neurotransmitters. The more dopamines that are produced the more heightened the sensations. Low levels of dopamines can cause depression and anxiety. It can take time but the body can adjust to the lower levels of dopamines but many people do not want to endure the pain caused by the depression, the constant anxiousness or the withdrawal pain. They yield to their personal gratification.

The difference is very noticeable in poker players. They look quiet and sad when they are not in action. Once they are playing, their faces light up and they are very animated laughing and talking.

Different people need various level of action to stimulate the NAcc. It’s not about winning money so much as the risk of losing. The stomach becomes ‘knotted’ up until it is released from the thrill of winning. Losing makes you sick in the stomach. There’s severe pain-mental pain that can manifest itself physically. Archie is the ultimate gambelero. He was willing to risk millions including his last dollar to gamble. In gambling it’s easier to manage your winnings than your losses. You never know when the downswing will shift. No one has a crystal ball, but addiction is a cruel master.

He told me his opponents wanted to play smaller and grind him down. He wanted action so he would go to the crap table which was much bigger and faster action. They got him in baccarat by raising his limit from $200k to $300k per bet. The house is earning 1.24% per bet. Jack Binion’s father Benny was the consummate gambling operator and his son understood the house advantage. They faded Archie’s action to its inevitable conclusion. After losing $17 million in baccarat, it’s not easy to have clarity. When he was down to his last million, he doubled up off Johnny Chan at the Bike. Now with $2 million, the luck was not there at the crap table. It was time to sleep. Tomorrow he would start the grind again.

Waking Up
I started playing at Larry Flynt’s house in 1996 until the summer of 2000. During that time, his name came up in the conversation about using him to play craps. Jim Bechtel was an avid crap player as was a friend of mine named Lee Salem. I heard the 2 of them would fight over Archie to have him play craps for them.

When I became the high limit host at the Bike in 2003, Archie would pop in every now and then and we would have a high limit razz game. In a ring game, he lacked the patience to be a winning player but in short-handed his style was more effective. He would pick up the big antes and contest pots with 2 card hands.

I didn’t see or hear of  Archie for years until I saw in the news in 2013 that he had been charged with cheating at Barona. That’s a different chapter of his story which may have a different result. His story in not yet over. If you google Famous Gamblers, Archie Karas shows up #1.