Monday, April 07, 2008

Archie Karas did not cheat, says Jack Binion

Archie Karas, known as "The Greek," is one of the most colorful poker characters in the history of Las Vegas gambling. According to several sources, Archie arrived in Vegas in December of 1992 with $50 in his pocket and ran it up to $40 million in eighteen months, most of it at Jack Binion's Horseshoe Casino. There have been other mega-high rollers, like the late Australian magnate Kerry Packer, who have won (and lost) fortunes but none with a starting bankroll of anything near the measly fifty bucks that Karas started with.

Two questions come to mind when examining the legacy of Archie Karas playing poker and craps. The first is, is this true? Did he really win $40 million off a starting bankroll of fifty bucks, which is barely enough cash to get into a $1/4 stud game. The answer is "more or less," though probably less. There is no doubt that Karas won millions but how many of them is open to speculation. I would say that the figure is exaggerated by at least 100%, and would put Archie's winnings somewhere in the neighborhood of seventeen or eighteen million.

The second question, which I am asked much more often, is: was Archie Karas a poker cheat and if he was, was he one of the greatest poker cheats of all time?

Truly, I do not know. I never met him. I never saw him play--poker that is. I did see him play craps one night at Binion's Horseshoe, where he took a single $10,000 chip he'd gotten from the WSOP tournament (the only time the Horseshoe let them out of the cage) and went on a wild streak when some old woman who could barely see the dice she was shooting held them for over and hour and helped Archie clean out the table's chip reserve, and two table chip fills after that. The reason I was at the Horseshoe that night was of course to get my hands on some of those $10,000 chips, where my plan was to use three of those rarefied chips to attempt the biggest casino cheat move in history, a super $30,000 "Savannah" straight up on a roulette number that would pay a whopping $1,050,000! More about that in an upcoming post.

Karas' action was so intense that my team got caught up in it just to watch him. By the time the smoke cleared, Archie Karas had beaten Jack Binion's craps table for a cool $7 million! And that, as the legend goes, was just the tip of the iceberg.

Well, as far as cheats go, I can say this: Archie Karas did not cheat at that craps table that night! And as far as poker cheats go, Jack Binion, who was the victim to Karas' craps winning streaks on more than one occasion didn't seem to think Karas cheats either. Several times during Karas' monster gambling years in Vegas in the '90s, where at poker he vanquished the likes of poker greats Stu Ungar, Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan and many others, Archie's toughest opponent was none other than Jack Binion, the owner of Binion's Horseshoe. In a classic yearlong battle with Binion, who fearlessly took on the mad gambler and constantly raised the betting limits while other casinos refused to increase their regular limits for him, Karas cleaned out Binion's entire reserve of $5,000 chips in the casino, which forced Binion to actually mint $25,000 chips to keep the action going, something that to my knowledge never occurred before. If anyone knows of another instance where a casino had to mint special denomination chips for a single player in the middle of a hot gambling streak, I'd certainly like to know about it!

Jack Binion was very shrewd about the whole thing, and his raising the Horseshoe's craps betting limits for Archie to $300,000 was because he realized that Archie's goal was not at all to make a simple score but rather to win the Horseshoe! That's right, Archie wanted to win the entire casino with the hotel thrown in too! He wanted the scene to end like some fantasy movie where Binion would end up tossing the keys to the Horseshoe casino cage onto the craps table, saying to Archie, "The Horseshoe belongs to you now." But he knew that Archie would never walk away a winner because he was a true gambler who loved the action and would much rather stay in it than stop after winning any fortune. He knew that Archie would rather hang on the rail of a craps table stuck in quicksand than hang out on his own private island in the Pacific.

At the end, whatever fortune of winnings Archie Karas had amassed, be it $20 mil or $40 mil, it finally went back to the Horseshoe's cage, and the keys to that cage remained safely in Jack Binion's pocket.

In speaking about Archie Karas and cheating, Binion has said, "Archie has more gamble in him than anybody I've ever seen. He was either going to win the Horseshoe or go broke. Nobody had ever won that much from us, and definitely not in the whole town. Archie didn't cheat, and I don't think he ever tried to cheat. The sheer amount of money he won causes you to be cautious. It is only good business to make sure everything is what it is supposed to be, and he is playing on the square. We tried to make sure the dice were absolutely square, and that they were our dice. At the ends of the dice table are little diamond mounds, to make sure the dice bounce randomly. That way you really don't know where in the hell the dice are going to go. No, Archie wasn't cheating. If he was, he would probably still be down there shooting.

"Even if a person does nothing wrong, some casinos will ask them not to play there anymore. They might say he is running too good. He is too dangerous. I don't know if you have ever heard of Kerry Packard. Certain places didn't want him to play anymore. Leon Parrish was another gambler that a lot of casinos wouldn't let play.

"When a player can run a toothpick into a lumberyard, it makes him a tough and dangerous player. Archie fits this bill exactly, which is why so many places are scared to take him on. I'll tell you the truth; Archie truly believed he had the magic touch. Finally the sizzle was over with and the odds reversed themselves. He grounded up and then grounded down, but it took over two years! You could tell the way Archie talked; there was no pull up in him.

"I'll tell you another thing: Archie never sat down to examine how much goods, say $22 million, might buy. He never did want to calculate it. Archie just wanted to gamble. He loves to gamble and shows it. Nobody speaks of it, but there is a thing called gambler's ruin. If Archie's goal was to win the Horseshoe and he succeeded, he probably would have kept on going.

"Of course we gave Archie the respect a winner of this type would be expected to get. We catered to him pretty good. Archie had his own table, and he would call and let us know. It might be several hours until he arrived, but his roped off table would be waiting for him. Archie didn't want anybody sweating him. I guess Archie was ahead of us for over 18 months. He won all the $5,000 chips in the casino, and we had to mint a bigger $25,000 chip to get him to cash the $5,000 chips in!"

"No other gambler had ever done that to us before. Of course, in the end Archie lost, but it is worth repeating, Archie had more gamble in him than anybody I've ever seen. Archie was going to either win the Horseshoe or go broke. He took a good run at it; I will say that for him!"

And I will say this for Archie Karas: If he ever had been a cheater, I would've loved to have him on my team! The guy surely has nerves of steel!