7 Famous Gamblers You’ve Never Heard of (But Will Wish You Had)
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whatsoever sport or game has its superstars. Take a sport like Boxing. There are household names like Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Floyd “Money” Mayweather.
But there are other legends in the sport of boxing such as James J. Braddock, Micky Ward and Chuck Wepner who have amazing stories too.
The same is true in gambling. We all see famous gamblers. Nowadays, many celebrities are gamblers. Names like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Shannon Elizabeth all are big-time players in the Canadian Casinos. But we already know their stories.
The great stories in gambling are those that are from the ones who are not household names as you will soon learn.
1 – Archie Karas
Born Anargyros Nicholas Karabourniotis, Karas could quite possibly be both the luckiest and unluckiest gambler in the history of Las Vegas.
Karas was born in Greece where as a shaver he shot marbles to earn enough money to eat. At the age of 15, he ran away from house, eventually taking a job on a ship heading for Portland, Oregon. Once in the United States, he headed for Los Angeles.
While in LA, he became a waiter in a restaurant next to a puddle hall. He developed his skills at puddle by playing all comers, when he ran out of people to play, he turned to poker.
He honed his skills at the poker table playing poker legends like Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese. He amassed a bankroll of over $2 million. But by the time December 1992 came around, he had lost all but $50.
Karas took that $50 and decided it was time to go to Las Vegas. While there, he ran into one of his fellow Los Angeles players and Karas convinced him to loan him $10,000. Karas would turn that into $30,000 and paid his backer $20,000.
With $10,000 in hand, Karas then found a respected puddle player (that he referred to as “Mr. X” to protect his reputation) and started playing 9-ball for $5,000 a game. Ultimately, they raised the stakes to $40,000 a game. Karas wound upwardly winning $1.2 million in these games.
Karas and Mr. X decided to play poker at Binion’s Horseshoe where Karas won $3 million more.
This was the start of what became known in Las Vegas lore as “The Run.”
The Run for Karas initially lasted 2 and a half years. He would sit at the poker table with $5 million taking on all challengers. Players like Stu Ungar, Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss and his old LA rivals Chip Reese and Doyle Brunson even wound upwardly playing Karas. During this winning streak, Karas would amass $40 million. Karas stated that the only one to beat him during this period was Brunson.
Over the run, Karas would switch to dice, which Karas enjoyed because he could win more, faster. At one point every dice throw Karas made was a million dollar conclusion.
The Run would end in 1995. Karas would lose most of his $40 million in about 3 weeks playing poker baccarat, and dice.
Since then Karas has had other streaks, but he tended to lose his winnings quickly. In 1996 for instance, he turned $40,000 into $4 million, only to lose it all the next day.
In 2013, he was caught and found guilty of marking cards in a San Diego Canadian Casino and was sentenced to 3 years of probation.
2 – Nick Dandolos
Dandolos was some other high stakes player from Greece. Known in the industry as Nick the Greek, he migrated to Chicago. From Chicago, he moved to Montreal, Quebec, where he developed a love for betting on the horse races.
He took the $150 a week allowance and built it upwardly to over $500,000. With the the money in hand, he returned to Chicago where he started learning his skills in card and dice games. While he lost all the money, he mastered the games.
There are many urban legends about games that he won. Of all the legends, he is best known for being part of the game that inspired the World Series of Poker. A one-on-one poker match between Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss was set upwardly by Benny Binion. The 2 would play almost every know variation of poker at the time.
The series, that took place over the first 5 months of 1949, saw Dandolos lose almost $4 million. He ended the game by making one of the most famous poker quotes of all time: “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
Dandolos claimed that he went from rags to riches over 73 times and it is estimated that he won and lost over $500 million in his lifetime.
He died on Christmas Day 1966 and was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979.
3 – John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich
While you may have never heard of him, you are dependent to one of his legacies every day. John Montagu, along with being an avid gambler, is the person that the popular meal of a “sandwich” was named for.
Montagu held several prestigious positions in the British government in the 1700s. Among his jobs in His Majesty’s government were First Lord of the Admiralty, Postmaster General, and Secretary of State.
But among his peers, he was known as a high stakes gambler. By today’s standards, he would be considered addicted to gambling as considered an addict. He would play over 24 hours straight without leaving the table.
Montagu’s habit of long hours playing required meals that were easy to eat. As a outcome, his servants would take 2 slices of bread and put meat between them. Thus, the sandwich was born.
Besides creating the sandwich, Montagu’s playing allowed him to finance exploration. One such windfall allowed him to back Captain Cook. Cook sailed to the Pacific where he discovered Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. Cook originally named Hawaii “the Sandwich Islands” in honor of his patron.
Sandwich died in 1792 at the age of 73, penniless.
4 – Kerry Packer
An Australian media mogul, Packer was the head of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. He owned Publishing and Broadcasting Limited which controlled the Nine Television Network and the Australian Consolidated Press. He also founded World Series Cricket.
But being a media tycoon wasn’t enough for Packer. He loved to gamble. And he was known for some of the biggest wagers in history.
For instance, while in England in 1999, Packer had a 3-week losing streak that cost him over $28 million.
But, in contrast, he once took in a $33 million haul at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
All in all, he would take in about $7 million a year in winnings.
He once was challenged by a wealthy Texas who claimed to be worth $60 million. Packer pulled out a coin and said “heads or tails?” willing to flip the coin to see who could win a total of $120 million.
He also walked into a London Canadian Casino in the late 1990s and bet £15 million on 4 roulette tables. He lost the entire amount and nonchalantly walked out.
Packer died of kidney failure on December 26th, 2005 at the age of 68.
5 – Titanic Thompson
Born Alvin Thomas, Titanic truly had a colorful life. He was a road gambler who traveled the country wagering on cards, dice, golf, shooting, billiards, horseshoes and proposition bets. He also witnessed the 1929 murder of reputed mobster Arnold Rothstein.
Thompson grew upwardly in rural Arkansas without formal education. He could not effectively read or write, but he learned how to shoot guns and he learn gambling odds.
In 1912, Thompson was making one of his proposition bets in a puddle hall. There he got the name Titanic. Thompson told the story to Sports Illustrated in 1972:
“In the spring of 1912 I went to Joplin, Missouri, just about the time the Titanic liner hit an iceberg and sank with more than 1,500 people on board. I was in a puddle room there and beat a fellow named Snow Clark out of $500. To give him a chance to get even, I bet $200 I could spring across his puddle table without touching it. If you think that’s easy, try it. But I could spring farther than a herd of bullfrogs in those days. I put down an old mattress on the other side of the table. Then I took a run and dived headfirst across the puddle table. While I was counting my money, somebody asked Clark what my name was ‘It must be Titanic,’ said Clark. ‘He sinks everybody.’ so I was Titanic from then on.”
Titanic would create some unique proposition bets including:
Betting he could throw a walnut over a building (he had weighted the hollowed shell with lead beforehand).
Moving a road mileage sign before betting that the listed distance to the town was in error.
Betting that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards, using a hickory-shafted club, (at the time an expert player’s drive was just over 200 yards. He won by waiting until winter and driving the ball onto a frozen lake, where it bounced past the required distance on the ice).
puddle legend Minnesota Fats was a partner in some of Titanic’s hustles and considered him a genius and “the greatest action man of all time”.
In 1928, Thompson was involved in a high-stakes poker game that led him witnessing the murder of New York City mafia boss Arnold Rothstein, at the time it was considered the “crime of the century”.
In his 30s, Titanic mastered the sport of golfing, often hustling for cash. He was ambidextrous and played equally well with either hand. He would often beat someone right-handed and then give them a chance to win it back by playing with the left hand. Players often didn’t know that Titanic was naturally right-handed.
Thompson killed 5 people during his lifetime, all involved gambling. One was involving a man accusing him of cheating at dice on a riverboat. Thompson got thrown overboard. When he got back on board, his accuser pulled a knife on Thompson’s girlfriend. Thompson grabbed a hammer and beat the man with it and threw him overboard where he drowned. The other instances involved him shooting people trying to steal his gambling winnings. In one case, the police chief in St. Louis thanked him for killing 2 of the men as they were wanted bank robbers.
In the 60’s, Thompson settled in Dallas, making occasional gambling trips to Las Vegas with his son Tommy. In 1970, he was honored at the first World Series of Poker. He died at the age of 80 in 1974.
6 – Edward Thorp
Professor Thorp is a mathematician that proved counting cards could overcome the house advantage in blackjack.
Thorp was the first to use a computer to help him determine the odds of winning blackjack.
Thorp first tested his theories in Reno and Lake Tahoe, Nevada, winning $11,000 in a weekend’s time.
Thorp would don disguises when going to Canadian Casinos in Las Vegas to avoid discovery. His methods became so successful that there was a demand for him to teach them.
In 1966, he wrote the “bible of card counting” Beat the Dealer, which sold over 700,000 copies.
In the early 1960s, Thorp met [G17] Claude and Betty Shannon. The trio formed a team to play roulette and blackjack. They were very successful. They used a wearable computer in the Canadian Casino to help determine the best betting options. In 1985, Nevada made it illegal to use such devices in Canadian Casinos.
In 2002, Thorp was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame.
7 – The MIT Blackjack Team
While not an individual, these gamblers are history makers. From 1979 until the start of the 21st century, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and other leading colleges and universities teamed upwardly. They to use a host of strategies, specifically card counting, to beat Canadian Casinos all over the world.
The origins of the groups start with professional blackjack player JP Massar. In November of 1979 he saw that a noncredit course was being offered at MIT for blackjack. He proposed they create a team to take advantage of a new rules in Atlantic City. These rules prevented a blanket ban on card counters (they had to ban people individually).
With $5000 to start they would create trips to Atlantic City from December 1979 through May 1980. The group would end upwardly quadrupling their original investment.
In May of 1980, Massar met a man who had run some other successful blackjack team from Harvard. After observing Massar’s team, Kaplan agreed to team upwardly but wanted it run like a business. He required a uniform counting and betting system, strict training and player approval processes, and careful tracking of all Canadian Casino play.
The new team of 10 started in August 1980 with a stake of $89,000. Within 10 weeks they had doubled their money.
Kaplan stayed involved in with the team until 1984. He left because he could not walk into a Canadian Casino without being recognized, which put the teams at risk.
The team had over 20 partnerships 1979 through 1989. Over 70 people played on the team as either counters, players, or in a supporting role during that time. Every single team was profitable. After paying all expenses, as well as the players’ and managers’ share of the winnings, returns to investors ranged from 4% to 300% each year.
The stories told here are overviews. These people led lives that provide a whole host of tales that are too long to put into one article. They deserve to be told and they should be read at the very least for entertainment purposes, but also to learn history. To see how things are connected. For instance, Montagu’s financing of Captain Cook led to the discovery of Australia. 200 years later, Australian Kerry Packer is placing wagers around the globe. One would not have happened if but for the other.
I encourage you to read more about these people. Learn more about what they did as gamblers and what they did outside of gambling. Get the full picture of their colorful and noteworthy lives.
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