The Who's Who of Famous Gamblers
Celebrity and wealth, both come hand and hand with the world's most successful gamblers. Both can be gained and lost in a single instant, never to be found again. Of course it is not always this simple. Sometimes fame is gained through notoriety, through cheating or mannerisms which catch the eye of public, or inspire new players to greatness. In this list we aim to introduce you to some of the most popular gamblers throughout history, and what made each of these individuals special, or noteworthy. We've also included stories from a few gamblers based off some of the individual stories we found interesting.
We'll start with one of the big ones, and no that is not a crack about the man's weight. The Greek-American Archie Karas is world famous for the largest documented winning streak in casino gambling history. Between December of 1992 and the end of 1996 Archie had started with $50 and a loan of $10,000, turned it into more than $40 million, and then lost it all again.
During his time in the sun Archie had beaten many of the most famous poker players of the 90s. This includes Stu Ungar, who many people see as the greatest gin rummy and Texas hold'em player of all time.
Since that time Archie has has many ups and downs. This includes more winning and losing streak than most of us will ever experience. In 2013 he apparently didn't think much of his chances, as he was caught marking cards at a blackjack table, which earned him 3 years probation.
What did ol' Johnny do to deserve being on this list? The full title of the man, for which you might be familiar, is the 4th Earl of Sandwich. This is a man so dedicated to the art of gambling that he invented a brand new type of food. Two slices of bread with some slices of meat in the middle. The sandwich. That's right, one of the biggest staples of food in western culture has its basis in a man who didn't want to stop gambling in order to eat. The man, the legend.
King Henry VIII
While many might know him for his lesser known title as King, or perhaps his penchant for divorcing his wives from both himself and their heads, King Henry also held the unofficial title at the time of England's Number 1 Gambler. There were many games which Henry enjoyed, chief among them being dice and two other games related to backgammon and checkers.
At the time there were many popular gambling tournaments being held across Europe, and Henry would make it his business to attend all that he could. This was not an easy task, given the transportation of the time, plus his station and enormous girth. Despite doing his darnedest the King rarely had much luck. During one particularly bad stretch he lost over £3,000 over two year, which is equal to many millions of dollar today (unfortunately we were unable to find any way to directly translate this).
One of the more famous stories related to King Henry was his betting of bells of St. Paul's church against Sir Miles Partridge. The outcome was to be decided on a single roll of dice. The King's hand was about as steady as he was. This resulting loss of the bells came as massive insult to the people of England. Rather than accept any degree of personal responsibility Henry instead accused Sir Miles of treason. The punishment was having him publicly hung for his crimes. For some reason not many wished to gamble with the King following this event.
Dominic the Dominator. Not exactly the most inspired nickname, though you can't argue its accuracy. Dominic is famed for what he termed the Golden Touch. This is a way of manipulating the odds in craps by adjusting the way in which you throw the dice. Learning this was an incredibly time consuming task. Dominic estimates that he spent hundreds of hours practising this act until he reached a point where he could perform this somewhat reliably.
These days Dominic even offers classes on his throwing techniques, which are apparently not considered cheating in casinos. Despite his fame and success there are many who consider him little more than a huckster, someone who is nothing more than lucky. What do you think, is Dominic LoRiggio the real deal?
Builder, engineer, gambler. Keith Taft was the first person to come up with a mechanical way to beat the odds of blackjack. The idea, it is said, came about after Taft had learned that another famous gambler, Edward Thorp, had figured out that the game was beatable, provided you could to the maths in real-time. Of course people couldn't do this in real-time, so Taft invented a machine to figure this out for him.
His first version of a card counting machine, called George, was successful. The only problem, and it was a deal-breaker, was that the device was far too bulky to be hidden. From this design he created David, a smaller and lighter device.
Using his toes to control the machine, out of view from the casinos, Taft ended up making $40,000 in his first week of operation. This winning streak could no go on forever. Luckily for Taft even being discovered didn't get him arrested. The device called David was so advanced that the casino couldn't figure out how it worked! No understanding means no conviction.
Over the year Taft worked on more cheating machines, up until around 1985. At this time these aids had been made illegal, with punishments being severe. It didn't really matter by this point, however. Taft was rich, he had no need to continue. He was even inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2004!
Louis Colavecchio, The Coin. Colavecchio was famous in the late 80s and 90s for his counterfeit coins. He and his gang developed coins which could perfectly trick the pokie machine of time. This meant gambling for free, provided you knew how to hide. This was something Louis wasn't so good at, however, as he was found in the late 90s. After a seven year stint in prison he again returned to his ways. This time, however, the FBI were waiting for him.
Colavecchio and his gang were so good that they actually scared the entire casino industry. His success is seen as one of the direct reasons as to why casinos have slowly started phasing out tokens and replacing them with paper vouchers.
So next time you're at a casino, gambling on a pokie and reminiscing on how vouchers just don't feel the same as tokens remember – you have Louis Colavecchio to thank.
MIT Blackjack Team
The MIT blackjack team has been a legend in gambling circles for a long while now. Ever since the late 70s this group has seen an enormous amount of success in the gambling world through their card counting techniques, among other forms of cheating.
At its height this group consisted of around 80 players, with leavers constantly being replaced by new trainees.
These men and women are so famous that they've even had several major films made about them, such as the Kevin Spacey led 21.
Edward Thorp has led a long an industrious life. He has been a mathematics professor, author, hedge fund manager, blackjack player and is also known as the father of wearable computers. The theories created by Thorp have led to some of the most successful cheating systems ever invented. The aforementioned Keith Taft, for example, based his devices of the revolutionary work of Edward Thorp.
His mastery of probably and statistics also led to his success in the stock market, where Thorp found a great deal of wealth.
Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok, drover, wagon master, soldier, spy, scout, showman, gunfighter, gambler and fantastic moustache grower lived from 1837 to 1876. Wild Bill was a living legend of the Old West. Stories, both true and fabricated, created one of the greatest legacies of the time.
The exploits of Wild Bill are told of to this day, two of which are the story of his death and the ‘Dead Man's Hand'. His death came at the hands of a fellow gambler, though one who was magnitudes less successful. Jack McCall, the coward, shot Wild Bill in the back of the head after being rather upset at his loss the previous day. The cards that Wild Bill was holding at the time, the aces of spades and clubs, plus the eights of spades of clubs now do their part to carry of the tale of Wild Bill.
Yes, that Sean Connery.
It's not just the character of James Bond who is lucky, as Connery himself had a streak of luck which put the rest of us to shame.
Connery grew up around the world of gambling, with his father introducing him to the act. While out gambling in the Alps one day, Connery placed a bet in roulette on the number 17. He lost. Channelling his future character, Connery again bet on the number 17. He lost again, apparently not channelling hard enough. Not one to take no for an answer, the future Mr. Bond placed another bet, again on number 17. This time he won.
Now, normally when you win such a bet you'd be happy enough to call it a win. Roulette, after all, has some long shots. Connery's thirst, however, would not be so easily satiated. He stayed on number 17, and began a new round. A win, again! Enough is enough, there is no need to get greedy, you might think, but then you and I are not Sean Connery.
Again, Connery left his bet on 17 and let the table spin. Again, and for the third time in a row, Connery hit the number 17. The odds of this happening? Somewhere around 1 in 50,000.
Apparently now bored with the mere game of chance, Connery then took his winnings and went home. All told, and adjusted for today's currency, he took home something approaching $200,000 US. Not bad, Mr. Bond. Not bad at all.
The Case of the Amazing Drunken Man
Did you ever wonder why it is that many casinos give out free alcohol? How about why they tend to remove all the clocks from their gambling floors? No, you didn't, you say? Because it is immediately obvious, you say? Well, apparently not for everyone.
Nebraska businessman Terrance Watanabe was a big gambler. He loved to gamble. He also didn't seem to understand how casinos work. During 2007 Watanabe lost over $127 million US at the famed casino Caesars Palace.
How did he manage this? During that year his gambling habits were out of control, as he routinely played three different $50k hands of blackjack at the same time. It was not unusual for Watanabe to lose $5 million in a single day.
In the end he had claimed that his losses were due to the casino keeping him plied with alcohol and painkillers, a combination which does not good gamblers make. He even went so far as to sue that casino for their part in enabling his behaviour. This case didn't go as well as Watanabe hoped, as he eventually had to drop the case. This year is believed to be one of if not the single biggest losing streak by an individual in the entire history of Las Vegas.
We have to remember, as enormous as this loss is, and for all he should have seen it coming – problem gambling is a very real continuing problem. Most of us could lose but a tiny fraction of what Watanabe did and still face serious problems. If you or anyone you know has problems think of taking a look at out problem gambling page, or check for help in your local area.
The Efficient Gambler
Gambling as a means to earn money is not usually a quick or easy thing. It takes an understanding of statistics and odds plus a great deal of skill and practice in order to even approach it seriously. What about those who haven't the time for that? What if someone decided ‘The hell with it', and completely cut out the waiting.
When that happens you might end up with a case like that of Ashley Revell. In 2004 Revell sold everything he owed, even his clothes (though not the pair he was wearing, casino dress codes and all that), and took all of his cash into the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Everything he had came down to a simple single bet on the colour red, in the game of roulette. $135,300 became $270,600. Revell then gave the dealer a $600 tip and left.
That's $130 k in a single trip which would have totalled less than half an hour.
While this act has made Revell somewhat of a legend we must relay that we in no way recommend such reckless forms of gambling. Crazy bastard.
The Boy Genius
This one, well, this one is a doozy. We spend a lot of time looking around, and while this story is quite well reported it could just as easy be fake, so keep that in mind.
We all know of child geniuses. The sort of kids who are so amazing at things meant for people much older than themselves that it makes you incredibly disappointed with your own lack of talent. No to say that practice and hard work plays no part – it does, but these kids can learn at such an accelerated pace that it far outshines many times the work put in by most adults. This can be in many different realms of ability, from maths to music, bit this one – gambling, is a little bit different.
For a start we all know children aren't supposed to gamble, but as we also know – policing things online can be a bit tricky. In 2010 reports began to circulate that Aashish Nanak, an eight year old Indian boy, had managed to win half a million dollars in an online poker tournament.
Aashish, as precocious as he was, had started learning about computers as young as three. By the age of four he was creating web pages. In the end he had gained access through his uncles account, though some of the details of this account might have given him away. Apparently the staff of the website routinely called this player by the handle ‘littlepokerwizard'. Unfortunately for him this meant that the child was not payed out, given the legality his involvement.
While it might be nice to say everything worked out for the Nanak family (although what message would that send about underage gambling), in reality things have not worked themselves out. Last details we can find show that the family were engaged in a legal battle for the winnings.
At this point Aashish must be around 18 years old. So, be on the lookout of a young prodigy from the Indian subcontinent.
Rolling in Craps
Craps is one of those games which can easily turn off newer players. It seems difficult, even impenetrable for those used to the simplicity of blackjack or pokies. Seems difficult, because as our craps section points out – its actually simpler than most think.
At its base its still the same of the other games you'll find at the casino – based on some combination of luck and skill. The player with the dice (the shooter) rotates in craps, until they lose.
In 2009 Patricia Demauro, noted grandmother, played her second game of craps. When it was her turn to be the shooter she won 154 throws in a row. The odds of this happening entirely through chance is around 1 in 1.5 trillion. Yeah, Grandma got skill.
While we don't know exactly how much Demauro won the experts calculate that even the most conservative strategies would have netted her 50 times her initial $10 investment.
Sort of makes you sorry for the next player waiting to be the shooter though.
FedEx's Last Ditch Gamble
Even those of us who don't live in the United States have heard loads of stories about FedEx. Some of these stories are positive and some of them make you never want to use a courier ever again. What you probably don't know is that the company was, at one time, facing a rapidly approaching bankruptcy.
Back around 1974 the founder and CEO of FedEx, Fredrick W. Smith, faced a big problem – his company was almost bankrupt. After some bad luck and some worse decisions the company was left in a position where it was just a week away from having to shut its doors. All they had left was around $5,000, certainly not enough to even send the next shipment of goods. Thankfully the James Bond of commercial couriers was not going to take this lying down. Freddy decided on one last ditch effort – take the money and head to Vegas.
The following Monday, when the staff were all back in to check the accounts and resign themselves to their eventual redundancy, they found a rather startling anomaly. What was $5,000 had become $32,000. This, as it turned out, was just enough to send the planes out for another couple of days. These couple of days turned out to generate enough cash-flow to keep the company afloat.
Today FedEx is worth somewhere in the vicinity of $30 billion. One hell of risk, as it turns out, turned into one hell of a reward.
Laak, Skill and Persistence
When people think of endurance sports the first thing which comes to mind is usually something like marathons. Perhaps long-distance swimming or long-distance something come to mind instead. What they often don't think of is poker. Why is this? For many reasons, chief among them being that poker is a game which requires a great deal of mental concentration over a long period of time, something which the human mind isn't really that good at.
Starting on the 2nd of June, 2010, at the Las Vegas Bellagio, Phil Laak set the world record for the longest session of poker ever recorded. Originally planning to only spend around 80 hours, Phil ended up spending a total of 115 consecutive hours, with only minor breaks to use the bathroom and, presumably, hallucinate.
What is even more surprising is that Philler the Thriller didn't rely on the use of stimulants to stay awake. No coffee, no energy drinks and certainly nothing illegal. Instead he credits his longevity to his fitness and health, both of which he had worked on heavily in the run-up to his attempt.
As someone in fair health who can only barely manage a full day without sleep, even when loaded with caffeine, I can only draw one conclusion – Phil Laak is some type of wizard.
John Warne Gates
Born in 1855, Gates earned his fortune in the manufacture of barbed wire. As is common for these gambling greats, Gates earned himself the nickname of Mr. Bet-a-Million. Also common is the fact that this name is not strictly accurate, as the famous bet from which he earned his name actually only netted him a ‘mere' $600,000. Of course in today's money that would be worth a great deal more than a million dollars, but we doubt that those who came up with the name did so because of their awareness of inflation.
Among some of the other popular stories surrounding Gates is the time where he won a massive $500,00 while riding a train from New York to Chicago.
Not all of John's stories are those of victory, however, as one story has him lose a million dollar bet on which of two raindrops would first reach the bottom of a window. After that we can't help but wonder if Mr. Shouldn't-have-bet-a-million would be a more appropriate name.
A good amount of betting is not officially sanctioned. I'm talking about the sort of thing where a bunch of people sit around drinking, and somebody makes an outrageous bet that few people would ever take. This is what happened to professional backgammon player Brian Zembic.
The bet was, in simple terms, that he would not get a pair of fake breasts inserted into his chest, and he could not keep them in there for an entire year. How much would it take for you to do that? For Brian – it was $100,000.
In the end not only did Brian manage to win the bet, but he became so attached to them that after the year was up he kept them in. That is where they remain to this day, 20 years after he won the first bet. We have no information if keeping them in earned him any additional winnings.