Two tales of gambling woe

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Now that the college football season is four weeks old, and the NFL is three weeks in, we probably all have our betting highs and lows to report from the last month. 

There was that game you won in the final minute, and one bad beat that still gives you heartburn. But when it comes to the extremes of fate, there are two people I’ve interviewed through the years who take the cake. You may remember their names: Cynthia Jay Brennan and Archie Karas.

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Cynthia Jay, a cocktail waitress at the Monte Carlo who was engaged to be married, on January 26, 2000, hit the largest MegaBucks jackpot in history. With one magical pull, she won $35 million. 

She and her soon-to-be husband Terry Brennan could pursue every career goal they’d ever dreamed of, buy a great house and other toys, and travel to any exotic location on the globe. Life couldn’t get any better for them. 

But just 45 days later, Cynthia and her sister Lela, while parked at a stoplight, were smashed head on by a drunk driver. Lela was killed and Cynthia was paralyzed from the waist down.

The offending driver had 16 previous DUI arrests, and why he wasn’t serving life in prison long before that day is a mystery. It’s hard to imagine a story that magnifies the old adage — right place right time, and wrong place wrong time — more dramatically than Cynthia’s. 

To her credit, she’s dealt with her hardships courageously. She and Terry are still happily married, and she spends much of her time helping others with paralysis and disability issues.

Archie Karas’s roller-coaster ride occurred over a longer period of time and involved human frailty on his part more than the blind luck and horrible misfortune that marked Cynthia’s story.

By the accounts of many in the gaming world who validate his story, Karas arrived in Las Vegas in December 1992 with just $50 in his pocket. Over the next three years, he parlayed an incredible run of gambling skill and luck into $40 million. 

Karas won at craps, baccarat, and poker in the casino — mainly at the Horseshoe, which he nearly bankrupted — and he shot pool in off-Strip bars for as much as a $100,000 a game. It was said he won well over a million dollars off one prominent casino executive, but people are reluctant to provide a name on that one.

Archie didn’t just pick on wide-eyed amateurs at the poker table. It is said he won far more than he lost in heads-up games against poker icons like Chip Reese and Stu Ungar. As he mounted his unimaginable winning streak, known in gambling lore as “The Run,” Archie felt he could beat any person or any casino at any time. He lost all fear of losing, which would eventually prove his undoing.

Within about 18 months of his meteoric rise, Karas had lost the entire $40 million he had won and was trying to scratch his way back to solvency in low-stakes games. When I asked him in our interview why he didn’t salt away $10 million or $20 million when he had the chance, he said: “You don’t understand. A gambler gambles. Everybody asks that question. They just don’t understand the mentality.”

I asked: “Was there a positive you can take from that time when you had everything, and lost it all?”

“Yes,” he said. “You find out who your real friends are. I had women all over me back then, and a lot of guys hanging around who were there just for the money or the glamour.”

Sadly, things have gone from bad to worse for Archie in the years since I met him. He was arrested three times for cheating at a blackjack table in San Diego’s Barona Casino, and he’s no longer allowed in Las Vegas casinos.

He’s sort of like the Pete Rose of gambling in that he set a record that will probably never be broken — $40 million from zero in a couple years playing games in which the odds are stacked against the gambler — but he’s not being inducted into any Halls of Fame any time soon.

Cynthia Jay Brennan and Archie Karas — bookends for tales of fame and fortune, and how quickly it can all turn.

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About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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