Baccarat is a game that is seen as being exclusively for high rollers. And while it’s true that the mega-rich love to throw away huge sums of money playing it, that doesn’t mean that you have to be rich to win serious money playing it. In this article, we go over some of the most famous and well-known figures in baccarat, people who managed to win (and lose) tons of money playing a game they loved.
Some of these are cautionary tales, but others enjoyed great success. This article tells the stories of the six most famous names in baccarat and how they managed to get to where they were. We also have a special mention that features on this list, but you’ll have to scroll to the end to discover who this special fictional baccarat legend is. If you’re ready to read up on some fascinating tales from the baccarat table, one thing is for sure, you’ve come to the right place – let’s dive in!
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Legend No. 1 – Akio Kashiwagi
Also known as The Warrior, Akio Kashiwagi originally earned his fortune playing the red-hot Tokyo real estate market in the 1980s. During his most profitable period, his net worth exceeded a billion dollars and his yearly revenue topped 100 million.
This fantastic level of income enabled him to indulge his appetite for high-stakes gambling all around the world. Las Vegas routinely rolled out the red carpet for him, because he single-handedly accounted for a measurable portion of their yearly revenue. He was known to bet 100,000 bucks a hand for hours on end.
As you might imagine, Akio wavered back and forth between titanic losses and equally monumental gains. He is said to have nearly bankrupted Trump’s Taj Majal casino once when he was up nearly $10 million playing Baccarat. The story is that Akio sat down one night and insisted that he was going to continue playing until he was up or down either $12 million, no matter what. Akio was on a super-hot streak, and Donald Trump, the casino’s owner, realized that he was in trouble if he tried to collect on that kind of money.
Trump knew the mindset of gambler well enough to understand that they are extremely sensitive to changes in seemingly innocuous things. One of his most crafty moves was to switch to all-female dealers. While this was certainly unrelated to his luck, Akio was eventually down by the same amount. He was forced to stop playing, despite insisting that he wanted to keep going.
Unfortunately, his story did not have a happy ending. He was found assassinated in his home from sword wounds, allegedly from the Yakuza due to his massive gambling debts. Akio’s story is one of boom and bust, as his legacy involves big wins, but a dark ending that is far cry from his glory days.
Legend No. 2 – John W. Gates
This guy happens to be one of the first true professional gamblers, born in 1855 and living until 1911. While he famously made an immense amount of money from gambling, his original fortune was made independently through smart business ventures and cutthroat competitive tactics in his hometown of Chicago.
Gates enjoyed playing with railroad moguls, who introduced him to card games. It was love at first sight, and Gates soon found himself mastering baccarat and poker from playing it so much. Eventually, he began to host high-stakes games from his Chicago and New York homes, and it was here that he earned his nickname Mr. Bet-a-Million.
Serving as the banker in baccarat, he asked one of his wealthy players if they wanted to risk a million bucks. The game had a special rule in effect – there were three hands dealt, and one of them belonged to Gates. The player would then decide if they wanted to play with one or both of these hands. Winning with both hands was a win, losing with both was a tie, and one and one was a tie.
The opponent wound up tying, but Gates earned the respect and admiration of his fellow gamblers for having the balls to bet such a colossal sum of money, which is worth about $27 million in modern terms.
Gates didn’t limit himself to poker and baccarat, although they were his favorites. He also bet tons of money on horse races and was good (or lucky) enough not to ever lose everything. His wife, Dellora, did not appreciate his lack of restraint in gambling with abandon, and Gates had to give her diamonds from his winnings to keep her placated.
Gates enjoyed embellishing stories of his gambling exploits or letting other people do it for him. One time he spent five straight days gambling in poker, exchanging millions of dollars in the process. Another time, he bet $70,000 on a horse race and won 600 grand in return. When the story changed to say that he won a million, Gates never issued a correction. Supposedly Gates would even wager on falling raindrops on a window, betting hundreds of thousands of bucks on which drop would reach the bottom first.
Baccarat Legend No. 3 – The Greek Syndicate
Unlike the other names in this article, this isn’t just a single person who kept spending tons of money or got really lucky. As the name suggests, this was a group of people who approached the game in an organized way. Team play is something that some believe to be a modern creation, The Greek Syndicate proves that this is anything but the case. Despite the name, these people weren’t cheaters. They were a group of extraordinarily talented baccarat players who knew exactly what it was they were doing. The group consisted of five people: Anthanase Vagliano, Zaret Couyoumdjian, Francois Andre, Eli Eliopulo, and Nicolas Zographos.
The group first consisted of Zographos and Eliopulo, who made their initial fortune in Paris. There they met Couyoumdjian, who was well-established and knew a lot of people who would take an interest in their skills. Shortly after they added Vagliano and Andre, who encouraged them to travel to Europe’s richest casinos and milk them dry.
Their talents lay in their ability to memorize cards and hands so well that they could predict what cards would come out next. Zographos in particular mastered this skill, and it was he who told the group how to play based on what he knew about the cards that had been dealt. The group amassed a huge fortune playing all the way up until World War 2 when gambling was banned.
Legend No. 4 – Phil Ivey
If you’re a poker fanatic, you’ve almost certainly heard of Phil Ivey. He has cemented his status as one of poker’s most skilled players, winning ten WSOP gold bracelets and over $25 million in prize money.
While Phil has made his money in poker, he is no slouch at other card games, either. He is also renowned for his skill in baccarat, which he typically plays with Kelly Sun. At the casinos in Atlantic City and London, he has managed to earn a cool $20.6 million using a technique called edge sorting. This involves finding decks that do not have perfectly symmetrical patterns. This is typically caused by a manufacturing defect, and it is usually subtle enough to unnoticed by the casinos.
Phil and Sun both complement each other, using Phil’s skill set and Kelly’s sharp eye to make the trick work. Kelly was exceptionally skilled at finding these flawed decks, and she had several tricks up her sleeve to convince the casinos to let her get a closer look at the cards. She would typically deposit a million dollars to convince them that she was a high-roller, and she would excuse her desire to see the cards as a gambler’s superstition. This was so she could find the flawed cards and the values that were on them. The casinos were not initially wise to what she was really doing, and her asking the dealer to do this in Mandarin Chinese made it even more difficult for the casino staff to know what she was really up to.
Sun would also request the casinos to rotate each card by 180 degrees, and she requested that they only use certain card decks known to have a higher incidence of manufacturing defects. The result was that the two made an eight-figure sum of money from the two casinos, yet they kept none of it. The casinos eventually grew suspicious of what was happening, and after reviewing security footage they decided to give them none of their winnings.
The pair sued the casinos that they played at (Borgata and Crockford’s), but the judges ultimately sided with the casinos after reviewing their techniques. They were not considered to have cheated, but the judges felt that what they were doing exceeded the bounds of a normal player’s behavior.
Legend No. 5 – Kerry Packer
You might recognize Kerry Packer as one of Australia’s wealthiest men. When he died in 2005, his net worth was nearly $6.6 billion. Unlike most men who earn such a fortune, he enjoyed gambling. And with a fortune as vast as his, he could afford to bet sums of money that would change the lives of most people. When he went out for a night, eight-figure sums of money could change hands and he wouldn’t even bat an eye.
During one three-day session in Las Vegas, he bet away 13.6 million bucks after a losing streak at Baccarat. At the time, this was the largest three-day loss in Las Vegas history. This accounted for nearly half of his $27.4 million loss over the next ten months, including 10 million bucks at Crockfords.
In spite of these extraordinary losses, he also had wins of a similar magnitude. During one of his trips to the MGM Grand, he netted nearly $13 million from, you guessed it, baccarat. It might not have neutralized his earlier losses, but it was still an eye-popping sum regardless. Kerry Packer loved to gamble, but he was no fool. His talent for calculating odds and memorizing cards was on par with geniuses at MIT. He supposedly possessed an eidetic memory, which made him a master card counter.
And of course, his legendary gambling benders produced equally fantastic stories as well. During one session, he loaned actor George Hamilton $125,000 so that he could split a pair of aces in one of his games. When he won the bet, Packer refused his offer of extra money, only wanting his original sum back.
In another story, he once heard an oil Tycoon from Texas bragging about his net worth. Parker asked him how much, and he said he was worth $100 million. Parker casually took a quarter out and asked if he wanted to go double or nothing on his whole fortune. He didn’t take him up on it and left shortly afterward.
Legend No. 6 – Tommy Renzoni
Baccarat has been around in Europe for hundreds of years and has been played by millions across the continent. For most players, it is a win and lose affair, and nothing more than a bit of fun – then Frances “Tommy” Rezoni came along. Not taking the game at face value, he was playing to win and to win in a major way.
Tommy started his amazing baccarat career in the 1950s, as he took his talents to Argentina and across the Americas. When in Argentina, he made the punto banco table his home, sweeping through the countries casinos and stacking up the cash. Cuba, Tommy’s native land, was next on his hit list, and it is safe to say that given his prior employment at the Capril Hotel in Havana, he was well aware of how to make the most of the game in that part of the world.
After crushing Cuba, he moved to the US casinos and brought the game of baccarat with him, even convincing the Sands Casino to trial the game with high rolling players. Given how successful the game was, Tommy is rightfully credited with making the game a mainstream success in the US. Since making its initial splash, baccarat has gone to sprout several alternate versions of the games, which have only worked to spice up the action.
Not keeping the secrets of the game to himself, Tommy would help the masses when he would publish two books – Baccarat in 1973 and Baccarat: Everything You Want to Know About Playing and Winning in 1977. These two books would make him a household name, but you simply can’t overlook his enormous impact on the game.
Tommy might not have really brought any revolutionary advice for beating the game to the table, but that’s not why he’ll go down in history as a legendary player. What he’ll be known for is being the man that gave back to baccarat as much as he took out, spreading it to America and as a result making it a casino mainstay.
Legend No. 7 – Archie Karas
If you don’t know the name Archie Karas already, what are you even doing here? The man is a true legend of the casino world, as he has taken many establishments to ruins, battering dealers from pillar to post when playing the cards. What Karas is most famous for is “The Run”, which many consider the greatest gambling run in casino history, and we certainly wouldn’t argue with that statement.
“The Run” started with a simple $10,000 loan from a friend back in 1992, Karas would take that loan and turn it into a whopping $40 million fortune. The initial run of money was made through poker and pool, but as time progressed, players would stay away from Karas, including several hardened poker pros, so he was forced to change things up – entering the world of craps.
He would prove to be a dab hand at the dice, winning more millions, but a game would come along that would soon be his undoing. Finding himself short of competition and desperate to keep “The Run” pushing forward, he would turn to baccarat. This would prove to be a huge mistake, as due to his lack of understanding of the game, he would lose big sums just trying to adapt to the gameplay.
After losing a staggering $11 million, he would switch back to poker, where he lost a further $2 million. Not to be deterred, Karas would once again return to baccarat, only to face an even more devastating result. His second run at the baccarat table would see him lose an eye-watering $17 million, which at this point (coupled with some rather reckless spending) saw him become penniless.
The story of Archie Karas is a peculiar one. In the case of poker and pool, he should be lauded, but for baccarat, he is legendary for all the wrong reasons. His tale is a cautionary one as if you don’t understand the game of baccarat you shouldn’t really be playing, let alone betting giants sums of money.
Special Mention – James Bond
Okay, we get it, James Bond isn’t real, so you may be wondering just why he makes it onto this list of true baccarat legends. He deserves a special mention because of what James Bond the character has been able to do for the game of baccarat.
For over 60 years, Bond has been playing baccarat at the most fabulous casino in the world, often staring down a villain or two in the process. That’s without mentioning the Bond girl that is usually on his arm at the time either. Every time Bond steps up to the baccarat table on the big screen, he raises the profile of the game further by putting it in the public eye.
If baccarat’s public image were to ever dip, you can be sure that all it will take is one properly placed Bond movie to put it back on its pedestal. For his service to the game, you can’t help but want to tip your hat to the legend that is James Bond.
The Stuff of Legend!
Some of the people on this list have won and lost more money in a single night than you’ll see in an entire lifetime. This is particularly true for Kerry Packer, Akio Kashiwagi, and John Gates; their legendary betting on baccarat is almost as famous as what they accomplished during their lifetimes.
But not all of these stories have a happy ending. As you read with Akio Kashiwagi, he was killed by an assassin wielding a katana. He is known to have had a massive amount of debt incurred from his gambling habits, but it is unknown if this was the reason for his murder. You could certainly club Archie Karas in the same bracket, as the game was just as unkind, ripping his fortune away from him.
John Gates didn’t have such a bad ending, by contrast. He became famous for betting a million bucks on a hand of baccarat on a whim, and he didn’t actually lose anything in the end. This was done a long time ago, when a million bucks were worth a lot more – nobody had ever thought somebody was crazy enough to risk such a fortune on a game of chance.
Kerry Packer isn’t really either of these two. He was already extremely wealthy from his successful business ventures, and gambling was just a fun pastime for him. True, he lost eight-figure sums of money on a few bad losing streaks. But he managed to win almost as much on different hands, which is something that many millionaire wannabes in baccarat fantasize about doing.
Whatever way you look at it, these players have all written their names into the baccarat history books for both good and bad reasons. If you want to join this exclusive list, it’s time to step up the baccarat table and start playing – sensibly of course!