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Top 10 High-Stakes Gamblers Who Managed to Break the Bank

Ward Hazell . . . Comments

Breaking the Bank, winning so much that the table, or even the casino itself, runs out of money, is a favorite daydream of those who head for the big casinos.

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In reality, of course, the house almost always wins, but just occasionally, either by cheating, by skill, or sometimes just by dumb luck, a player comes along who wins really really big.

Far from trying to deter these big winners, many casinos encourage them, because they know that the publicity of a big win, can bring in 10 times more than they have to pay out (and, in any case, some of the big winners don’t know when to stop, and keep on playing till they are right back to being broke).

However, here are 10 gamblers who, even if it was just for a little while, managed to break the bank.

10 Joseph Jagger


Joseph Jagger was a mill worker in Yorkshire, England in 1880. Up to the moment he decided to travel to Monte Carlo he had never traveled more than a few miles from his hometown. He had just been made bankrupt and, fearing that he and his family were destined for the debtors prison, he decided that if he was in for a penny, he might as well be in for a pound.

He borrowed money from members of his family, then took a steam ship to France, and caught a train to Monte Carlo, and its famed casinos. Jagger was not a gambler, but he was something of an engineer, and he observed a very slight tilt in the roulette wheel, which meant that numbers on one side of the wheel were a little more likely to come up than those on the other side.

Although Casino managers watched Jagger carefully during his winning streak, they were unable to detect his ‘system’ because he really didn’t have one. He won £80,000, an incredible amount for his day, and returned to his Yorkshire town where he bought 30 terraced houses and gave them to his family and friends. It is believed that he never gambled again.

Joseph Jagger’s win prompted a complete change in the design of roulette tables throughout the world.

So you may as well put that spirit-level down.[1]

9 Don Johnson

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Don Johnson was well known in gambling circles as a ‘whale’. He had already won a fortune playing at Atlantic City’s casinos. He took $5 million from Borgata, and another $4 million at Caesar’s, so, when he walked into the Tropicana, the casino management were certain to have been nervous.

Sitting at the high-roller table, Johnson started playing his favorite game – blackjack. He continued playing for the next 12 hours, averaging a hand a minute. At $100,000 a hand.

On one turn of the cards alone, Don Johnson won $800,000, after splitting his hand twice.

At the end of his shift at the table, Johnson had taken almost $6 million from the casino.

Casino staff watched Johnson’s game closely to see if he was counting cards, something which, while though not illegal, will get you banned from most casinos (assuming you do it well). They could find no evidence that he was counting cards, and were forced to honor his win.

Johnson’s advantage came from knowing the gaming industry. He understood how the odds were calculated and knew when to bet high. In 2011 the casinos were struggling financially and competed aggressively to entice the big players through their doors. Which is perhaps why the manager of the Tropicana authorised a $100,000 dollar a hand limit. (He was later fired). Not only did they let him play, but they invited him in, negotiating discounts against any losses.

And because they were desperate to attract his business, they made other concessions too, for example about how many times he could split his hands, and how many decks were in the shoe. Each time, Johnson made his own calculations, and the odds shifted a little more in his favor.

And Johnson kept on playing until each Casino pulled out of the deal. At which point, he cashed in his chips and left. Whereupon, the casinos were forced to issue a profits warning.[2]


8 The MIT students and Las Vegas

If you are a student, you are likely to be on the look out for a job that will work around your studies. For many students, this might be something menial and low-paying. If you are a math genius, at MIT, however, your options are better.

During the 1990s a team of students earned extra money by playing blackjack in Las Vegas.

Led by Bill Kaplan, a professional gambler, the team learned to count card. Kaplan had, in fact, already been banned for this, which prompted him to form a team of the brightest students, who he trained in the art of card-counting.

Membership of the group changed as students graduated, which, no doubt, helped them to go undetected for so long. At their peak, teams were flying into Vegas every weekend, and flying home again with their bags stuffed with cash. In one weekend alone, they won over $400,000.

Despite their elaborate use of disguises, and the strict rotation of the casinos they played at, the team was eventually spotted and, like their mentor before them, they were banned from the casinos.

The film 21 (trailer above) is loosely based on their story.[3]

7 Charles Schwab


Charles Schwab was a noted industrialist of flamboyant habits. The American steel magnate made a significant contribution of the allied success in World War I, and his reputation should have been assured, but he was often impulsive, and not always scrupulous in his business dealings.

In 1902, this impulsive and flamboyant Schwab went to Monte Carlo, and played roulette. The roulette wheel no longer listed to one side, and Schwab had nothing on his side, except luck. He played for several days, always the same game, and despite some runs of bad luck, he kept on playing. Eventually, his wins began to overtake his losses, and often won the table maximum, winning up to 75,000 francs a hand.

After playing at the tables for several days, Schwab was declared to have broken the bank, although no one would say exactly how much he had won. His win didn’t do him much good, however. By the time of his death, his fortune, once estimated at $40 million dollars, was gone. He died insolvent, even owing $25,000 to a Catholic college, having borrowed the money on the promise of leaving them $2 million in his will.

They never got a cent.[4]


6 Paul Newey


Paul Newey is a businessman, and high stakes gambler. In 2005, he was responsible for a casino in Birmingham, England, having to issue a profits warning, after he won £3 million pounds in a single night.

Newey, who made his money from offering high-interest loans to poor people, is happy to win, or lose, big. In January 2005, his preferred game was roulette, where he bet as much as £300,000 on a single spin of the roulette wheel.

His strategy, known as ‘Full and Complete’, covered all possible permutations of a single number, which gave him odds of around 3-1, turning his £300,000 bet into nearly a million pounds.

However, it was not all bad news for the casinos. Newey was said to have lost the whole of his £3 million win over the course of the following month, although Newey himself was unperturbed. In 2012, he changed his game from roulette to poker, and was eliminated from the world series on the 2nd day.[5]

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5 Archie Karas


Anargyros Karabourniotis, better known as Archie Karas, is a legend in casino history. Having grown up poor, Karas knew the value of money. And of luck. For a while, Karas had both, being credited with the longest winning streak in casino history.

In 2 years, Karas managed to turn his initial $50-dollar stake, into an incredible $40 million.

He began to make money as a pool-hall hustler, and then moved on to poker. At one point, he is said to have sat at a poker table with $7 million in chips in front of him, waiting for people to come and play him. He played, and beat, a 3-time World Series poker champion, taking $1.2 million from him.

The top players in the world began to refuse to play, because the stakes were too high, and so, Karas switched games again, and began to throw dice, a pure game of chance. On one evening at Binion’s Horseshoe, he held every single $5,000 chip in the place (their highest denomination), with a value of around $18,000,000. The chips were stacked in racks of $500,000. The casino was forced to ask Karas to sell back some of the chips in order that other players had something to gamble with.

After 2 years of winning, however, Karas’ winning streak came to an abrupt end. Karas lost $20 million playing dice. Then he switched games to baccarat, and lost another $17 million, before going back to the dice. Within 3 weeks, Karas lost $39 of his entire $40 million fortune.

Down to his last million, he made a brief comeback at poker, doubled his money, then blew every last dollar when he returned to shooting dice.

The Run was over.[6]


4 Charles De Ville Wells


In 1891, Charles De Ville Wells arrived at Monte Carlo with $4000, a not inconsiderable sum, (which would now be worth 10 times that). He sat at a roulette table, and stayed there all evening, only leaving when the casino closed. He did not even stop to eat or drink. The following day, he returned, and for 3 days after that. Each time he sat in the same spot, at the same table, and played.

His winning streak was so marked that onlookers stood 8-deep around the table watching him, and those who were lucky enough to get a spot at the table, tried to copy his bets. By the end of his weeks’ vacation, Charles De Ville Wells had won $4 million, and had broken the bank.

All the casino’s reserves of money were spent, and play had to be suspended 10 times at his table while more money was brought up from the casino vaults (the poker chip had not yet been invented).

It is believed that Wells is the inspiration for the music hall song, ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’. Wells claimed to have developed a system to beat the roulette wheel, but it is thought that he was probably cheating, given his previous history as a con man. No one is quite sure how he did it, but it has been suggested that it may have been a set up by the casino owner to generate publicity.

However, the win did not bring him much luck, and when he died in 1922, he was buried in a pauper’s grave, still owing 2 weeks rent.[7]

3 Ed Thorp


Professor Ed Thorp took a trip to Las Vegas with his wife in the 1950s, and had a game of blackjack. Being a professor, of probability and statistical analysis, he began to wonder about the game, and realized that it could be beaten. In 1962, he published his findings in a now famous book, Beat the Dealer, which demonstrated, with mathematical certainty, just how players could win.

Which was very sporting of Thorp. The casinos, however, were not quite so sporting. They changed the rules of the game overnight, so that his system would no longer work. This backfired, however, when occupancy rates at the blackjack tables fell almost to zero, and the casinos were forced to return to the original rules.

Thorp’s system was back on.

This was, ultimately, good for the casinos since everyone who walked in fancied their chances at the tables, and were usually found wanting. Visitor numbers to the casinos soared. In practice, very few players are skilled, or smart enough to Beat the Dealer.

Not surprisingly, Thorp, himself, was a very successful blackjack player, and also developed a system for beating the stock market which saw his returns far outstrip expected revenues.

He published a book about that, too.[8]


2 Akio Kashiwagi

In 1990, Akio Kashiwagi was a billionaire and 1 of the 5 biggest gamblers in the world, regularly betting $10 million in a single night’s play. It was then that he crossed paths with Donald Trump.

Trump had recently purchased three casinos in Atlantic City and was anxious to attract some high-rollers in order to generate publicity. Kashiwagi seemed the ideal person. He played baccarat, and often bet $250,000 per hand. Although he was advised against it, Trump insisted on inviting Kashiwagi to play at his casino.

Donald Trump was initially thrilled as Kashiwagi sat at a specially roped off table, and hundreds of people poured into the casino to watch him play. Within 30 minutes, however, Trump began to worry, as Kashiwagi won $500,000. By the end of the first night, he was up $4 million.

When he was $6 million up, Kashiwagi decided that he had had enough of the onlookers, cashed in his chips, and went home to Japan. Donald Trump was furious.

So he invited him back.

This time he secured an agreement that Kashiwagi would bring $2 million and would not leave until he had either doubled his money, or lost the lot.
Kashiwagi played, and after 5 days was $10 million down. At which point, Trump stopped the game. Kashiwagi claimed that this was bad faith, and was furious at the insult. However, Kashiwagi left a cheque for $6 million, to cover his losses.

It bounced.

So, bad faith on both sides.

The episode ended unhappily for both parties.

All three of Trump’s casinos went bankrupt, while Kashiwagi was found brutally murdered at his home soon after, having been stabbed 150 times with a Samurai sword.

And Trump never got his money.[9]

1 Nick Leeson

The world’s biggest gambler didn’t need to set foot in a casino, in order to break the bank. Nick Leeson was a fund manager for Baring’s Bank, the second oldest bank in the world, and one of the most exclusive.

At just 27 years old, Leeson was one of the bank’s star traders in derivatives, initially making huge profits for the bank. However, the bank’s systems were rather, shall we say, lax, meaning that Leeson was given the responsibility of checking his own trades. Which, in effect, meant that no one was checking at all.

When his trades were unsuccessful, instead of reporting the losses, he created a secret account to hide his losses, and tried to make up the difference with riskier trades.

And no one checked.

In 1995, he made a short-term gamble on the Nikkei index, in effect, gambling that its value would remain stable overnight. Unfortunately for Leeson, an earthquake hit Japan that night, and the Nikkei dropped significantly.

Leeson made a few more desperate trades, and then, realising that the game was up, he fled, leaving a note which simply said, ‘I’m sorry.’

By the time he was arrested in Germany, his losses had been calculated at over $1 billion, and the second oldest bank in the world was bankrupt.

Leeson was sentenced to 4 years in prison, and now makes a living as an after-dinner speaker, advising people on how not to break the bank. The trailer for the excellent film Rogue Trader based on the story of Leeson is above.[10]

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