Las Vegas, where money flows like wine as gamblers from all over the world congregate to test their luck against the house. While most Vegas visitors are penny-ante schmucks like you or me, every once in a while a wealthy individual decides to show us how it's done. Here are 10 tales of people putting huge amounts of money—or worse—on the line.
William Lee Bergstrom
If you want to find the man who popularized big-ticket betting in Vegas, look no further than Benny Binion. The owner of the Horseshoe knew that by attracting wealthy gamblers with a lust for action, he'd raise his profit margins. Unfortunately, that strategy also opened him up to huge losses. In 1980, William Bergstrom walked into the Horseshoe with $777,000 in a suitcase. He opened it up and put every penny on the Don't Pass line on the craps table. The thrower sevened out and Bergstrom instantly doubled his money.
When you get to Vegas, you'll soon discover that wagers aren't confined to the casino floor. People there bet on just about anything. So when high-roller local John Hennigan's friends bet him $100,000 that he couldn't live in Des Moines, Iowa for six weeks, nobody blinked an eye. Hennigan, notorious for his love of Vegas's nightlife, gamely trooped off to Iowa but returned after just two days, gladly paying out the cash to his buddies.
Here's another bet that took place away from the gaming table, but man is it a doozy. When Brian Zembic and a buddy got into an argument about breast implants, a challenge was made: get a pair of 38Cs in your chest and keep them in for a year for $100,000. Zembic gladly took the challenge, going under the knife to cover previous gambling losses. Even weirder, he actually kept his new cleavage as a conversation piece after the year was up.
The Buried Life
The biggest single roulette spin in Las Vegas history actually belongs to a quartet of dudes. The four gentlemen behind MTV's The Buried Life were trying to make a million and figured the only way to do it fast was through the intercession of Lady Luck. Scraping up $125,000, they put it all on one spin of the roulette table. Amazingly enough, they won, and decided to double their money with a second spin. That one didn't fare too well, and they went home not millionaires, but penniless.
Playing poker for a living isn't the healthiest of occupations. You're sitting down all the time, stress levels are high, and hot girls keep bringing you alcoholic beverages. For multi-time WSOP champion Howard Lederer, things were especially bad. Morbidly obese, doctors told him that if he didn't lose hundreds of pounds and become vegetarian he would die within years. Gastric bypass surgery, a vegan diet and regular exercise did the trick, but when fellow poker player David Grey tried to mock him by betting him $10,000 that he wouldn't eat a cheeseburger, Lederer grabbed the burger, wolfed it down, collected his money and went back to his diet.
A quarter of a million dollars was chump change to Bob Stupak. The casino owner was notorious for putting money on football games, and in 1989 he made the single largest bet ever made in Vegas on anything. Stupak bet a cool million on the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl. Luckily for Bob, the 49ers came through and he cashed out a milli richer, not that he needed it. He went on to win a championship bracelet at the World Series of Poker the same year.
Some people come to Vegas to find a mythic transformation, to leave behind everything of their old life and be born again in the fires of chance. Britisher Ashley Revell sold everything he owned, emptied his bank account and put every penny he had—$135,000—on red. One spin of the wheel later and he'd doubled his money. He gave a $600 tip to a dealer and walked out of the casino a rich man. We don't want to think about what would have happened if the ball went the other way.
In Vegas, people will bet on just about anything. 1979 saw a great example, as El Cortez owner Jackie Gaughan decided to start taking bets on where space station Skylab's wreckage would fall to Earth when it re-entered the planet's atmosphere. Jackie laid odds on everything from New York City to the El Cortez itself (which paid out 10,000 to 1), but the final resting place of the downed satellite ended up in Australia.
The best gamblers have incredible mathematical minds that allow them to calculate odds in ways that you or I could never do. Stu Ungar, one of the best blackjack players of all time, had such a prodigious memory that when Bob Stupak (remember him?) challenged him to memorize three decks of cards in a row for $100,000, it was actually considered a pretty fair bet. Ungar watched the cards be dealt and returned to the shoe and then recounted all 156 cards without missing one. Rain Man would be proud.
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It's almost impossible to decide which of legendary gambler Archie Karas' bets was the craziest. The man came to Vegas with $50 in his wallet and grew that stake to a staggering $17 million over the course of three years. Whether he was playing pool or poker, Karas' three-year streak is widely regarded as the most insane in Las Vegas history. By the end, after being banned from the poker tables at most casinos, Karas was just taking $100,000 bets on single dice rolls. And yet, just a year after that, he'd lost it all the same way he earned it.