Top 5 Poker Pros Who Went Broke

7 years ago
Poker Pros Who Went Broke
14 Apr

It’s incredibly difficult for the average poker player to imagine winning millions at the tables and then somehow going broke within a year or two, but this fate has befallen more pros in our game than in any other.

Poker genius and massive wins are the stuff of legend, but it brings with it a downside - the opportunities to gamble at huge stakes in other games, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and ‘friends’ who are nothing of the sort. It distances players from the lives they once led and replaces them with a new world where money can buy everything.

When it all comes crashing down, the fallout is a ghastly sight as we’re about to see…

Stu Ungar

Stu Ungar was the original ‘Kid’ in poker, a fearless genius at the tables who won millions at a time when millions still meant something to the world’s best.

At the same time as he was taking down Main Event bracelets and vast sums in the toughest high-stakes cash games, he was fighting addictions which would ultimately see him die a lonely and penniless death in a Vegas motel.

From the age of ten, when he learned to play gin rummy and would fleece waiters of their tips while in the Catskills on family vacations, Ungar showed an immense talent for numbers, which, as he grew up, would lead him into the world of gambling and poker at a very young age.

Win big, lose bigger

Winning $10k in a marathon gin rummy game in New York, he lost it all at the Belmont and Aqueduct horse tracks in a few days; this was just a taste of how his life would go – huge wins and devastating losses.

When he was on his game, there was no one who could beat him,” said Larry Grossman in an interview after Ungar’s death. “He ran over players at poker tables like Jim Brown ran over players on football fields."

Winning $1million at the poker tables then losing almost double that sum on football betting, then more still at the craps table was not an unusual part of the troubled young genius’ life. Running from debts and then winning big to pay them off took it’s toll, and Ungar turned to cocaine to fuel his days-long gambling forays.

The drugs man...

I did coke to keep up,” he told New York’s Icon magazine many years ago. “You use it as an excuse to stay up and play poker, but then you take it home with you. When you have access to it and the money don't mean nothing ... it's a sickness. I guarantee you it's taken 10, 15 years off my life."

When Stu Ungar took down the 1980 WSOP Main Event he was the youngest-ever champion, and he repeated his success the following year. His legend grew as he took down the best NoLimit title events the game had to offer throughout the 80’s.

But the drugs and the gambling problems took their share of Ungar, often forcing him to play when seriously ill or in dire need of a win to cover other debts. It wasn’t until 1997 that he managed to win his 3rd Main Event bracelet – a $1million payday which was a result of being backed to play in the event at the last minute.

"That was by far my greatest performance ever," said a tearful Ungar afterwards. "I just played so perfect -- so perfect. It's so tough to come back." The Comeback Kid became his new nickname, but it was to be short-lived.

Death of a legend

The money was gone in two short months, his old ‘friends’ cocaine and the racetrack, as ever, wiping out his fortune every time he won big. After he died alone at the age of 45 in the Oasis Motel in Vegas, the poker and gambling world mourned the troubled yet meteoric life of one of the game’s true legends.

"It's wasted genius," said Las Vegas gaming analyst and radio talk-show host Larry Grossman, "Stu had his faults but was an extraordinary person.”

Archie Karas

Archie ‘the Greek’ Karas is another poker player and gambler with legendary status. His famous ‘Run’ from 1993 to 1995 saw him turn his last $50 into a $40million fortune!

However, while for Ungar it was drugs and sportsbetting which took him down to the bottom again, for ‘the Greek’ it was dice and baccarat which wiped out his winnings in three short weeks. And then, there’s the cheating….

Like Ungar, Karas had a troubled childhood, running away from an abusive father at the age of 15 and working his passage to the US where he soon became a feared pool shark. When the line of opponents willing to hand him their money dried up, he turned to poker, soon becoming a skilled player who could win millions – but lose them just as quickly.

Money can’t buy you love

You’ve got to understand something,” said Karas later in life. “Money means nothing to me. I don’t value it. I’ve had all the material things I could ever want. Everything. The things I want money can’t buy: health, freedom, love, happiness. I don’t care about money, so I have no fear. I don’t care if I lose it.”

In 1993, down to his last $50, he returned the pool tables of his youth and found a very wealthy opponent, one who would unwittingly bankroll him all the way to the top of the gambling world.

Poker shark, pool shark

Taking $1.2million from his luckless mark at the pool tables for stakes up to $40,000 a game, he more than tripled his money by taking the same guy to the cleaners on the poker felt.

I took that one million I won shooting pool with him and went on to win three million more from him playing poker in only a few days", stated Archie. “We started at $4,000/8,000 Limit 7-card Stud and quickly moved up to $8,000/$16,000 Limit, which was unheard of in those days.”

He hit Vegas with his $4million and had soon increased it to $7million, and sat in the famous Binion’s Horseshoe Casino waiting for anyone rich – and brave – enough to take him on. Stu Ungar was the first to fall to Karas’ red-hot poker sword, quickly dumping $1.2million Karas’ way. “It didn’t take long to demolish Stuey,” boasted Karas as he eyed up new victims.

Chip Reesestepped up to the challenge and lost $2million and within six months Karas was sitting on $17million with nobody to play.

Soon Karas had won all of Binion’s highest-denomination chips and the casino had to actually buy them back!

Word spread quickly how tough I was to beat, and I couldn’t find anyone to play with after a while.”

Too much cash

Then came the dice, and a problem which we might only dream about. For Karas it was a reality:

The more I won, the harder it became to find big enough boxes around town to put all my money in different banks", claimed Karas. ”With long waiting lists for the bank’s biggest boxes, I was forced to keep more money than I wanted to in the boxes at Binion’s Horseshoe.”

And, naturally, having all that money readily to hand is as much a curse as a bankroll for degenerate gamblers, which Karas surely was despite his amazing run of fortune.

The urge to gamble big amounts of money comes way too easy when millions of dollars are sitting in the casino’s boxes.”

Breaking the bank

At one point, Karas very nearly “broke the bank” at Binion’s casino after winning all of the Binion’s Horseshoe casino’s $5,000 chips, which were the highest denomination of chips at the time.

I ended up winning every $5,000 chip at Binion’s Horseshoe, which was about $18,000,000 worth, that I kept in the boxes at the Horseshoe to gamble with… Finally, one day, Jack Binion asked me to sell some of the $5,000 chips back to the Horseshoe, and I agreed to sell back about $10,000,000, leaving about $8,000,000 in chips to gamble with.”

With $40million in the bank, Karas could have done anything with his life that he wanted, even retire to his own island and live a playboy retirement out in the sun, or invest it and live in comfortable excess until the day he died. But no, what Karas wanted to do was gamble – and it all came crashing down around his ears…

The Big Crash

His dice addiction, a high-variance game at the best of times, accounted for half of his fortune in short order. Then came the baccarat tables which took another $17million from him. And finally, as Bluff magazine explained it,

When Karas was down to his last million, he made a terrible decision that cost him the remainder of his money and dignity. He headed to the Bicycle Club in Los Angeles and played (Johnny) Chan heads up. As soon as Karas arrived, a game was quickly arranged. Berman backed Chan, but both Berman and Chan played Karas heads-up and alternated every two hours. Karas destroyed the tag-team duo of Berman and Chan and doubled up. However, his inner action junkie could not prevent him from heading straight to the craps tables. Karas kissed his last $2million away shooting dice.”

And the most amazing run in gambling history had ended not with a bang, but with the whimper of dice on a felt table. Despite ‘mini-runs’ later on, Karas could never control his gambling excesses… and soon matters would turn ugly when it was revealed that he had been investigated and charged several times for marking cards at Blackjack.

His cards are marked

Had his ‘Run’ been legitimate? Or had Karas been marking cards all the way along his infamous $50 to $40million route? No-one has claimed so, but there will always be a dark cloud above Karas – even more so when he was arrested for a 5th time in 2013 on charges of “cheating and defrauding a casino” when he was “caught marking cards at a California blackjack table.”

From gambling hero to cheating zero is a horrible legacy for the man who had the world at his fingertips for two years. But if gambling has taught us anything, it’s that the game takes more than it gives in so many ways.

Scotty Nguyen

Thuận B. "Scotty" Nguyễn is one of the true characters in the poker world, a loud and personable guy with legendary poker skills mixed in with gambling and drug problems, He is a player who has bridged the gap between the old school and the new.

As with so many others, Nguyen built himself up from literally nothing into a millionaire using only his card skills – and just as quickly saw it reduced to ashes when the fame and fortune took their pound of flesh.

I was naive, whatever you call it, too confident,” he told Pokerlistings back in 2014. “Thought I could beat everybody, which I did, in poker I beat everybody. Not the casino, they broke me,” Nguyen said. “That was a long time ago when I got introduced to being famous. Fame. They introduce you to all kinds of things, nice limousines, women, drugs, you know baby?”

For a young Vietnamese boy from a family of 13 who would get horribly beaten by his father just for touching playing cards at home, the rise to poker stardom was a long and arduous path, involving various work sponsors in the US before he found his way to the bright lights of Vegas.

Poker pitfalls

His very first WSOP would set a trend for blowing his winnings, Nguyen scooping over $150K for his Omaha Hi-Lo title victory – and lost it all on dice between the cashier’s desk and the exit.

“By the time I made it to the front door I was busted. I lost everything at the craps table. I had to borrow $5 to pay the valet guy,” stated Nguyen wistfully. As many others have discovered before and since, the road to poker greatness has a lot of pitfalls along the way, and Nguyen has fallen into most of them.

When you’re 21 and they’re like ‘Anything you need,’ I mean god damn. Nice beautiful suite, $3,000 or $4,000 a night, you know what I mean baby? That’s how they got me. You know, I was young, didn’t know better. OH MY GOD. You don’t see that in Vietnam, baby. It’s just, everything was new, and they trapped me.”

No regrets

Nguyen has seen plenty of controversy throughout his long and illustrious career; his alcohol-fueled rants at the poker table causing major problems in the past. This is not to mention drug-excesses which cost him more than money and even ‘soft-playing’ accusations which hurt more than the lost millions. Still, his hero-status is well-established among the poker elite, despite the bad times.

I never regret,” says Nguyen. “They teach me a valuable lesson growing up. Pay for what you get, pay for what you want, don’t go looking for something for free. If they offer you something for free, take it, but don’t give nothing back, know what I mean?”

Act like a champ, always

While some champions have hit rock-bottom and literally begged their way back into games, Nguyen has never been able to do this he says:

Being a world champion, you have to keep your style, classy, no matter what. Know what I mean? If I need help, if you’re a good friend I call you at home. If you say no, that’s it, that’s between me and you and nobody else. That’s why when I walk out here baby, it don’t matter if I have $500 in my pocket, people think I have $5million."

Whether he now has $5million or a dime in his pocket, Nguyen has recovered from his worst and darkest days of drink, drugs and gambling – not everyone is so lucky!

Erick Lindgren

When it comes to stories of poker pros going bust, they don’t come much uglier than Erick Lindgren’s sad tale of debts, gambling degeneracy, bankruptcy, and legal actions.

As the ‘All-American face of poker’, Lindgren was one of the most successful poker players of the noughties boom – a total of $10million+ in the bank from tournaments alone, including his 2004 $1million scoop at the PartyPoker Cruise. The future looked sweet indeed for the young poker sensation.

Football and sports

Almost from the start, Lindgren had an addiction to sportsbetting, and it wasn’t a cheap one either. “I was betting very big, $50k to $100k per game,” Lindgren confessed, after fellow pro and sportsbettor Haralabos Voulgaris came out and publicly claimed that Lindgren owed him six figures for years and had failed to pay the debt in full.

“We all knew that (Lindgren) was pretty much a piece of shit when it came to settling gambling debts,” wrote Voulgaris on a 2+2 thread started by Max Weinberg who was also owed money by Lindgren. It sparked off a trail of ‘Lindgren owes me’ confessions from other pros.

But as long as the Full Tilt money train was chugging along paying distributions, nobody wanted to speak up,” continued the Greek pro. “Now that it’s pretty clear that FTP is done, so are any prospects of Erick being able to pay anyone back.”

Lindgren’s debts across poker and sportsbooks got as high as $10million at one point, and although he claimed to have paid back as many as he could, his name became synonymous with ‘bad debt’ in poker circles.

Seeking help

“I’ve had a gambling problem for a long time and I’ve finally got the opportunity to address it,” said Lindgren of his stay at a rehab clinic back in 2012. But as with all degenerate gamblers, getting away from the tables and the bets and the numbers wasn’t at the top of his list. There is a big win around the corner to save the day… Allegedly.

I’d had a really tough year, I lost way too much money in football last year and couldn’t pay some fantasy football bets at the end of the year,” Lindgren said in an interview late in 2012. “I owed people a bunch of money, and it’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time, but I definitely slipped up, made some really bad mistakes and I needed to address that.”

“I just want to get back to where my word, when I say something, it means something and I just want to get back to a level of full accountability,” Lindgren told Bluff magazine. But his plan for doing so involved…more gambling!

“That’s the thing, I don’t want to stop my profession. I just want to get better at it,” claimed the one-time golden boy of poker’s big boom.

I want to stay in full control, which means not gambling wildly, not going beyond my bankroll and gambling with other people’s money. I want to gamble the right way and do my profession as well as I can.”

The addict’s dream

As every addict knows, you can’t control these things – they always control you. There is no such thing as ‘just one drink, one last hit, one final bet’, but it didn’t seem to be something Lindgren could or would accept.

And the flip side is what kills off the degenerate gamblers’ ability to pay off debts – if poker and betting is all you’ve ever known, all you’re any good at, how can you just stop AND pay off millions to your creditors? It’s a Catch 22, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Throw in a $2million loan which was mistakenly sent to Lindgren twice by Full Tilt’s Chris Ferguson – and spent twice by the debt-ridden pro – and you have almost nowhere left to turn. Lindgren’s 2012 bankruptcy didn’t solve his problems – and it hasn’t helped to pay back all those he welched on deals with.

Despite the stint in rehab, and help from those left in the game willing to extend a hand, just last year Lindgren was slapped with a lawsuit from PokerStars – who had bought out, or rather inherited, his $2.5million debt from Full Tilt – and Lindgren once again filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

A very sad and cautionary tale that shows no matter how talented a player you are, or how much you win, the lifestyle of the rich and famous can come crashing down if you don’t learn to control your urges.

Chino Rheem

Sometimes – perhaps not often but sometimes – you can feel sorry for the man who once had it all and let it slip through his fingers by a combination of bad luck, bad choices, bad runs, and bad advice.

Other times, however, you feel that some people get exactly what they deserve, and poker low-life Chino Rheem falls into this second category.

Anyone who can get 118 pages of a 2+2 thread devoted to their ‘indiscretions’ entitled Chino Rheem SCUM part two (more scams) – yes, part 2!! – is obviously doing something very wrong in their lives and pissing off too many people. So what’s his story?

Can you spare $40K?

Chino Reem borrows money. Lots of it. And doesn’t repay it. Instead he blows it on the tables, or parties, or drugs or whatever. Not an entirely novel story, but Rheem has a bad habit of dragging others into his lies and deceit, claiming for example that Mike ‘the Grinder’ Mizrachi would vouch for him when the man had offered no such thing.

$40k here, $40k there and lots of sums in between have come Rheem’s way, and yet, whenever he wins big – which for a few years was a regular occurrence as, despite his terrible habits, Rheem is a fine player – he would suddenly not have the money to repay the debts.

Joseph Cheong, who loaned Rheem $40,000, said:

I had no idea so few people knew about Chino. First of all, he's a very charming, nice guy. Second of all, if he ever won the lottery for $10 mil, I guarantee he will pay everyone back (as long as you see him before he sees the pits).”

It’s not unknown for poker players and other gamblers to act this way, but Rheem has taken it to a whole new level it seems. After being outed by Will Molson (of Canadian beer family fame) on 2+2, and then seeing dozens of other players repeat their own versions of Rheem-scams, he finally admitted to his behaviour, at least partly.

The things people say online are not necessarily all true but there is some truth in what they say,” Rheem said. “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of,” he once stated in an interview with PokerListings. “I man up to it. I admit it. I try to live each day and make the best of it.”

Bad role models

Unfortunately for Rheem, his role model is a man we’ve just met – a man who hasn’t quite gotten to grips with what gambling degeneracy is and entails.

E-dog [Erick Lindgren] is one of the people that I respect the most in poker,” he said. “He’s a great guy. He came clean and said that he had some issues. He’s just trying to make the best of it. You can’t knock anyone for their past mistakes.”

To be so broke that you have to lie and cheat other players out of their own hard-earned money to continue your own degenerate ways is about as low as it gets.

Rumour has it that he has paid off some of the smaller debts now, whether by choice or by force is unclear, but it has been said that even if Rheem wins the Main Event it would barely put a dent in what he really owes out there.

Apparently there is broke and there is ‘Chino Rheem broke’!

Articles 2275

Andrew from Edinburgh, Scotland, is a professional journalist, international-titled chess master, and avid poker player.Read more


You need to be logged in to post a new comment

No Comments found.