Perhaps more than any other individual, Nicolas “Nicky the Greek” Zographos (circa 1890~1953) deserves credit for turning Baccarat into the sophisticated high stakes game that it is today. During the early 20th century, he led a group of gamblers on a journey that would involve almost all of the major casinos of Europe and transform forever not only how the game is played but also who plays it.
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Forming the Syndicate
While still living in Greece in his early twenties, Zographos discovered his extraordinary gift for playing card games. He had a photographic memory and could remember the order of all 312 cards as they were dealt from six decks. For several years he practiced the best way of playing a hand of Baccarat, without ever placing a bet. Then, in 1919, Zographos and his wife’s uncle, Eli Eliopulo, traveled to France, intent upon using their gambling skills at the gaming tables of Paris.
Along the way, the pair had the good fortune to meet up with a professional gambler from Armenia named Zaret Couyoumdjian. Their new contact helped them raise funds needed to grow their wagers, and the three partners were almost immediately successful. It did not take long for another Greek émigré, Anthanase Vagliano, to join the team. He was a shipping magnate who added 50 million francs to the venture and the “Greek Syndicate” was born.
Such significant financial backing allowed Zographos to embark upon a truly daring plan. The group would purchase the right to deal “baccarat en banque” at an established casino and announce to the world “tout va”—“anything goes,” or no limits. So it happened that the Syndicate set up shop at a casino in Deauville, France in 1922. The casino’s French owner, a former carnival operator named François André, had a flair for adventure and insisted on providing the Greeks with a room and a private table in return for a share in their operation.
Before long, the possibility of limitless winnings began drawing players to Deauville from all over Europe and beyond. The Aga Khan and Baron Henri de Rothschild were among the Syndicate’s clientele, as was department store magnate Gordon Selfridge. In 1923, the Finance Minister of Chili won some 17 million francs from the group, while French automobile mogul André Citroën allegedly dropped 30 million francs over the course of seven years. French tourism officials began saying that Zographos and his crew “attracted more moneyed tourists to France than the Louvre and the Follies Bergere in Paris combined.”
No Such Thing as Luck
By the 1930s, the Zographos Syndicate had spread its control of high stakes Baccarat tables to the most exclusive casinos of Cannes, Paris and Monte Carlo. At each venue, they removed the betting limits. Single bets of over 10 million francs were not uncommon, and the group thrived all the way through the Depression. Only the closure of casinos during World War II briefly interrupted their operations, which resumed just as soon as peace returned.
Zographos himself was remarkable for being extremely calm and cool under pressure, despite the huge wagers at stake. With a keen sense for business, he charged an entry fee to his private rooms so that onlookers could watch the high rollers play. One of his biggest wins was drawing the nine of diamonds to a worthless pair of face cards in 1926. Thereafter, the nine of diamonds became his symbol, featured on everything he owned from his cufflinks to his yacht.
Zographos was fond of saying, “Good luck and bad luck do not exist.” He believed wholly in the mathematics of gaming, stating that his ability to win under all kinds of circumstances was “more a form of intelligence than a manifestation of fate.” Beyond merely studying the cards, Zographos used his powers of observation to forecast how others would bet. He kept close track of opponents’ wins and losses, and he could often tell from their betting what cards they held.
Nicky the Greek once described gambling as an addiction and likened himself to “an aviator who knows he will crash one day but goes on flying.” But rather than crash, Zographos spent the last three years of his life in Switzerland, living quietly, playing golf and giving money to his favorite charities—a legend never to be forgotten in the annals of gambling.