One of the best-known gamblers of the 20th century was actually a group of gamblers known as the Greek Syndicate.
The name may conjure up images of organised crime and the underworld but the reality was much less sinister. There were five members of the syndicate, not all of them Greek. There was Zaret Couyoumdjian (Armenian), Francois Andre (French), Eli Eliopulo (Greek), Anthanase Vagliano (Greek) and Nicolas Zographos (Greek).
The Greek syndicate was formed in 1919 in Paris. Eliopulo and Zographos had decided to leave Greece for Paris in order to exploit their gambling skills, setting up as bookmakers and regularly playing baccarat in the cream of the Parisian clubs. It was in one of these clubs that the pair met Couyoumdjian who was already making his living as a professional gambler. The three players found that they regularly took the bank at numerous Parisian casinos. For this reason they decided to pool their resources, hence the Greek Syndicate was born. Some time later Vagliano ‘The Greek’ joined the duo and with him he brought his fortune, made in the shipping trade, to provide initial start up collateral. Andre joined later to complete the team.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s the syndicate dominated the highest limit tables in the most exclusive casinos of Paris, Cannes and Monte Carlo. They’d play with the richest men and women they could find including famous names such as the Ago Khan, the former king of Egypt and Baron Henri de Rothschild. Over the years the syndicate managed to make a healthy profit. Every member finished their gambling career far richer than they had begun. Much of the credit for their great success was owed to the amazing gambling and mathematical abilities of Zographos.
Whilst still in his twenties Zographos put his mathematical skills to work to master the mathematics of gambling, specialising in the game of baccarat. He spent his time practicing with friends including Eliopulo who was already an baccarat expert.
Zographos had a staggering memory; he could memorise every hand that was played throughout a game of baccarat in which 312 cards are used. He was therefore almost able to predict the last few cards to be drawn. He could generally gauge the fluctuations in the odds favoring the bank and would know the odds of drawing the cards he needed and adjust his betting accordingly.
In the game of baccarat, the bank will usually have a small but clearly favorable percentage edge. Throughout a game or shoe as it is termed, the advantage will alter with every single hand, depending on which cards are dealt. The bank is held by whichever player bids the highest for it and with the syndicate’s huge bankroll the bank was generally held by them. The banker also has another valuable advantage: He can stop play whenever he likes, avoiding bankruptcy in a losing streak by giving up the bank.
When at the height of his gambling career Zographos also had a significant psychological advantage over his opponents owing to his impressive reputation as a constant winner. He always knew precisely how much his opponents had won or lost through the evening and was therefore able to gauge how much they could afford to wager. This knowledge, and his almost infallible gambling instincts, enabled him to predict how certain [types of] players would bet-and conversely, enabled him to guess from the betting what cards his opponents were holding. This knowledge, and his almost infallible gambling instincts, enabled him to predict how certain players would bet and enable him to guess from the betting what cards his opponents were holding.
The syndicate’s success was in part due to the member’s collective skill and in part due to their formidable collective wealth. The biggest casinos of the time took the unprecedented step of no longer imposing limits when the syndicate was playing. As the syndicate expected, big-time gamblers came from all over the world to play for immense sums, hoping to break the syndicate. However, gamblers who wanted to win heavily had to bet heavily; and Zographos managed to win just often enough to keep replenishing the syndicate’s capital and to deplete that of many of his opponents.
According to an article that appeared in a British newspaper of the time after Zographos’s death in 1953, an American gambler once challenged him to play one hand for 1,000,000 francs (then about £100,000). Zographos agreed but with the proviso that they played the best of three hands. Zographos lost the first hand, calmly won the second, and then the third.
Of course, the legendary Zographos didn’t always win. In Cannes, back in 1926 he lost the equivalent of £450,000 in just one week. On the final night of the week after loosing several hands he left the table and returned a few moments later with another 1,000,000 francs, apparently his last money and wagered the entire sum. His opponents bet heavily. Zographos dealt the cards; his two opponents received an eight and a seven. Next was Zographos’s turn, his first two cards were court cards, and there¬fore worthless; he drew a third. This card was a nine of diamonds, he won the hand.
His luck had just changed, he continued on his winning streak for the evening and the following days. After this notorious game, the nine of diamonds became his insignia, appearing on his cigarette case, cuff links and even on the flag of his yacht.
That game marked a turning point for the syndicate. They were never down to their last pennies again. They never came close to the brink again in spite of frequent challenges. They reigned supreme until the Second World War put a temporary stop to gambling in Europe and the syndicate. However, after the war the gamblers returned to the casinos and the syndicate (with some new faces) took up where it had left off. Today, all the original members are dead. However, the syndicate still exists, and still can be said to achieve more consistent success than any comparable group in Europe.