The final place in this anthology of famous gamblers has been reserved for one of the best-known names in 20th century European casino gambling.  It is, however, not the name of a person but of a group: the Greek Syndicate.

The name seems to belong in tales of international crime and intrigue, in cloak-and-dagger thrillers-as the name of the sinister, anonymous villains.  But in fact the members of the Greek Syndicate were far from villainous or sinister, and were never anonymous.  Nor, for that matter, were they all Greek.  There were five in the Syndicate.  Taken in alphabetical order, their names were; François André (French), Zaret Couyoumdjian (Armenian), Eli Eliopulo (Greek), Athanase Vagliano (Greek), and Nicolas Zographos (Greek).

The Syndicate was initially formed in Paris about 1919.  Zographos and Eliopulo had left Greece for Paris to exploit their gambling skills, and had set up as bookmakers as well as playing baccarat regularly in Parisian clubs.  In one of these clubs they met Couyoumdjian, who was also living as a professional gambler.  Because the three found themselves taking the bank regularly, they decided to pool their resources-and the Greek Syndicate was born.  Later Vagliano joined them, bringing with him the fortune he had made in shipping, and André became the fifth member soon afterward.
All through the 1920s and 1930s the Greek Syndicate dominated the highest gambling echelons of Deauville, Cannes, and Monte Carlo.  They constantly played against some of the richest men and women of the world including such famous names as the then Aga Khan, ex-king Farouk of Egypt, and Baron Henri de Rothschild.  Yet the Syndicate managed over the years not only to remain solvent but actually to make a profit: Each of its members ended his career far richer than he had begun.  And much of the credit for this success must be given to the gambling abilities and instincts of Nico Zographos.

When Zographos was in his twenties he had put his mathematical aptitude to work to master the mathematics of gambling and especially of the game of baccarat.  He studied and he practiced in baccarat game with friends, among whom was Eliopulo; soon he was almost incredibly expert.

Much of his skill was due to his incredible memory.  Zographos could remember every card that was played throughout a game (or “shoe”) of baccarat – and 312 cards are used.  He invariably knew what the last few cards were before they were drawn.  Thus he could usually gauge the fluctuations in the odds favoring the bank (which he worked out mathematically beforehand); to put it simply, he would usually know what his chances were of drawing a card he needed, and so could adjust his betting.

In baccarat the bank usually has a small but definite favorable percentage: Throughout a shoe it may average about 8 per cent.  Of course, the advantage  will alter in every individual hand, depending on what cards have been used.  The bank is held by the man who bids highest for it (who, at Deauville or Cannes, was generally Zographos backed by his partners).  The banker has also another valuable advantage: He can stop play whenever he likes, avoiding bankruptcy in a losing streak by giving up the bank.

At the height of his career Zographos also had a considerable psychological advantage over opponents because of his impressive reputation as a consistent winner.  Also, his memory helped him psychologically as well: He always knew exactly how much each of his opponents had won or lost during the evening (as well as how much they could afford to lose).  This knowledge, and his almost infalliable gambling instincts, enabled him to predict how certain players would bet- and, conversely, enable him to guess from the betting what cards his opponents were holding.  Of course, as a I pointed out in Chapter 11, such abilities are prerequisites for any would be professional gambler; but few professionals have developed these abilities to the degree of expertise that Zographas achieved.  (Incidentally, there has never been slightest hint that the Greek Syndicate’s games were anything but honest and aboveboard.)

It was partly due to the collective skill of the Syndicate members (they each held the bank frequently, though Zographos held it most often) and partly to their collective wealth that they were able to startle the gambling world of 1922 by taking an almost unheard-of step.  They decided no longer to impose a betting limit on baccarat when the Syndicate was in charge.

The idea originated with Zographos; the bulk of the necessary capital to back the venture was put up by Vagliano (the equivalent of nearly $ 2,000,000).  At the beginning of the Deauville season Zographos, taking the banker’s chair for the initial baccarat game, simply announced: “Tout va.” The sky was the limit.  As the Syndicate expected, big-time gamblers came from all over the world to play for immense sums hoping to break the Syndicate.  But 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 the British newspaper the Sunday Dispatch after Zographos’s death in 1953, and American gambler once challenged him to play one hand for 1,000,000 francs (then about $ 168,000).  Zographos agreed-but with the proviso that they played the best of three hands.  Zographos lost the hand, calmly won the second, and then the third.

But Zographos didn’t always win.  At Cannes in 1926, for example, he lost the equivalent of $ 672,000 in a week’s play.  On the last night, after losing several coups, Zographos left the table and returned a few moments later with another 1,000,000 francs apparently his last-and risked the whole sum.  Sensing his danger, his opponents bet heavily.  Zographos (as unruffled and expressionless as ever ) dealt the play poker cards games.  His opponents received an eight and a seven.  It was Zographos’s turn.  His first two cards were court cards, and therefore worthless; he drew a third.

It was a nine of diamonds –an unbeatable nine.  He had won.  And he continued to win that night and the following nights.  The nine of diamonds afterward became his insignia, appearing on his cigarette case, on his cuff links, and even on the flag of his yacht.

That moment was the turning point for the Syndicate.  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 to the Syndicate’s activities.  But, afterward, the gamblers returned to the casinos, and Syndicate (with some new faces ) took up where it had left off.  Today, all the original members are dead.  But the Syndicate still exists, and still can be said to achieve more consistent success than any comparable group in Europe.

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