• Image about Peter Drakos
Photography by Peter Baker

Drakos is constantly on the lookout for a rigged contest, and he most often finds one when he tries to knock three bottles off a level pedestal. “Sometimes the operator will put one bottle a little ahead of the other by half an inch,” he says. “Therefore, your ball is not hitting all three solidly — and that’s how they beat everybody.” If Drakos comes across a shark, he plays dumb, as if this is his first rodeo. He suggests to the operator that perhaps the bottles are out of alignment; would he mind straightening them out? He then picks the heaviest softball for optimal force and pitches it dead center of the three bottles. Wham! On average, they all fall down one out of every two throws. Drakos routinely wins 25 stuffed animals in 45 minutes to an hour. He could collect more on the $1 and $2 games, but the casinos have set prize limits.

Next stop is the Excalibur, on the other end of the Strip. Drakos seeks out the same games, but the Excalibur’s tighter prize rules limit the number of animals he can win. Since the floor staffs frequently turn over in the casinos, Drakos is seldom recognized, even though he returns year after year. Anonymity is key — the house doesn’t like to lose in anything, even stuffed animals. However, Harrah’s longtime bell captain, Efrain Irizarry, who has become friends with Drakos, remembers one such instance when Drakos drew too much attention. Drakos’ solution? “He said, ‘Let’s get your kids, and we’ll make it like they want the prize, and I’ll win them,’ ” Irizarry recalls with a chuckle.

The final stop is the nearby New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Drakos unleashes his quick assault on the arcade and fills another garbage bag with more furry friends. Sometimes bystanders assume that Drakos has purchased his spoils, but he insists he has never bought a single one. He doesn’t need to. He usually wins 50 animals during his 2.5-hour run. Depending on his accuracy, he spends anywhere from $200 to $400. Drakos estimates that in his 40 years of gaming, “it probably cost me $1,750,000 to win them.”

Drakos returns to Harrah’s in his cramped van. Three bellmen, including Irizarry, meet him to cart the animals to his suite, and Drakos tips them each $10 for the help. From noon until 7 p.m., he plays video poker and Texas Hold ’em and then dines at Harrah’s. During his five-day Vegas adventures, he makes the same trip every morning and often again at night. By the day of his departure, 400 to 500 cuddly toys crowd his room. He hires chambermaids to bundle them all in 55-gallon plastic bags, which stretch to a length of six feet. He used to take his winnings back
to Michigan, transporting the 60 bags to the airport by chartering a minibus that normally chauffeurs bachelor parties around town. These days, though, he’ll leave all the stuffed animals with a friend who ensures they are distributed among Las Vegas charities.

“Anytime I go to Las Vegas, people tell me they’ve never seen anything like this, and they’ve seen millions of people a year play the games,” Drakos says. He argues that by cleaning out an arcade, he is actually helping business. “It’s a good advertisement for the games, because most people can’t believe somebody can win.”

Drakos’ gaming passion was nurtured during his youth in suburban Detroit, where he watched his parents and aunt and uncle play pinochle on Saturday nights. He counted the cards, taught his mother how to win and then quickly developed a hand-eye skill that has served him well at the casino table and while playing carnival games. He discovered the latter at age 9, when his dad took him to the Michigan State Fair. After that, his unique talent spiraled into a lifelong fascination with the flight patterns of darts, coins, rings and balls. When he turned 21 and started moonlighting as a magician, he did what all great entertainers do and created a stage name, Peter Magic, which he continues to use, whether or not he is actually onstage.

“I don’t want to brag, but I’ve never really found anyone who can do what I can do,” he says of his gifts, which include an uncommon grasp of numbers. “I can go up to anybody in Michigan and, if they told me their first, middle and last names, and their date of birth, I can tell them their 12-digit driver’s license number and the day of the week they were born,” he says, adding that it took him 17 years to research the Michigan coding system. When asked what inspired him to tackle such a task rather than a livelier pastime, he responds: “A normal magician is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But memorizing the coding systems, [of] which there are over 14 million variables, is something that nobody else can do.”