Sometimes the chat at the high roller table is too good to resist.

The investing world finds itself in something of a limbo zone at the moment. We aren’t seeing the unbelievable growth of pre-2008 markets yet but a few corrections in the last year have many Wall Street big-hitters preaching gospel of an impending collapse. To make matters worse, every cowboy with a finance degree thinks he’s Warren Buffet Junior. While it can all be a little overwhelming, this story proves that there’s a fortune to be made by even the most novice investor, simply by paying attention at the right time.

In the late 1990’s, Australia’s stock market was flying high in its sixth year of a heaving bull market thanks to the explosion of the internet and its technology. The Aussie market was being driven by the US, which was in its seventeenth year of unprecedented growth following the introduction of the personal computer in the early 1980’s. In 1999, the NASDAQ posted its largest-ever annual gain: 85.6%.

Despite the investing fever gripping our nation, the modest Peter Proksa had never bought a share in his life. He was content with a quiet lifestyle and studied to become a health inspector. Upon graduating, he was generally unhappy with his career prospects and quickly moved on, finding himself working at a gaming venue managing poker machines. From there, Proksa hustled up the ranks to become a mainstay croupier at the glitzy Crown Casino, eventually being promoted to the high roller room. It was here that his clientele became a source of amazement. He watched players from around the world throwing up to $300,000 down on a single hand and shrugging off losses like they were pocket change.

Three years into the job, Proksa was happy with his life and content with being able to care for his wife and two children, but whispers of fortunes beyond belief were testing his low appetite for risk. The tech boom had well and truly hit Melbourne and the casino’s tables had become a place to discuss enormous wins on the sharemarket rather than the game at hand. Everyone Proksa came into contact with was delivering tales of the raging riches they’d made on stocks, and the temptation to have a punt was becoming too great.

He began listening in on the chat at the tables – one of his regular clients vouched passionately for a small organisation called Telco Australia. With little to no research, the croupier took the plunge and ploughed $150,000 of his life savings into Telco at a meagre 20 cents a share.

It doubled in a matter of months. Proksa was infatuated. Once again he opened his ears to the whispers circulating the high roller room, this time settling on two companies called Davnet and Voicenet. Telco had hit 60 cents and Proksa was now worth close to half a million dollars, quietly dealing cards at Crown all the while.

In early 2000, the NASDAQ fell off a cliff with almost no explanation. Seasoned veterans of the industry jumped ship expertly and minimised their losses, but Proksa was a deer in the headlights. He held on with the hope of a return to form, but his portfolio evaporated into nothing as Telco sank to 1 cent a share and his other plays dissolved. Our humble croupier vowed never to buy another stock in his life - he had lost his life savings, his wife and was forced to sell his house.

Four years later, with Proksa still manning the tables at Crown, the Australian sharemarket began to forge higher thanks to low inflation and the emerging resources sector. Proksa’s vow of trading celibacy was once again being tested as tips from Australia’s richest slithered across the blackjack table. It was the mention of Intermoco, a smart electricity metering company, which pushed him over the edge for a second time. He poured $150,000 into the company at 5 cents a share. He had a measly $15,000 left but decided to pour this into Flinders Diamonds.

Within two years, the boom unfolded and our boy was sitting on a fortune of $700,000 – Flinders had multiplied in value by 10 times. Despite the illiquidity of his worth, Proksa quit his job at Crown to pursue his destiny as a master trader. However, it was now entering early 2008 and he was about to get a whack of déjà vu. Markets worldwide were absolutely torched and 21 percent was sliced off the ASX in just 12 days in January 2008.

The inexperienced Proksa, once again starry-eyed and refusing to cut his losses, doubled down and bought Intermoco as it crashed with dreams of a recovery. After his initial purchase at 5 cents a share, he sold his final shares at 1 cent each. By late 2008, the Australian stock market was maimed by 54% and Proksa’s $700,000 fortune was worth just $20,000.

With his wealth lost for the second time in 10 years, the former croupier decided on one final all-or-nothing crack at the stock market, buying into three tiny biotech companies. Proksa put $15,000 into the listed options of Prima Biomed, which was trading at 0.001 of a cent (the lowest possible price for a listed security) and had been left for dead. He was drawn to the stock because of the simple notion that it could only appreciate in value or be delisted. Prima Biomed started to wag its tail and in 18 months Proksa’s options had risen by 2500% and his $15,000 buy-in was now worth $360,000. They rose a further three times from there and the twice-broke croupier was now a millionaire.

Proksa finally learnt from his mistakes and sold half of his holding, distributing his profits into other stocks that were trading at 1 cent or below. Since then, his success has been less of a rollercoaster ride and today he holds a diversified portfolio including low-risk stocks.

The details of this story first surfaced in a book called Bulls, Bears and a Croupier by Matthew Kidman. Grab your copy at Amazon. 

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