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The Grand Old Man of Poker

If you haven't lost a game to Johnny Moss, you haven't really played poker.
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

If you were to encounter Johnny Moss outside his natural element, away from the milieu in which he normally operates, he might strike you as a harmless, slightly dotty old man. Put him on a park bench surrounded by pigeons and screaming toddlers, and you would think him a nattily attired gentleman watching the world go by, stretching his pension into the twilight of his years. Unless you looked closely, nothing would indicate that this elderly retiree was anything but an elderly retiree, bemusedly passing his days on the outskirts of life.

Look into his eyes, though, and you might be startled. They are tired and dewy, as befits a man of 88. But those eyes are piercing, too. Hooded like an alligator's, they regard the world with a cold intensity that is simultaneously inspiring and chilling.

These are eyes that have seen things most of us believe only happen in movies or tales of fantasy. His eyes have detected a faint pulse of apprehension in the veins of a man's neck facing a crucial decision. They've seen delicate acts of legerdemain and brutal acts of violence. He has witnessed men losing millions of dollars on the turn of a card.

Johnny Moss is one of the greatest poker players to have ever played the game.

To call him legendary would be a gross understatement, like calling Frank Sinatra a good singer. Moss is known as the "Grand Old Man" of poker, one of the seminal figures in the storied history of America's favorite indoor game. He is the only player to have won the World Series of Poker World Championship three times. (Alas, if the annual competition at Binion's Horseshoe had begun decades earlier, before Moss began to feel the ravages of age, there's no telling how many titles he might have won.)

He is renowned for breaking Nick "the Greek" Dandalos in a famous marathon game of five-card stud. The history books do not agree on how much the Grand Old Man took from the Greek, but Moss himself recalls the figure being close to $4 million. He has played with virtually everyone of note in the annals of twentieth century poker, from celebrated world champions to secretive road gamblers, from name-brand millionaires to anonymous scrabblers. Even when players knew they had little hope of beating the man, many gambled with him anyway, just to say they had lost to the best. All poker waters in our time flow through Johnny Moss.

Most serious poker players have, at one time or another, made the pilgrimage to Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, where Moss holds court virtually every day of the week. You can usually find him at the $20 to $40 hold 'em game or entered in a major tournament. By the luck of the draw, a rank beginner may find himself and his pile of chips seated across from Moss at one of these tournaments, vaguely aware that after a few hours all he'll likely have to show for his efforts will be a pile of memories. But he's thrilled anyway. It's like playing in a pro-am with Jack Nicklaus.

Everyone has a favorite Johnny Moss story, most of which involve winning a meager pot from the old master, or perhaps learning a money-saving lesson from the reptilian-eyed man who has seen about all there is to see at a poker table. With a mixture of pride and chagrin, this writer, in fact, recalls being knocked out of his first World Series of Poker many years ago by Johnny Moss, whose pair of kings sent a young reporter and his scruffy pair of jacks packing. (Strangely, being ousted from the tournament felt somehow honorable at that moment.) A year later, incrementally wiser, the writer enjoyed one of the highlights of his poker life when he knocked Moss out of the World Series seven-card stud event, thereby joining the voluminous list of amateur poker players who will one day tell anyone who will listen that they once competed against the great Johnny Moss--and won a hand!

To see Moss now is akin to watching a punchy Muhammad Ali sign autographs at a baseball card convention. Debilitated by ill health, Johnny Moss gets around these days on a motorized electric cart, whose horn he seems to delight in honking as he winds through casino traffic. He speaks in a hoarse, Texas-inflected whisper, and his thoughts often stray randomly, making extended conversation difficult. His memory is no longer reliable. In 1995, for the first time since the World Series of Poker's inception in 1970--he was the first winner--Johnny Moss did not enter the world championship, primarily because of fatigue.

He is a frail old man. But something magical happens when Moss parks his little cart next to a poker table. The inattentiveness goes away. The aches and pains diminish. The eyes burn bright. Johnny Moss experiences a curious rebirth every time he plays cards. Whether sheerly through learned responses or acute instincts, the Grand Old Man, nearing 90, remains a winning poker player.

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