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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

(continued from page 1)

"I been playing since I was 10 years old," he says, surveying the Horseshoe's expansive poker room, which is humming with the clatter of chips and the riffling of cards. "I guess I know what I'm doing by now."

As a boy in Odessa, Texas, Moss says he was "learned by a gang of cheaters," who introduced him to the joys of chicanery, showing him the secrets of dealing from the bottom of the deck, holding out cards and introducing marked decks into high-stakes games. "They taught me how to cheat," Moss recalls. "But they taught me how to protect myself, too." As a teenager Moss procured a job at a local saloon, where he was responsible for cleaning up dirty games. "I made $10 to $20 a day for two years, just watching the game, keeping an eye on everything." It was during this intensive observational period that Moss thinks he first learned the finer points of poker.

"After I picked up a thing or two I became a road gambler, playing on the square wherever I could find a good game--Mexico, Tahoe, wherever. I knew how to do it but I didn't have to steal. I made plenty playing clean. But I sure saw a lot of cheating in those days," Moss says. "One night I'm playing in some small town--I don't remember where, maybe in Oklahoma--and I see they got the room set up as a peep joint [with a confederate spying on players' cards through a peep hole in the ceiling]. So I pull out my gun--always carried a gun back in those days--and said, 'Now, fellas, do I have to go and shoot a bullet in the ceiling? Or you going to send your boy down without any harm?' Hell, they thought I was bluffing," Moss says, laughing. "Ended up shooting the guy in his ass."

Back when the gambling world was run by bootleggers and mobsters, before publicly traded corporations cornered the market on suckers, Johnny Moss says being a professional gambler was truly like living on the wild frontier, where pointing a pistol at a man's forehead and ordering him to undress was not a particularly unusual request. "I suppose I found about 15 holdout machines [mechanical cheating devices] on naked men through the years."

Did he ever kill a man?

"I don't know if he died," Moss says.

In one legendary gambling story, Moss had been playing golf against a wealthy businessman, offering the mark his standard proposition: Moss would play from the back tees, while his opponent would begin each hole on the green in regulation, playing from a spot on the putting surface of Moss' choosing. "I was so good from the fairway I always got inside of them on my approach shot. I made millions on that golf bet," Moss crows.

But one day in Las Vegas the blind hog had found the acorn, as gamblers (and golfers) like to say: The sucker had the hustler on the run. "I think I was down about a quarter-million going into the last few holes," Moss recalls. "Fact was, the other guy was in trouble." Serious trouble. Moss' backers happened to be a couple of unsavory types who advocated simply killing his opponent. "I made birdie on the last hole. Cost the guy about $100,000. He was complaining and hollering. He said to me, 'Moss, you're the luckiest man alive.' I said, 'No, sir, you are.' He had no idea my birdie probably saved his life.

"Sure, I had plenty of mob connections through the years," Moss admits. "Some of them weren't bad. Hell, I lived in Bugsy's place at the Flamingo for three or four years."

Moss' greatest benefactor, however, was his best friend from childhood, Benny Binion, who, after a lucrative career in the moonshine racket and gambling, moved to Las Vegas in the early 1940s after his sheriff lost in the Dallas elections. It was Binion, an illiterate, self-taught financial genius, who arranged the storied Moss versus Nick the Greek match in the front lobby of his Horseshoe club. In 1949, the Greek, wowing Vegas with his extravagant wagers, told Binion he was looking for someone to play poker with, someone who might fancy a $250,000 no-limit contest. Binion thought Johnny Moss was the best poker player in the world, perhaps the only man fit to gamble with Dandalos for what was then a monumental sum.

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