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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 3)

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.

"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.

"Johnny, I got this game all set up for you," Binion told Moss. "What do you want to do?"

"Leave town," Moss replied.

He didn't. Figuring the match would do for his business what exploding volcanoes and pirate ship battles have done for the Mirage's Steve Wynn, Binion convinced Moss to play the match. Close to five months, thousands of hands and millions of dollars later, Dandalos conceded. "Mr. Moss," the Greek said, "I must let you go."

"That Greek was always a gentleman," Moss says.

***

Seated at a crowded poker table, raking in several magnificent pots as if on cue, as if he intends to impress nearby observers with his still potent skills, Moss scans the casino floor. His head turns slowly, watching an elderly lady pumping coins into a slot machine, a young couple at the blackjack table, a drunk digging in his pockets for another quarter. "It's pitiful the shape people get in," Moss says. "But I never felt sorry for the losers."

Moss admits to having had a "leak," a compulsion to blow all the money he earned playing poker and golf and bowling ("I won over $2 million at the bowling alley," he claims) on sports betting and craps. "In four years I lost over $8 million at the dice tables, betting football, playing $300,000 on the middles [long-shot sports wagering]. One day I'd be giving my wife $200,000, telling her to go buy a house. Pick out whatever you want. Next day I'd be going broke, asking her to have the money returned." Eventually, Moss quit the dice and the sports and the cigarette smoking. "My eyesight suddenly got better. My bankroll got better, too. I guess I been all right ever since," he says, smiling slyly.

He wins another pot, a huge one, with a flush. His opponents watch disconsolately as what was once their supply of chips forms a sizable heap in front of the elderly fellow with the little cap and the lizard eyes. "Nice hand, Mr. Moss," one of the losers says. "Very nice."

Johnny Moss allows himself a subdued laugh. "I been a sucker now for 70, 80 years. Long, long time." He stacks his winnings into neat $100 towers. "Not bad for a sucker. No, not too bad."

Michael Konik is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist. Poker's Top Women

 

The 1995 World Series of Poker, the gambling community's most revered event, will be remembered as the year in which female poker players proved emphatically that the cards have no regard for age, race or sex. Women placed in the money 11 times, eliminating dozens of befuddled good ol' boys in the process. While only one woman, Vera Richmond, has ever won a World Series of Poker event (the Ace to Five Draw Poker event in 1982), several this year came thrillingly close. Indeed, history was made in the main event when Barbara Enright, a two-time women's world poker champion (in 1986 and 1994), became the first female ever to make the final table. She finished fifth and earned $114,180.

Meanwhile, the main event produced a new world champion, Dan Harrington, from Downey, California, whose victory in the $10,000 buy-in, no-limit, hold 'em World Series competition earned him $1 million. Like many who compete in the Horseshoe's tournaments, Harrington gained entry into the big show by winning a $220 buy-in mini-tournament, proving yet again that in Las Vegas, little dreams sometimes blossom into prodigious realities.

In perhaps the World Series' most stunning poker development, playing in only her third poker game, a female photographer representing Cigar Aficionado took 10th place in the prestigious Horseshoe Press Tournament. For the record, that photographer's name is Stephanie Ellis Konik.

--MK

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