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Johnny Moss

By Paul McGuire

Johnny Moss is one of the greatest poker players of all time. He is one of two people (besides Stu Ungar) to ever win the World Series of Poker on three separate occasions. He also played in the most infamous heads-up poker game of all time against Nick the Greek. In 1979, he was one of the charter members of the Poker Hall Fame at Binion's Horseshoe Casino. If they had started the World Series of Poker ten years earlier, there is no doubt that Johnny Moss could have easily won five or six more World Championships. He even has a starting poker hand named after him - the Ace-Ten.

Johnny Moss grew up in Odessa, Texas and learned how to cheat at cards before he even learned strategy. As a teenager, he worked at a local gambling parlor as a look out. His job was to spot cheaters and make sure the games were played fair. In those two years he picked up plenty of poker strategy and eventually applied everything he learned to his poker game.

Johnny Moss was one of the original road gamblers. He would travel from small towns to big cities all over Texas and the Southwest, driving or sleeping during the days and playing high stakes poker in backroom games at nights. In the days before legalized gambling, the professional gamblers were always on the road. They followed the action while the feds, Texas Rangers, local law enforcement, and career thieves, mobsters, and criminals were constantly getting in the way.

In 1949, Johnny Moss participated in one of the most historical moments in the history of poker, which might have been the prelude to today's World Series of Poker. As the story goes, Nick "The Greek" Dandolos was a notorious gambler who cleaned out all the big bookies on the east coast with his high rolling action. He came to Las Vegas and specifically to the Horseshoe looking for high stakes poker. He approached Benny Binion who agreed to host the event in his casino. Benny called Moss, who was in the middle of a three-day long game in Texas. Moss hopped in a plane right away and flew to Las Vegas to play against Nick the Greek.

The marathon game lasted well over five months. Starting with Five-card Stud, they played everyday, taking only a break for a few hours to sleep. Moss was a favorite to win because he was 15 years younger than Nick the Greek. Stamina would end up being a huge factor in the outcome. The always savvy entrepreneur Benny Binion moved their table to the front of the casino where tourists, guests, and other gamblers would stand several people deep taking in the high stakes action. Rumors say that Johnny Moss won over $4 million from Nick the Greek. No one knows for sure. Back in 1959, that was a hefty sum of money. The game ended when an exhausted Nick the Greek uttered one of the most famous lines in all of poker, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go."

Johnny Moss won eight World Series of Poker bracelets, winning events in No Limit Main Event (1970, 1971, 1974), Seven-card Stud (1975, 1976, 1979), Seven-card Stud Split (1981), and Ace to Five Draw (1988). His last WSoP bracelet might have been one of his greatest accomplishments since he was over 70 years old at the time.

For someone who lived and gambled into his 90s, there are thousands of Johnny Moss stories. One of my favorites has to be the time he played a heads-up golf match with a wealthy businessman. The guy was beating Moss pretty good in the first half of the match and Moss was down over a quarter of a million dollars. The mobsters who sponsored the event were in the gallery watching them play. They were furious since they’d bet on Johnny Moss. They decided that if the businessman won, they'd kill him instead of paying him the money. Lucky for that guy, Moss came from behind, birdied the last hole, and won. As they walked off the golf course, the angered business man mentioned to Moss, "You are the luckiest man alive." Moss laughed knowing that his victory saved the man's life and responded, "No sir, you are."

The most chilling story I’ve ever heard about Johnny Moss occurred when writer Michael Konick asked him in an interview if he had ever killed a man. Moss coldly responded, "I don't know if he died."

Johnny Moss was a huge proposition gambler. He won millions of dollars betting on his personal bowling and golf matches. Unfortunately, he lost it all at various sports books and at the craps table. He once claimed that he lost over $8 million in four years of shooting dice. Yes, he always thought of himself of a sucker.

Johnny Moss lived in Las Vegas up until his death in 1997 and regularly played at The Horseshoe where he had a life long friendship with Benny Binion. Fellow Texan Doyle Brunson, always admired Moss' sharp mind, especially in his later years. Many experts would argue that Johnny Moss was the best poker player of all time. For the better part of the 20th century, there were only a handful of players who could compete with Johnny Moss, so it's safe to say that his name will always be mentioned as "the best player of all time."

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