There are few characters in the history of poker that have done more for the game than the great Johnny Moss.
Winning three of the first five World Series of Poker Main Events and amassing eight WSOP bracelets, Moss was a force to be reckoned with on the felt. A true rounder, Moss was born and bred in the old school when players still carried a pistol in their waistband and things like endorsements from major corporations were unheard of.
Johnny Moss: A True Road Gambler
Johnny grew up in the town of Marshall, Texas, but spent his formative years in Dallas, where he learned to gamble. It wasn't long before he gravitated towards the saloons and pool halls where backroom poker games could be found.
When it came to cards Moss had picked up the tricks of the trade at an early age, but instead of using his knowledge of cheating to separate suckers from their money, he was employed at a local card game to keep the other players honest.
When Moss was learning to play he didn't have access to any of the resources that we take for granted today. Comprehensive books on poker strategy simply didn't exist.
It was the time he spent overseeing these local poker games that allowed him to develop much of the strategy and many of the insights that made him such a successful player. Moss also started his career before the advent of major tournaments and legal casino poker rooms, so like most professionals of the time, he was a traveling gambler who made his living on the road.
Myth and Legend
Myth and legend surround the life of Johnny Moss and there's no shortage of colorful anecdotes of which he was a part.
In the early days of his career, it was customary to carry a concealed pistol and Moss was no different. While playing in one backroom game Johnny observed a peephole in the ceiling through which the house was spying on the cards they were holding.
Never one to oblige a cheater, Moss told them flat out that if they didn't send the spy down and plug up the hole, he would be forced to open fire in an upward fashion. Calling what they thought to be a bluff on Moss's part, they played dumb, forcing Johnny to prove he was serious by firing a few rounds into the ceiling and wounding the man above.
Another much told story involves Moss playing a high-stakes round of golf in which he was backed by a few individuals of the criminal persuasion. Down $250,000 and nearing the end of the round, Johnny's backers were weighing the pros and cons of simply killing the opponent rather than paying him the quarter million.
Miraculously Moss was able to win the last few holes, pulling close to even for the match. Moss's opponent was stunned, telling him "You're the luckiest man alive." Moss replied simply, "No sir, you are."
Epic Battle with Nick the Greek
Apart from his three WSOP Main Event victories and countless other tournament wins, Moss is best remembered for his epic battle with fellow poker pioneer Nick "The Greek" Dandalos in 1949.
Set up by Moss's close friend and poker giant Benny Binion, this heads-up match was far and away the highest stakes game anyone had ever witnessed.Moss and Dandalos traded pots back and forth for more than five months but it was Moss who was clearly pulling farther and farther into the lead.
Reports vary dramatically but some sources claim that Dandalos had lost as much as $4 million by the time he stood up from the table and spoke those much-quoted words, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go."
In later years, however, this story has come into question and reports of the game may have been misconstrued. Both Doyle Brunson and casino owner Jack Binion say the game happened, though.
The Best Poker Player in the World at the Time
Although Moss enjoyed the bulk of his success at the poker table, this was not the only arena in which he was both feared and respected. He claimed to have won millions on golf courses and in bowling alleys.
In the 50's Moss moved to Odessa, Texas, where he took advantage of the oil boom and its parallel lust for gambling.
Despite his many triumphs in cards and at golf Moss was rumored to have lost more than $8 million betting on dice and sports. He eventually gave up these vices as well as his cigarette addiction and enjoyed an overall better quality of life during his last years.
In an interview with poker writer Nolan Dalla, living legend Doyle Brunson had this to say about Moss:
"I learned from Johnny Moss, who was the best poker player in the world at the time. So, if I had a mentor, it was Johnny Moss." This is just one example of how seminal Moss was in the development of poker.
Towards the end of his life, Moss battled failing health and the many problems that follow closely on the heels of old age, but nothing was able to overcome his love for the game of poker.
It was observed by all who knew him that a great change would take place each time he sat down at the table, a brightening of those eyes that had witnessed so many of the biggest events in poker history."
Johnny Moss passed away on December 16, 1995.