Johnny Moss (Left) Photo: UNLV Special Collections via Wikipedia Commons
“Legend” - a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated, Merriam Webster Dictionary
Legend, icon, hero – all these are terms used way too often and too easily today. But Johnny Moss -- the first superstar of poker, the “Eye in the Sky” -- was all that and more.
Among his many legendary feats?
Moss somehow came first AND second in the first WSOP. And he played the most famous, 5-month long heads-up match ever played.
Or did he?
The Most Famous Story in Poker
Here's how the legend goes:
It’s 1949 in Las Vegas. Benny Binion, a man of rather dubious reputation, gets a request from a millionaire named Nick “The Greek” Dandolos: Find a player who has quality and lots of stamina and organize a game.
Binion knows who he thinks is the best player in the world and offers him to play – it’s Johnny Moss. He says, “Johnny, I got this game all set up for you. What do you want to do?”
“Leave town," answers Moss.
Had Moss followed his impulse on that day, maybe there would’ve never been a WSOP and Moss wouldn’t have become the “Grand Old Man” of poker.
But Moss decided to stay. He sat down with Nick the Greek and started playing. Spectators were allowed in at Dandolos’ request.
At first, they were just standing around the table watching. Later, people were standing outside the windows of the Holiday Hotel Resort, trying to catch a glimpse of the players.
When Dandolos eventually ran out of chips he uttered what became one of the most famous quotes in poker history – “Mr Moss, I have to let you go.”
It was five months after the game had started. Five months the players had used to play every single poker game there was, and they only took breaks to sleep.
Moss had taken between $2-4 million off Dandolos (the sources differ on the number) – and a legend was born. (See below for more on this story).
Growing Up in the Demimonde
Johnny Moss was born on May 14, 1907, in Marshall, Texas and later grew up in Odessa. He learned to play poker when he was just 10 years old. During his teenage years, card sharps taught him how to deal from the bottom and many other tricks to cheat your opponent.
Moss memorized everything he saw but never used this knowledge in his life – according to him. There were some rumors that during the WSOP in 1970 he might have slightly deviated from his principles.
What we know for sure is that he started working as an “Eye in the Sky” in casinos, where he indeed made sure that the games remained fair and clean. Later, he switched to playing and led the life of a professional rounder at a time when gambling was illegal in Texas.
He always carried a gun, which probably had something to do with the legislation, but also wasn’t anything special at the time.
OG of the World Series
In 1970 poker made headlines all over the United States. Binion, who was temporarily out of jail, had called upon all the best players in the country to come and gather in Las Vegas.
He called the event the “World Series of Poker. Moss had cemented a reputation of being a top-class player and his name was one of the best-known in poker.
Moss won the first World Series, although “winning” probably isn’t the correct term for what happened. The game wasn’t played in a freeze-out format but as a cash game. And all seven(!) participants were asked afterwards to vote for the best player.
With the typical modesty that permeates so many poker players, everybody voted for himself. To determine a winner somehow, they agreed on having a second poll.
This time they voted for who they thought was the second-best player. Moss received the most votes.
"Might Get Up to Be More Than 50"
When the World Series of Poker came back the following year the freeze-out format was used for the first time and Moss came out on top once again. He won $30,000.
There were just six players in the main event of the second WSOP, one less than the year before. It was the last time the number of Main Event players would go down until 2007, the year after Jamie Gold’s record win.
Binion still was very optimistic about the WSOP and made a daring statement in an interview. He said he expected the number of players to go up to 20.
“It’s even liable to get up to 50, might get up to be more than that," he continued. His prophecy came true in 1979 when 54 players entered the Main Event. That year also marked the first time someone made a Royal Flush at the WSOP.
Johnny Moss won the title of unofficial world champion again in 1974, this time for $160,000. He became the first player to win this tournament three times and Stu Ungar would be the only player after him to repeat this feat.
In 1979 Moss was induced into the Poker Hall of Fame. Overall, Moss won eight bracelets at the WSOP and took part in every WSOP from 1970 to 1994.
There are four players in the history of the WSOP who managed to win the Main Event twice in a row – Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Johnny Chan and Johnny Moss.
The Old Man and the Game
The “Grand Old Man of Poker” – he was already 63 the year of the first WSOP – kept playing until his last day, which came in 1995.
Even during his later years people reported a strange metamorphosis that Moss’ old body went through as soon as he sat down at a card table.
Suddenly his bleary eyes would light up again and become these piercing torch lights that seemed to notice every single movement of his opponent’s body and that had made him such a fearsome player for so many years.
All the way into the 1990s it was seen almost as an accolade to lose a big pot to Johnny Moss.
He was well-known as a golf hustler, too. He usually won so he didn’t find it difficult to find investors from the criminal underworld.
But then there was this match when Moss played against a pretty talented businessman and, with just a few holes to play, Moss was way behind.
“I think I was down about a quarter-million going into the last few holes," he remembered later. “Fact was, the other guy was in trouble.”
Excuse me, the “other guy”? Yes, indeed. Because Moss had backers, and these backers didn’t like losing. They had already made up their minds to have Moss’ opponent killed if he won.
In the end Moss managed to catch up and won with a birdie on the last hole. His opponent was deeply disappointed and complained – “Moss, you’re the luckiest man alive.”
“No, sir, you are," replied Moss who – unbeknownst to the wealthy businessman – had just saved his life.
Step Out and Show Yourself
While he was road gambling in the Southwest and Mexico, Moss came upon a game where he discovered the whole room was set up to cheat him out of his money.
There were peep holes in the wall and ceiling for somebody to sit behind them and look at the players’ cards. Without much ado Moss pulled the gun he was wearing and demanded that the guy behind the wall step out and show himself.
“Hell, they thought I was bluffing,” Moss remembered in an interview. “Ended up shooting the guy in his ass.”
Which raises the question if Moss ever shot at somebody with a different intent than warning him.
“I don’t know if he died,” is his telling answer.
There are several accounts of people getting into a game with Moss who recounted that he would force other players to strip down before him if he suspected them to be wired up just to prove that they didn’t have any cheating devices on their bodies.
Few players defied the demand to undress because Moss usually told them to at gunpoint. A completely normal thing to do in these times, Moss said later, and totally worth it.
“I suppose I found about 15 holdout (mechanical cheating) machines on naked men through the years.”
An Icon Before Moneymaker Was Born
Like countless other players Moss was able to win money in poker but not to keep it because he could avoid neither dice nor horses.
Moss lost an estimated $8 million over the years until he finally quit gambling. He admits that he often lost control over what he was doing when he won, so he went on to lose the money just as quickly.
Moss only became a wealthy man after he quit gambling and focused on poker only, but he had become an icon at least a quarter of a century before Chris Moneymaker was even born.
Doyle Brunson, maybe the only player in the world today who really deserves the label “Living Legend,” spoke about Moss after the “Grand Old Man” had passed away.
“Johnny was more fearless, more dedicated and more consumed by poker than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“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.”
Moss acquired a number of nicknames over the decades. One of them is “Mr Ace-Ten," and just like T-2 is now known as “Texas Dolly," A-T is “Johnny Moss."
There’s a touch of irony in this as A-T was the hand Moss’ A-Q was beaten by in the last hand of the 1979 WSOP Main Event when his opponent Bobby Hoff hit a ten on the river.
Moss went on to win eight WSOP bracelets. He played poker with the most dangerous people in the country. He knew games that are forgotten today. But he will never be forgotten.
Johnny Moss died in 1995 at the age of 88. Mr. Moss, we had to let you go.
The five-month heads-up between Moss and Nick the Greek might be the best known of all poker stories but there are questions about how it really happened.
Some sources allocate it to 1949 while others date it back to 1951; still, there are way more intriguing questions than this.
For example, if Binion set the game up as a tourist attraction, why aren’t there plenty of photos around? The game allegedly went on for almost half a year!
Also, when it comes to the exact dates of the game, the Horseshoe Casino where it supposedly took place didn’t open until 1952.
After posting this we got some obviously pretty accurate feedback from two key poker figures: One being Doyle Brunson and the other UK poker icon Jesse May. Here's their input: