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Poker in the Past: Johnny Moss

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Poker in the Past

Johnny Moss was born on May 14th 1907 in a small town called Marshall, Texas. Johnny’s mother passed away suddenly from complications relating to appendicitis when he was only eight years old and his father was seriously injured in a work-related accident just a few short months after. Following these tragic events, Johnny began selling newspapers to pay the bills. By the time he had reached teenage-hood, Johnny lived on his own in Dallas. It was during this period that he began working for the Western Union Telegraph Company. When Johnny had any leisure time outside of work, he would frequent the local pool halls and place small wagers on games. Any little bit of extra money he could send home to his father was invaluable. It was in these dens that Johnny met American gambling icon and mob boss Benny Benion, who taught him to play cards. Benny was an important figure in Johnny’s life, not just for teaching him the game that would make his fortune but also for organizing important historic poker games that cemented the Moss legacy for eternity – but more on that later.

In 1923 when Moss was 16 years old, he gained full time employment at a place called Otter’s Club where he was trained to notice various forms of cheating or card counting. Johnny would sit by the table’s edge and keep his eyes peeled on both the dealers and the players. Presumably, long hours spent watching experts hone their craft at the felt inspired Johnny’s lifelong passion for poker. A good night playing cards at the Otter’s Club, according to Moss himself, would see him earning upwards of $500 – about $6,500 in today’s money. Johnny spent two years working at the Otter’s Club and another Dallas casino called the Elk’s Club before deciding to quit and become a rounder – a player who travels the country looking for gambling action. A sizable oil boom in the Texas region would prove lucrative given Johnny’s new career choice. It was not uncommon for businessmen, their purses weighed down with new money, to lay down hundreds and thousands of dollars per hand. For somebody as sharp as Johnny, the money was all but growing on trees. It was not uncommon for Johnny to be taking home $1 million pots in one night. Johnny traveled to many states including Oklahoma and Louisiana looking to test himself against the finest gamblers the United States had to offer. Having received little or no formal education, a strong survival instinct and keen street smarts saw him become a wealthy man by the end of the 1920s. Throughout his life, Johnny was a man of extremes. Despite his borderline illiteracy, Moss had a habit of making wise investments one minute, and then gambling away his savings wildly the next.

Johnny had a tremendous appetite for competition but all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy! The first woman to capture his heart was a lady called Virgie Ann Mouser. Johnny had a hard time convincing her father to allow the marriage to go ahead considering his unfavorable job title but state records show the couple were married on May 1st, 1926. Very little information is available about their relationship beyond this point. There are no official records of a divorce but no articles or primary sources have any mention of his wife after the wedding so this first marriage must remain a mystery.

Johnny was a fearless Texan through and through, the indomitable adventurous spirit of the cowboys coursing through his veins. One evening while playing in the backroom of some long forgotten casino, Johnny noticed peep holes drilled into the ceiling above the poker tables. Johnny nodded to himself and reached down to the pistol hanging from his belt. He clicked the safety off and pointed the gun upward, warning that if the holes were not plugged up immediately that he would open fire. In some versions of the story, Johnny fired the gun and injured the buttocks of a casino worker hidden in the attic!

In one interview printed in Sports Illustrated magazine, Johnny talked about the high-stakes games played at the height of the Texas oil boom:

“If you played a week you could win a million dollars, win it in a night if it shaped up right. There were games, like at the old Metropolitan Hotel in Forth Worth, that nobody would believe the sums involved if I told you today. You got to be a good gambler, anyhow, to get rich in the oil business. Some of them players came out worth $40 million, what with poker and dice and oil leases and whatnot. Money didn’t mean nothing to them, but gambling did. Some of them big old-time oilmen still play in big poker games, but only for the pleasure of stepping on a professional gambler if they can. I like to see them come around.”

Poker winnings and the character of the Southern Gentleman aside, there are a majority of people who believe Johnny Moss may have been the greatest poker cheat in the history of poker, possibly even the history of cheaters! What better way to learn the art of deception than to spend your formative years watching the finest gamblers cheat their way to the roomiest bank vaults? Moss always denied that he was a dishonest player but there is little doubt in this regard. Poker was a different game back in those days. For every gentleman gambler come to honestly test his skills, there were ten urchins desperate for a shortcut to millionaire-hood.

Johnny was also extremely fond of bowling and golf, another two hobbies which allowed him to make large wagers, reportedly winning upwards of $2 million dollars from bets on the golf course. One famous story tells of Moss making a bet with a wealthy businessman which involved playing for $50,000 a hole. The cash on Moss’ end of the bet was being fronted by mob money. Early in the game, Moss was losing. While Moss was digging himself into a hole monetarily, the gangsters were literally digging a hole for his opponent should he win the game and try to leave with their fortune. Moss managed to get back into the swing of things (no pun intended) towards the end of the game and ended up emerging victorious. The wealthy businessman came and shook his hand, telling Moss he must have been the luckiest man alive to which Moss responded “No, sir. You are.” Moss saved the life of the businessman with his last birdie, all without the man even being aware of any looming danger.

Although accusations of cheating are rife, Johnny’s position on the Mount Rushmore of poker players is in no doubt. Johnny made millions of dollars playing cards and sports betting but money made from gambling is easy come, easy go. It would not have been out of the ordinary to see Johnny move from a table where he had won thousands of dollars to a dice table where the winnings would be lost in mere minutes. Johnny once gave his wife $200,000 dollars to purchase a house but overnight, spent the remainder of his savings. The next morning he had to ask his wife to give him the money back so that he could get to work on rebuilding their fortune!  Reportedly Moss gambled away roughly $8 million dollars in his lifetime.

Remember notorious mob boss and casino owner Benny Binion, the man who taught Johnny Moss the tricks of the trade? In 1951, Benny called to tell Johnny that he was setting up a tournament specifically so that Johnny could play against the infamous Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandolos at his famous Horseshoe Casino. Every hand that was played would be open to the public as entertainment. Benny had the two card masters seated at the front entrance of the casino for all and sundry to watch and marvel at. The game went on, day in day out, for five months. For Benny, the game was a publicity stunt designed to attract the public eye to his casino but for Johnny, it was like having a license to print money. Moss reportedly won upwards of $2 million dollars from The Greek’s bankroll. Dandolas, dejected after losing such a massive amount of money, stood up one day and proclaimed “Mr. Moss, I must let you go.”

Makes for a great story eh? A story is all it’s confirmed to be. No newspaper articles have been found that mention the game being played publicly and Binion made no mention of it during a vast oral history interview he gave during the first few World Series of Poker tournaments.

Many years later, in 1970, Binion once again called his old friend Johnny Moss to inform him of a new tournament he wanted to set up. Binion planned to invite the top eight poker players of the era over for a high stakes cash game at his casino. When the game ended, the players would decide amongst themselves who would be crowned king. The players were supposed to write down who they thought should be the winner  on a piece of paper but everyone at the table just kept writing their own name. Only when they were forced to write the name of the second best player at the table was Johnny elected the winner of the first ever World Series of Poker. The following year, a freeze-out format was used for the first time and Moss beat five other players for his second WSOP championship in a row. Johnny won his third WSOP championship in 1974, a $10,000 buy-in winner-take-all event with 16 entrants in total. Moss won five more WSOP bracelets in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1981 and 1988. He was 81 years when he won his last bracelet in ‘88.

Between 1970 and 1995, Johnny Moss was present at every single World Series of Poker and accumulated a total of nine WSOP bracelets during this time. Johnny Moss spent the remainder of his life living in Vegas where he eventually passed away in 1995 on December 16th. What could be more apt, one of the greatest poker players of the modern era dying in the neon Mecca of gambling? Johnny Moss and the up and downs he experienced in his long life playing cards also tells the life story of many other gamblers less famous than he. A perfect allegory for so many cowboys born out of time. The highs are dizzying and the lows can be sickening, even heartbreaking. Johnny Moss will forever be remembered as a monument to excess and generosity in equal measure.

Mike D

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