TWO THE HARD WAY
Johnny Moss was not a handsome man. He was almost entirely bald, while failing eyesight towards the end of his life required he wear a preposterously thick pair of glasses. Without them, his face lacked any distinguishing features, unless you count its utter lack of expressiveness. So impassive was Moss, he often fooled others into thinking he had fallen asleep at the table.
If his bland appearance won him no friends, his brusque disposition helped to lose them. In the words of frequent rival Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Johnny “had the type of personality that was well suited to a poker game but not much else.” Fortunately for Moss, after discovering that he not only had the ultimate poker face but also an unparalleled capacity for winning at the game, he rarely had to do much else.
Life hadn’t always been so easy. Shortly after Johnny’s birth in 1907, his father John Hardie Moss lost his job as sheriff’s deputy in a small West Texas town and was forced to take the family on the road in search of work. A burst appendix killed Johnny’s mother along the way. John Hardie eventually found a job as a lineman for the telephone company in Dallas, but lost it when a falling pole crushed his right leg, rendering him a cripple. To help put food on the table, Johnny dropped out of elementary school to work full-time selling newspapers for a penny apiece. What free time he had he spent studying the only men who seemed to be prospering in his dirt-poor neighborhood—the back-alley dice shooters, the gamblers who played dominoes at the parlor on Ackard Street, and the poker players at the Otter’s Club, a private house of chance—and he eventually mustered the nerve to join their freewheeling fraternity. It quickly became clear that the gambler’s lifestyle, marked by long, odd hours and an ever-fluctuating bankroll, was in no way compatible with that of the working stiff, a point that John Hardie made to his son in the form of an ultimatum: quit gambling or quit his job.
“Daddy, if I don’t work, how can I get money to gamble?”
“Son, that’s what gamblers got to figure out.”
In 1923, at the age of sixteen, Johnny found a temporary compromise. The owner of the Otter’s Club began paying him three dollars a day to act as a lookout man in the poker room, protecting the players from cheaters. The education he would receive proved far more valuable than the salary.
“The owner of the place was the best draw [poker] man around and the first thing you know, I learnt myself to be a real fine draw player,” recalled Johnny. “I hung on there for about three years and then moved on to the Elks Club ’cause there was some shrewd players in there who could learn me hold’em. I lied about my age to get into the place. It was two-dollar-limit hold’em. During the day I made enough money at the domino parlors to support my hold’em lessons at night.”
His schooling was briefly disrupted when he caught the eye of Virgie Ann Mouser, the girl who worked behind the counter of the neighborhood drugstore. They were married after a six-month courtship. As wives of gamblers are wont to do, she quickly tired of his late nights and the unpredictability of his financial situation and insisted he find regular work. Hoping to appease her, he took a job driving a truck for the National Biscuit Company during the week, relegating his poker playing to the weekends; but the arrangement only upset her further, as she now saw him even less. It wasn’t long before she issued a familiar ultimatum. Choose one: the job or the gambling. After taking a long motorcycle ride to think it over, Johnny gave his notice at the biscuit company. Confident that his skills at the poker table would pay their bills, he took to the road as a professional player.
It was the perfect time and place to do so. Not unlike the gold and silver rushes that sustained the Western cardsharps of the previous century, an oil boom had transformed much of Texas into a gushing well of loose money. Looking to separate these overnight millionaires from their newfound wealth, an entire generation of gamblers “faded the white line,” traveling the state highways that connected roughneck boomtowns, such as Tyler, Longview, Kilgore, Breckenridge, and Graham, in search of action.
The circuit was littered with dangers. Getting busted by the Texas Rangers was the least of a road gambler’s fears—cheaters and hijackers were commonplace. Moss took to carrying a .38 with the hammer removed, enabling him to pull the pistol out of his pocket that much faster. Occasionally, he even had to use it.
Like the time he noticed a peephole in the ceiling while playing in a poker game in an unfamiliar small town. “So I pull out my gun,” Johnny recalled, “and said, ‘Now, fellas, do I have to go and shoot a bullet in the ceiling? Or are you going to send your boy down without any harm?’ Hell, they thought I was bluffing,” he laughed. “Ended up shooting the guy in his ass.”
Other incidents were less light-hearted. Asked if he had ever killed a man, Moss flatly replied, “I don’t know if he died.”
The life of a road gambler came with its highs and lows, and it was often Virgie who took the brunt of such volatility. The pattern was set on their wedding night when Johnny, stuck in a poker game, pulled her engagement ring off her finger and used it as collateral to win a huge pot.
“If’n ah hadn’t [allowed him to take the ring],” Virgie later declared, “Johnny would’ve ripped mah whole finguh off.”
No occasion was too sacred to prevent him from gambling. The night before she was to deliver their first child he chose to play craps, losing all his ready cash in the process. Unable to pay for the room she had reserved at the local hospital, Virgie was forced to have the baby at home. Then there was the night Johnny won $250,000 in a particularly juicy poker game. Flush with cash, he instructed Virgie to start looking for a new house, but by the time she’d found one to her liking, it was too late. Johnny had already squandered his winnings.
Of his many setbacks the most devastating may have been when, during a single session, he lost $80,000 of credit, money he didn’t even have. With limited options, he contemplated skipping town to avoid the debt, but could not bring himself to actually do it. Contrary to popular belief, most gamblers of the old school valued honor above all and considered a handshake deal more binding than any written contract. Swallowing his pride, Johnny turned to the one person he knew could help him—his childhood pal Lester Ben “Benny” Binion. Understanding well the life of a road gambler, Benny not only loaned Johnny the $80,000 he needed to pay off his debt, but $20,000 on top of that so he’d have a bankroll big enough to get himself back in the game.
Benny Binion and Johnny Moss first met as paperboys in east Dallas, two street urchins with dreams of better days. While Johnny sought his fortune as a gambler, Benny saw clearly the benefits of the other side of the equation—the house always wins.
Gone were the storied gambling saloons of the Old West, having fallen to the wave of moral reform that swept through the country at the dawn of the twentieth century. But while the reformers may have limited the means, they couldn’t quench the desire to gamble.
Benny grew up in Pilot Grove, a small Texas town near the Oklahoma border where gambling was an intricate part of everyday life. “The men of Pilot Grove,” writes Dallas historian Jim Gatewood, “gambled with dice, on dominos, cock fights, greyhound races, bare-knuckle fights, card games, foot races, dog fights, elections, the weather, which tree a dove would land in—anything with an unknown element affecting the result.”
A fight with a local bully intent on revenge spurred a teenage Benny to leave his hometown, eventually making his way to Dallas. As a tough kid who understood the principles of gambling, Benny soon found himself rubbing elbows with the informal league of gangsters who ran the city’s card games and dice parlors.
In his twenties, Benny started a “numbers policy”—an illegal neighborhood lottery—occasionally turning an extra dollar selling bootleg whiskey on the side. He ultimately chose gambling over liquor, driven as much by personal preference as the repeal of Prohibition: “The bootlegging, to me,” he’d later recall, “was never no good.”
He learned the ins and outs of running a craps game from Warren Diamond, a racketeer who for years operated a no-limit game out of the St. George Hotel, located, ironically, a stone’s throw from the Dallas County courthouse. In 1926, the twenty-two-year-old Benny severed relations with his mentor and started his own no-limit craps game in room 226 of the Southland Hotel. When the arrangement attracted too much heat, he turned it into a “floating” game that appeared wherever there was a thirst for action. Using specially designed tables that could be folded quickly into crates that, at least according to the labels on the outside, contained hotel beds, the entire operation could be packed up and moved to a new location with just a half-hour’s notice. These mobile casinos were, despite the humble trappings, the only real game in town—the birth of Las Vegas as we know it today was still a decade or two away—and Benny’s tables often attracted the likes of H. L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, and Howard Hughes, millionaires who weren’t afraid to gamble and, more important, lose vast sums of money. At the height of his success, Benny earned as much as $1 million a year from the operation.
With financial security came the desire to keep it. Like Johnny Moss, Benny occasionally had to resort to violence to protect himself and his assets. His motto was, from a very early age, “Do your enemies before they can do you.”
“I ain’t never killed a man who didn’t deserve it,” he often bragged.
In 1931, he shot and killed bootlegger Frank Bolding in a dispute over stolen liquor, but managed to slide by with only a two-year suspended sentence. Five years later, he shot and killed Ben Frieden, a rival numbers operator. This time he avoided imprisonment by pleading self-defense. He did, however, earn a nickname, thanks to his prowess with a gun—the Cowboy.
Aside from the murder raps, Benny successfully evaded conviction on numerous other charges that included bootlegging, theft, and possession of a concealed weapon. “I had a lot of very high, influential friends in Texas,” he would later confess. They included Sheriff R. A. “Smoot” Schmid and his deputy Bill Decker. While Smoot was perfecting his jailhouse chili, it was Decker who really ran the show. And if Decker wanted some unsavory character run out of town, he had Benny do it for him. In return Benny was allowed to maintain his gambling operation with minimal interference from the law. Twice a week an officer from the vice squad would visit Benny’s game and do a head count on how many customers he had. The next morning Benny was expected to pay the fines: ten dollars a head.
“There actually never was no arrangements made,” said Benny, “but they had a real good city administration. So they just come in and raid us, and wouldn’t tear up nothin’, or do nothin’, and we’d pay big fines. And I think we paid somethin’ like, oh, six hundred thousand dollars a year for fines, for a few years there. So we helped the city out, just with no arrangement. There wasn’t no graft or nothin’ to it.”
Politics will always be politics, and the 1946 election of a sheriff who couldn’t be bought forced Benny to beat a hasty retreat from his home state. He packed his wife Teddy Jane, their five children, and $2 million in cash into his maroon Cadillac and headed for the only city where his vices were virtues—Las Vegas, Nevada.
What he found upon his arrival seemed like a little piece of paradise. “The most enjoyable place that you can imagine,” he’d later say. “Everybody was friendly, and there wasn’t none of this hijackin’, there wasn’t no stealin’—hell, you couldn’t get robbed if you hollered ‘Come rob me!’ ”
He wound up partnering with J. Kell Houssels, a fellow Texan, on a downtown casino called the Las Vegas Club. When Houssels decided to move the operation into a building he owned on the other side of Fremont Street, he sold the space to Benny and a new set of partners, who used it to open a gambling hall called the Westerner.
In Texas, Benny had grown used to running things in a certain way, predicated on the belief that customer service was the best way to keep a high-rolling gambler coming back. On occasion, this involved returning money to players who had lost big in hopes they might remember the gesture and come back and lose again. You can’t fleece a sheep once it’s been slaughtered. “I’m kinda freewheelin’,” Benny explained, “and sorta like the old sayin’, of bread cast upon the water come back. . . . There’s a lot of people don’t understand that.”
His new partners were among them. Their relationship quickly soured, the Westerner was shuttered, and in 1951 Benny turned his attention to a failing casino down the street called the El Dorado. Under the eye of his wife Teddy Jane, the decrepit building, renamed the Horseshoe, was given a makeover. Benny spent $18,000 to cover the floor with carpets, the first downtown casino to do so.* He dressed his waitresses as cowgirls and outfitted his bartenders with string ties, creating an atmosphere akin to a slightly seedy cowtown saloon. No matter. The décor was not what attracted its devoted clientele. The sign Benny placed on the outside for all to read—the world’s highest limits—was largely responsible for that.
This wasn’t some idle boast or fallacious come-on. Not only was the limit at the Horseshoe’s craps tables ten times that of any other casino, but an ambitious gambler could wager as much as he dared, as long as he announced his intention before placing his first bet.
Benny surrounded himself with a team more sympathetic to his style of management—his family. His two sons, Jack and Lonnie (who everyone knew by his nickname “Ted”), were installed as casino bosses as soon as they turned twenty-one. “They still mind me just like they was six-year-olds,” Benny would brag. His wife Teddy Jane knew what she was getting into from the time she started dating him. “If I marry Benny Binion,” she said, “I’ll spend my life in a room above a two-bit craps game.” Sure enough, once all five of their children had grown old enough to leave home, Teddy Jane began working in the casino cage, helping to look after the books.
Binion’s Horseshoe remained a true family business well into the next millennium, one of the last Las Vegas casinos to do so. There were financial partners, but they tended to remain behind the scenes. One of them was Nick “the Greek” Dandalos, or as Benny described him, “the strangest character I ever seen.”
No one was entirely sure where Dandalos had found his fortune. It was rumored that he had broken every high roller on the East Coast, including gangster Arnold Rothstein, the man who had fixed baseball’s World Series in 1919.* Benny’s attempts to press him for specifics were met with inscrutability. After the Greek was informed that his sister had died, Benny tried to take advantage of the man’s fragile emotional state to solve the mystery, but the Greek wasn’t fooled.
“If I outlive you, I’ll tell it,” he said, wiping away his tears and grinning, “but if I don’t outlive you, it won’t go any further. I’ll never tell it.”
“He never did tell me,” recalled Benny. “And there don’t nobody know.”
Whatever deep secrets the man chose to keep, on the surface Nick Dandalos appeared to be the consummate gentleman gambler: refined, well educated, blessed with abundant charm.
“He told stories by the hour,” recounted the other “Greek,” famed oddsmaker Jimmy Snyder. “He recited poetry. . . . He was beautiful with women. He made Omar Sharif look like a truck driver. . . . He had a deft touch with a phrase and said things like, ‘I would rather fall from a mountaintop than die of boredom on the plain.’ It was remarkable, really, to watch him in action. He attracted people like fish to a flashpan, people who begged him to play with their money. It was the legend and the charm and, no doubt, the idea of sharing winnings with Nick the Greek.”
Shortly after the Horseshoe opened, Dandalos expressed his desire to play a poker game for the highest stakes in history, and asked Benny if he’d host it. It was an easy decision for Binion—regardless of the outcome, the publicity alone would make it worthwhile. Finding a worthy opponent for the Greek was even easier. All he had to do was get on the phone to his childhood friend in Texas, who had since earned a reputation for being one of the finest poker players in the state.
“Johnny,” Benny said, “they got a fellow out here calls himself Nick the Greek. Thinks he can play stud poker. Johnny, I think you should come out here and have some fun.”
Johnny Moss had never been to Las Vegas before. He was also bone-tired from having played poker for four consecutive days. Neither aspect of his condition was enough to give him even a moment’s pause.
“No point in putting it off when there’s money to be made,” declared Moss, who made a beeline straight for Binion’s Horseshoe and, upon his arrival, immediately sat down to play.
The legendary duel between Johnny Moss and Nick Dandalos began on a Sunday night in January of 1951 and would not end until the calendar reached May. A change of dealers every twenty minutes or so kept the game moving at an efficient pace; the players did their part by rarely straying from the table, often playing for days on end without taking a break. During the infrequent pauses in the action, Johnny tended to sleep more than the Greek, who spent much of his time away from the poker table playing craps. Fifteen years older than the forty-four-year-old Moss, the Greek jumped at every opportunity to needle the younger man.
“What are you going to do?” he once greeted Johnny upon his return to the table. “Sleep your life away?”
As the battle raged on, Benny took full advantage of the Greek’s larger-than-life personality and Johnny’s ample poker skills, placing their table in a prominent position at the very front of his casino. Spectators flocked to the rails, standing five and six deep most of the day. A few of the wealthier and more brazen were allowed to “change in” to the game for the agreed-upon minimum of $10,000. None lasted more than a day or two.
When the players tired of one game, they simply switched to another. Finally, after five months of battle, the cagy Texan managed to break his charming foe. As dashing in defeat as in victory, the Greek rose from his chair and said famously:
“Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
“That Greek was a real gentleman,” Johnny later recalled. “He never said nothing else. He just got up, and he smiled, and he set off to bed.”
Moss was rumored to have beaten Dandalos to the tune of two or three million dollars, while Benny Binion likely reaped an equally gaudy sum from all the walk-in traffic the drama attracted. The two former street urchins, neither of whom had advanced past the second grade, had done the unthinkable, hosting—and winning—the biggest game in Las Vegas history.
Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. All rights reserved.