Texas Hold’em Poker is now a fixture in American popular culture and it’s top players are media superstars. That wasn’t always the case, however, and for many years the professional poker culture was virtually unknown outside of Las Vegas. If one man can be credited with putting the events in motion that would eventually become the current popularity of poker it would likely be Johnny Moss. Moss was largely responsible for the development of high stakes poker in Las Vegas, in addition to being the prototypical poker professional.
Moss was a fixture at Binion’s Horseshoe Club during its glory days when the Fremont Street casino was the undisputed center of the poker universe. He won three World Series of Poker championships, a feat duplicated only by the late Stu Ungar. This is an even more astounding accomplishment since the tournament didn’t exist until late in his life—had today’s myriad tournament poker opportunities existed at the time there would have been no limit to what Moss could have accomplished. For many years Johnny Moss, quite simply, was “the man” in professional poker–even among the flamboyant personalities and big egos of poker players there would likely be a consensus that Moss is the most important figure in the history of high stakes cards.
There weren’t any scholarly books or Internet poker rooms when Johnny Moss was growing up in Odessa, Texas back in the early 1900’s. He recalls playing his first game of cards at the age of 10, and consorting with a pack of cheats and grifters who taught him the tricks of the trade like bottom dealing and card marking. Perhaps the only thing approximating an ‘honest job’ that Ross ever held was as a teenager, where he would keep an eye on poker games run in local saloons to make sure they were on the up and up. By serving as an early version of “the eye in the sky” Moss learned about poker strategy and the behavior of poker players.
Like most professional gamblers of that era, Moss soon took his show on the road playing in poker games wherever he could find them. He played it clean then, and made enough money that cheating at cards seemed like more trouble than it was worth. It proved to be a valuable skill, however, as it allowed him to detect crooked games. Moss usually packed heat and by all accounts wasn’t a guy to mess with. When Cigar Aficionado gambling writer Michael Konick asked him if he had ever killed a man, Moss responded: “I don’t know if he died”.
Moss crossed paths with many of the legendary pioneers of Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada gambling industry–including a few years spent living in the “Bugsy Bungalow” at the Flamingo. He had a lengthy and mutually rewarding relationship with the Horseshoe Club namesake, Benny Binion who often provided financial backing for Moss. In what may have been the biggest single poker payday in history, Moss–backed by Binion–bled legendary gambler Nick “The Greek” Dandalos out of a reported $4 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, Moss’s win would have been worth over $36 million today.
Johnny Moss died on December 16, 1995 at the age of 88. Today’s poker superstars are on balance better educated than their predecessors and are just as likely to have a background in finance and investments as in gambling and grift. Nevertheless, they all owe a debt of gratitude to Moss, who helped forge the lucrative path on which today’s professional gamblers walk.
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