When the history of poker in the twentieth century is discussed all conversations lead to one person – Johnny Moss. Known as “The Grand Old Man of Poker” he is considered to be the best and most important player of all time. Born in Odessa, Texas in 1907 he was one of Texas’ original road gamblers. For most of his life Moss played carrying a pistol in games from Texas to Mexico to protect himself from cheats and robbers. Most of Moss’ poker career was before legalized casinos and large tournaments, he was 63 when he won the first World Series of Poker Main Event in 1970.
Moss learned spot all the cheaters’ tricks by the time he was a teenager. He was employed at a local card room to keep the game straight. It was during this time Moss earned his poker education. Poker strategy and theory books simply didn’t exist. Although, he knew every possible way to cheat Moss told Michael Konick in an interview, “I knew how to do it but I didn’t have to steal. I made plenty playing clean.”
During his time as a road gambler Moss played the highest stakes around with the most dangerous people around. The only people that could afford to play that high then were drug dealers, mobsters, cheats, and politicians. The card rooms themselves were often crooked. Moss continued with Konick, “One night I’m playing in some small town – I don’t remember where, maybe in Oklahoma – and I see they got the room set up as a peep joint (a spy in the ceiling that can see his cards). So I pull out my gun – always carried a gun back in those days – and said, ‘Now, fellas, do I have to go out and shoot a bullet in the ceiling? Or you going to send your boy down without any harm?’ Hell, they though I was bluffing. Ended up shooting the guy in his ass.”
Moss had grown up with Benny Binion in Texas and the two were life long friends. In 1949 the world’s most famous gambler, Nick “The Greek” Dandalos, arrived at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino looking to play high stakes heads up poker. Binion immediately knew that Johnny Moss was the man to play him. In what would become poker’s most famous game, the precursor to the WSOP, Nick the Greek and Moss would play a five month long heads up match.
Binion, a master of publicity, put them in front of the casino to attract tourists and gamblers alike. No official records were kept but it’s guessed that Moss beat the Greek out of four million dollars before an exhausted Dandalos rose from the table and spoke poker’s most famous quote, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
When Binion organized the first World Series of Poker in 1970 he invited Moss first. The game was played for three days when a vote was taken by the players to see who the best player was. Allegedly, every player voted for themselves but when asked who the second best player was, Moss was deemed the winner. Technically, Moss did not receive a bracelet for the event but was awarded a silver trophy. Bracelets were issued the following year when Moss won it again.
Moss attended every WSOP from 1970 until his death in 1995. He won nine bracelets in the last 26 years of his life. Moss won a third Main Event title in 1974, a feat only matched by Stu Ungar. Moss won two bracelets in Ace to Five Draw in 1971 and 1988. He won three Seven Card Stud bracelets in 1975, 1976, 1979. A fourth stud bracelet came in 1981 in a Seven Card Stud HiLo event. He was 81 years old when he won his ninth bracelet in 1988.
Moss’ legend was confirmed when he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1979. Moss suffered from debilitating health the last years of his life, but still made the trip to the Horseshoe every year. Moss passed away in 1995 at the age of 88. Doyle Brunson said in an interview, “I learned from Johnny Moss, who was the best poker in the world at the time. So, if I had a mentor, it was Johnny Moss.”