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Poker Legends: Johnny Moss

“A sucker don’t ever catch on. A smart man doesn’t ever sleep. He’s got to keep ducking the traps.”

These are wise words from Johnny Moss, winner of the first-ever World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 1970. What more do you need to know? Oh yeah—Poker Legend Doyle Brunson also considers him the closest thing he ever had to a mentor. Now that’s street-cred.

Moss, also known as The Grand Old Man of Poker, would go on to win a total of nine WSOP events, including eight bracelets. In 1979, he became the very first player to enter the Poker Hall of Fame.

He was already an older gentleman by the time poker became an officially sanctioned game in Vegas, and by that time he had spent a career on the road, traveling to backroom poker games and hustling Texas oilmen for all they were worth. So it’s really hard to say how much he won in his career, though some estimates put his winnings around $1,250,000. When we account for inflation, it’s not hard to say that Moss won easily $9 million gambling, and we’re probably lowballing him.

Texas Road Gambling

Poker was a different game back in Moss’s day. Rules only went as far as you could enforce them, and players always had to worry about being cheated, robbed, or even shot. It wasn’t uncommon for everyone at the table to have concealed pistols on them.

One of Moss’s most legendary tales comes from this time. He was playing a backroom game when he noticed a peephole in the ceiling where someone would be able to spy on the players’ hole cards. Moss didn’t take kindly to cheaters, and he approached the house about it.

“Now fellas, do I have to go and shoot a bullet in the ceiling?” asked Moss in his Texas drawl. “Or are you going to send your boy down without any harm?”

They thought he was bluffing. Moss had seen enough; he pulled out his gun and shot the man through the ceiling right in the butt. When asked about it later, he answered, “I don’t know if he died from it.”

The Biggest Game Around

Legend also has it that in 1949, Johnny Moss played a five-months-long game of heads-up poker against Nick the Greek. Moss flayed the Greek for somewhere between $2 and $4 million, which amounts to at least $20 million in today’s dollars. When Nick the Greek couldn’t take the beating any longer, he uttered a statement that would go down in history: “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” This game is also credited with providing inspiration for the WSOP.

Another famous story has Moss playing a game of high-stakes golf. He was backed by the mob itself, and as they were coming down the home stretch, Moss was down $250,000 million. His mobster backers were considering offing Moss’s opponent so they didn’t have to pay him.

However, Moss staged a huge comeback to pull close to even. When he got a birdie on the last hole, his opponent called him the luckiest man alive. Moss cracked a smile and replied, “No sir, you are.” He would live to breathe another day.


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