It’s not inaccurate to call Johnny Moss the ‘Babe Ruth’ of competitive poker. Moss was already a legend among his peers when he took down the top prize of $30,000 in the first two iterations of a fledgling poker competition called the World Series of Poker in 1970 and 1971. The fields were significantly smaller in those days–Moss was one of 7 entrants in 1970 and 6 entrants in 1971–but this was a type when there weren’t any Internet goofballs or wanna-bes fulfilling a ‘bucket list’ item. It was legitimately a competition between the best damn poker players on the planet. Moss’s opposition in 1970: “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Sailor Roberts, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Crandell Addington, and Carl Cannon. The field of the 1971 event has been lost to history but Moss and Puggy Pearson were the last two players. Moss is one of only three men to win back-to-back World Series of Poker titles putting him in the downright elite company of Doyle Brunson (1976 and 1977), Stu Ungar (1980 and 1981) and Johnny Chan (1986 and 1987).
Believe it or not, there was a time when Texas Hold’em Poker wasn’t a huge pop culture phenomenon. Nor were the top players considered celebrities or offered sponsorships. It was a seriously ‘old school’ Las Vegas environment that the professional poker culture existed within and that subculture and it’s denizens were virtually unknown outside of the 702 area code. Johnny Moss died in 1995, long before the Internet poker boom and the explosion in popularity of the World Series of Poker. Even so, if one man can be credited with setting the events in motion that would eventually lead to the huge popularity of poker it was Johnny Moss.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURE IN THE HISTORY OF HIGH STAKES CARD GAMES
Moss was the prototypical poker professional and was earning a reputation as one of the true pioneers of the Las Vegas community so long ago that Doyle Brunson was considered something of a brash upstart. Moss was a fixture at Binion’s Horseshoe Club during the glory days when the Fremont Street property was the undisputed center of the poker universe, if not the entire casino gaming ecosystem. He won three World Series of Poker main event championships, a feat duplicated only by the late Stu Ungar. Due to the seismic changes in poker during the digital revolution it’s unlikely that anyone will ever win two WSOP main events ever again let alone three. This might be the poker equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game or Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak.
Moss’s 3 wins in the WSOP was an even more amazing accomplishment for the simple fact that the tournament didn’t even exist until later in his life. He won his first WSOP title at age 63. If Moss had even a fraction of the competitive opportunities that today’s poker players take for granted in his prime there’s no telling what he would have accomplished. Until the mid 1980’s Johnny Moss, quite simply, was “the man” in professional poker. Even among the flamboyant personalities and big egos of poker players past, present and future you wouldn’t have trouble finding a consensus that Moss is the single most significant individual in the history of high stakes card games.
FROM TEXAS TO THE LAS VEGAS STRIP
Johnny Moss grew up in Odessa, Texas in the early 1900’s at a time where there were no scholarly books or software tutorials to learn how to play poker. Later in his life, he recalled playing poker for the first time at age 10. As a young man, he was fortunate to consort with a group of cheats and grifters who taught him the ‘tricks of the trade’ like bottom dealing and card marking. As a teenager, Moss was employed by local drinking establishments to keep an eye on their card games and make sure things were on the up and up. This was likely the only ‘regular job’ that Moss ever had but it was an invaluable experience and by serving as an early version of “the eye in the sky” he got a PhD level education in poker strategy and the behavior of poker players.
For most accomplished gamblers in the early 20th Century, Moss would take his game on the road during his 20s playing in poker games wherever he could find them. Although at the time he may have known more about card cheating and manipulation than any man on the planet, he typically played it clean. He was such an accomplished player that cheating at cards seemed like ‘more trouble than it was worth’. His knowledge proved extremely valuable, however, as it allowed him to quickly detect crooked games. Moss usually packed heat and by all accounts wasn’t simply a guy that you didn’t want to mess with. Late in his life, when asked by gambling writer Michael Konick asked him if he ‘had ever killed a man’, Moss responded simply: “I don’t know if he died”.
Moss was part of the Las Vegas ecosystem at the beginning of the Southern Nevada gaming industry. For a few years, he lived in the now demolished ‘Bugsy Bungalow’ at the Flamingo named after the casino’s original benefactor, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. He had lifelong friendship with Benny Binion, who’s eponymously named Horseshoe Club namesake was the center of the gambling universe for decades. Binion often provided financial backing for Moss. In what was then 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 $55 million today.