The (First) Big Game
Editors Note: Back before there was the big game at the Bellagio, or for that matter before there was a Bellagio, or even a Las Vegas Strip, there was the first big game. Join us in the first of our series on the early days of poker, and its early personalities.
So, you think the World Series of Poker is filled with great players and is fun to watch? You think winning the Championship is tough since it lasts over a week and costs $10,000 just to enter? Well, let me take you back in time. Back before television. Back before tournaments. So far back that Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson was still shooting hoops in high school. Back over a half-century to the days in Las Vegas when the floors were wood and often covered with sawdust. Step back to a time when a loaf of bread was a nickel, and so was a Coke. The war was over, gaming was only legal in Nevada, and the times were changing. Enter Benny Binion.
Texas has always been a land of tough characters, and Benny was one of the toughest. He carried a gun, and on more than one occasion, he used it. The first time was against a crazed gambler in 1931, and Benny shot another tough cowboy a few years later. Texas authorities called it self-defense.
It may have been against the law, but there was plenty of gambling in Texas. Benny often ran a "floating crap game" that included special crates that folded-up for quick movement, but could be used as craps tables when opened. Even though the police wouldn't shut him down, they did raid his games, which was inconvenient and costly. If he got the "paid-for" early-warning phone call, he could close-up shop quickly.
By 1946 there was just too much pressure from newly elected officials and Benny brought the family to Las Vegas in a Cadillac filled with cash. At the time, "Bugsy" Siegel was trying to finish the Flamingo Casino and begging for investors. He and Moe Sedway had moved out of their office at the Las Vegas Club and were more than happy to take a big chunk of Benny's cash in exchange for a piece of the downtown casino. Benny's name appeared on the gaming license with Kell Housells, his new partner.
When Kell sold his share of the casino a few years later, Benny and Emilio Gioretti built a new casino called the Westerner. Later, in 1951, Benny purchased the Eldorado and renamed it the Horseshoe. Benny, still sowing he had no fear, wanted to increase the house limits, and the only way he could do it was by opening his own club.
"The World's Highest Limits" became the Horseshoe's motto, and the sky was the limit for Benny, who spent $18,000 carpeting the casino. It was an important step towards providing the comfort that the new clubs along the "Strip" were offering.
One of Benny's friends, a man who lived to gamble, was Nick "The Greek" Dandalos. Nick spent most of his life gambling for high-stakes and wanted to play in the "biggest poker game in the world". As a tireless promoter of both his club and Las Vegas, Benny agreed to get a game going for Nick, even though the Horseshoe did not have a poker room.
Benny applied for a gaming license for a poker table with plans to place the game near the front entrance of the Horseshoe Club. Then, Benny sent word through the gambler's grapevine that there would be a game coming, and only the best financed should apply. The minimum ante would be $100 at a time when the dealers were making $15 a day. This was a game for giants.
Benny personally called Johnny Moss, one of the Texas and Oklahoma circuit's finest players, to alert him of the poker shoot-out to come. Moss gave his wife Virgie a kiss and made a beeline to Las Vegas.
While several other "money" players joined the play from time to time, the main action was between Johnny and "The Greek". Nick was a well-educated, high-rolling gambler in his late 50's. Johnny was a third-grade dropout, but a methodical killer of high-limit bankrolls enjoying his mid-forties as the premier poker player of his time.
Nick had played, and destroyed, the likes of Arnold Rothstein and "Titanic" Thompson. Johnny had knocked-down some of the biggest oil barons and cattlemen in Texas and Oklahoma. It was the cultured East versus the hard-knock South, and it was a slugfest.
The game went on for nearly five months. At times, the action between the two combatants would go fifty-hours straight. Even Howard Hughes would drop-by and take an occasional peek at the action. Hughes had started to buy land in the area, but his own return to Las Vegas and his purchase of the Desert Inn would be nearly twenty-five years down the road.
Moss played quietly, intense and sullen. If he drew two cards during five-card draw, he simply laid down his discards and made a motion with his finger. Nick snapped his fingers often, and would give his discards a flick of the wrist. "The Greek" was all action. Moss was a coiled snake, ready to strike, and his bite was deadly. Crowds gathered to watch the game, marveling in hushed tones at the money being bet.
Sometimes the game went two days with a five-hour break and then another three days straight. Johnny, at this point, would need fifteen to twenty hours of sleep to recuperate. "The Greek," on the other hand, would be found at the craps table when Johnny returned. At these times "The Greek" would say, "What are you going to do, sleep your life away?"
Although other players won and lost, most of the money at the table was passed between Johnny and "The Greek". With upwards of a half-million dollars on the table at all times, Johnny began to chip away at "The Greek's" vast holdings. It was at this point, after the player's had watched each other for several months that a most interesting hand came up.
Although five-card stud was not Johnny's "best" game, no-limit action was, and the ability to bet any amount he had on the table was his strong suit. With a $100 ante, Johnny was dealt a nine in the hole and a six up. "The Greek's" up card was slightly lower, an eight. Johnny's low up card brought it in for $300, but "The Greek" raised $1500.
Johnny called and was dealt a nine, pairing his down card. "The Greek" received a six, but didn't flinch when Johnny bet $5,000. In fact, he raised another $25,000. Johnny happily called, knowing he had the best hand. When Johnny caught a deuce on forth street and sent $30,000 towards the center of the table, Nick just called. His board at this point showed an eight, six and four of mixed suits. Could he be drawing at a straight now? Surely he had an eight in the hole.
Johnny's final card twisted in the air and settled to the table, a three. A moment later, Nick caught sight of a Jack dropping in front of him. With the high card up, Nick bet $50,000. Johnny took this as a bluff, raising all-in, to which Nick replied, "I guess I have to call," pushing $140,000 into the pot, "because I think I have a jack in the hole."
Johnny looked at "The Greek" and sighed, "If you've got a jack in the hole, you're going to win one hell of a pot."
Nick turned his hole card up, revealing the second jack, and smiled. Johnny didn't smile. He swallowed slowly and reached for a drink of coffee as the hot desert wind turned his stacks of money into a wasteland. The half-million dollar pot took up residence across the table and Johnny drummed his fingers on the bare felt. He took another taste of the coffee. It was bitter.
The air may have been heavy, and the crushing blow delivered by "The Greek" just the type that broke most players, but Johnny wasn't like most players. He was too stubborn and too good to accept that he couldn't beat "The Greek". Johnny stood up slowly, adjusted his hat, and told Nick he would be ready to play again the next day. Within 24-hours they were battling again.
Johnny's heart and ability eventually began to wear his worthy opponent down. Eventually, after Johnny had won several million dollars, "The Greek" made his famous parting statement, saying, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go".
That was "The Greek's" style, and Johnny's usual outcome. Two great fighters waged war across the green felt, both winning fame, both doing what they loved, and both leaving happy. After all, "The Greek" always said, "The next best thing to playing and winning, is playing and losing".
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