Is Johnny Moss the Most Fundamental Poker Player Ever?

Every great sports league has a history. For a sport to really be successful, you need a polarizing albeit incredible competitor to spur the evolution of the game. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell did it for the NBA, the same way Babe Ruth did it for the MLB. No player set the stage for the future of poker like Johnny Moss. Known as the “Grand Old Man of Poker”, Moss is famously remembered for winning the first two World Series of Poker Main-Events and collecting a handful of WSOP bracelets. Here is the incredible story of Johnny Moss. 

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Early Life

Johnny Moss was born in 1907, and like all great gamblers of his time, grew up in Texas. Poker and really gambling in general was not as prominent or well established when Moss was growing up, so to grow up in an area that it’s prevalent was rare. 

He was taught at a young age by a group of con-artists how to cheat at poker, but refused to use those tactics. Instead, Moss would work in a saloon as almost a quasi pit-boss, ensuring the games were run fairly. This also gave Moss an invaluable amount of knowledge on how to strategize and be an effective card player. 

By the late 1920’s, Moss had become a rounder. Rounders are professional poker players who travel the country looking for action. As there were no established casino or legal betting operations on that day, professional poker players were required to tour the most active card playing sections of the country. Moss was generally confined to Texas, however, as that’s where the most action in the country was.

Urban Legend Against Nick The Greek
(Photo by Jon Brenneis/Getty Images)

Johnny Moss’ five-month poker game against Nick The Greek in large part has been debunked by poker historians, but is still a fundamental moment in history and poker lore. Nick The Greek was a well-known high-stakes gambler at the time. After taking down some of the biggest names in high-stakes poker, Nick wanted to find, “the biggest game this world could offer”, and there was one man who could make that offer. 

A key figure who hasn’t been mentioned yet is legendary casino owner Benny Binion. Binion was not a card player himself, but dealt in organized crime. He was known for putting together some of the most prominent gambling rings in Texas, but opted to move to Las Vegas as gambling was legal there which made it easier to operate. In 1951, he would purchase the Eldorado Club and Apache Hotel, renaming them the Horseshoe Casino. 

Benny knew there was one man to put in front of Nick if he truly wanted the biggest game in the world, and that was Johnny Moss. As the myth goes, Binion set a game up for Moss and Nick at the Horseshoe casino, sitting them at a table centered in the casino so patrons could watch whenever they pleased. The game was told to go on for five months, with multiple 30+ hour sessions of cards. After losing somewhere between $1 to $2 million, Nick the Greek stood up, looked Johnny dead in the eyes and said “Mr.Moss, I have to let you go.”

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World Series of Poker

By the late 1960’s, there was a well-established group of high-stakes rounders perusing the poker scene and dominating anyone who dared challenge them. Benny Binion had a knack for creating press and knew that a high-stakes game between the best poker players in the world would do wonders for the gambling scene. 

In 1970, Binion invited seven of the best card players in the world to compete in the first WSOP. The competitors in the first main-event were Johnny Moss, “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Sailor Roberts, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Crandell Addington, and Carl Canon. 

Today’s WSOP is played in a freeze-out format. This means that the game is played until one person has all the chips. The first winner of the main-event in 1970, however, was voted on by the rest of the competitors. A highly contested rumor is that all the players voted for themselves in the first round of voting. They voted again for who they thought was the second best card player, and Moss emerged as the victor.

In 1971, the group would meet again, but changed to the freeze-out format we know today. Moss would defend his title, beating Puggy Pearson. Moss is one of four players to ever win the main-event in back-to-back years. His third main-event title in 1974 ties him all-time with Stu Ungar for the most main-event wins ever. 

Johnny Moss would go on to win nine total bracelets at the World Series of Poker, and finish in the money on 25 total occasions. He carried himself with a level of integrity that helped shape the game of poker into a fair competition that rewards the best players, not the best cheaters. Moss was truly a visionary in the poker scene and will always be a fundamental part of its history.