Remembering Johnny Moss

The first time I met Johnny Moss was in Longview, Texas in 1959. On our five hundred mile drive from Lubbock to Longview, Curly Green taught me about gambling with his stories about Johnny Moss and Pat Renfro, who had been partners when they were only 21 years old, back in 1928. In his Cadillac, Curly had a high-powered rifle, a sawed-off shotgun, a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and the .38 caliber revolver that he always carried inside gambling joints. Johnny Moss and Curly had known each other for many years in Dallas. Both men wore the baggy, pleated, dark-colored slacks that would help disguise the barking iron they always carried. Being robbed or arrested was commonplace. In fact, Pat, Curly, and Johnny had just been robbed in a large poker game in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The robbers were real pros out of Kansas City. They had machine guns and teargas. Curly ran into the bathroom and hid most of his bankroll and his doorknob-sized diamond ring. The robbers told him to come out or they would shoot through the door. As soon as Curly came out, the main masked bandit asked him, “Curly, where’s that ring?”

The robbers made the men line up and searched them. Then they announced that they were going to search again and anyone holding out would be pistol-whipped. Pat said, “Hey, you missed a little dab,” pointing to four hundred-dollar bills in his shirt pocket.

The robbers took Curly’s Cadillac, but they told him they would leave it a couple of miles down the road. (Hijackers were a much better class of people back in those days.) When Curly went to his car, he was counting the Mexican money in boxes in the trunk. He had been fading dice in Mexico and had stacks of the much cheaper currency. The law saw him and it was reported in the newspapers that the robbers had missed thousands of dollars, which was not true.

We were often arrested at poker and dice games. Once when Johnny Moss was flying home from Alabama, he was having what he thought was a pleasant conversation with a fellow passenger. The gentleman asked, “Have we flown across the state line?” When Johnny said he thought they had, the FBI agent arrested him for interstate gambling.

Curly told me that the poker game in Longview would be huge. He expected to play and to buy part of the action of Pat and Johnny. Johnny Moss had won millions of dollars at poker, golf, and bowling. He lost millions shooting dice and betting on sports and the horses. The big game was at the Elks Club in Longview. It was gambling night. There were five open dice tables downstairs. You could shoot or fade, throwing wads of cash on the table. Curly staked several faders. Upstairs were two poker games. One was a $5 limit 7-Stud game. I jumped in there with three hundred dollars. Curly watched as a very old man in bib overalls cheated me using an overhand stack. Curly said he didn’t pull me up because this was just part of my education.

Johnny Moss was the dominant force in the big poker game. He talked the most, verbally challenging people, “Come on. We drove a long way to gamble.” He seemed to have the largest stack of currency. I climbed up in a shoeshine chair in the corner of the room to watch. Back then we gambled with paper money; we didn’t use chips because of the frequent raids by the law. People usually kept twenties on the bottom of their stack, hundreds and larger in the middle, and fives on top. You couldn’t look across the green felt and count a man down. You could not ask how much money an opponent had until it was all bet.

The game was Razz: 7-Stud, low ball to the wheel. The short stacks had a few thousand in front of them. When there were two or three cards showing, anyone with an advantage moved all in and the pot usually ended there. If Johnny Moss had an even gamble, he would move in on the short stacks. Moss would announce that he could cover them, so no one knew how much money was in his five inch-high stack of bills. At the time, five hundred dollar bills and thousand dollar bills were in circulation. Curly taught me how to move money in and out of the game secretly. He had a pocket full of coarse notes, as the bigger bills were called. You could get in a pot with someone you thought was a short stack only to find he was on heavy money. If Johnny Moss doubled up a short stack, it was only then that there was a count. If he won, you couldn’t even tell how big the pot was since he just swooped up the money. When a pot was being played, people who were not in the pot kept quiet. Moss ribbed and scolded and dared his opponents, making talk his weapon to tilt people. When a pot finished, there was zero celebration or gloating. When a man suffered a big loss or got knocked out, he showed no emotion. It was quiet at the end of a pot because you did not rib a loser. I was aware that many of the men in the room, including Curly and Johnny, had guns.

At first Curly, Pat Renfro, and Johnny Moss all played in the game. Pat played extremely tight, as he did in all games all his life, regardless of what was going on around him. When a short stack got broke, there was always someone waiting to sit in. Late in the night it was apparent that Johnny Moss was losing and moaning about his luck. Curly quit the game about even. He gave more money to Johnny and Pat since the game was getting bigger as the night wore on. Finally, Johnny Moss went on a rush about daylight, breaking several players.

A few months later, Johnny Moss spent an afternoon sweating my partner and me in a bridge tournament in Oklahoma City. As always, I was mostly taken by his eyes and his poker face. His eyes were piercing, all-knowing, fearless, scary, bemused, cold, predatory, and conceited. It seemed as if he could see right through you and the backs of your cards. His eyes seemed to be permanently half opened. He scanned the room, studying every detail.

Johnny Moss moved to Odessa, Texas in the mid-fifties to be near the oil boom, gambling, and the heavyweight gamblers including Paul Harvey and Tom “Pinkie” Roden. They had one of the biggest poker games in Texas for many years. Paul Harvey, a big-time bookmaker and gambler, catered to the oil-rich Texans in Midland and Odessa. One time, Paul and Johnny played heads-up poker for five days and nights. They took a two day break and played another five days and nights. Needless to say, Johnny won. Pinkie had been the biggest bootlegger in Texas before he established the state’s largest chain of retail liquor stores. Pinkie owned a small hotel in Odessa, called the Inn of the Golden West. The poker games were held in a private club, the Golden Rooster, in the hotel. This was the home game of Johnny Moss and many of the future winners of the early World Series including Moss, Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, Brian “Sailor” Roberts, Bill Smith, and Jack “Treetop” Straus. All of the famous road gamblers of the fifties and sixties went to Odessa to try Johnny Moss, including Pat Renfro, Doc Ramsey, James “Longgoodie” Roy, Joe Floyd, and Charlie Hendrix.

My partner Jerry Blair and I went to Odessa to try the big game in 1961, when we were 21. We rode down from Lubbock with our dear friend Bill Smith, who won the World Series Main Event in 1985. We knew our bankrolls of around five hundred each were laughable, but we thought we could beat anyone at Texas Hold’em. The very first pot Jerry played in the Seven-five Lowball game, he caught a pat ten and raised it on up. Paul Harvey drew two cards and moved Jerry all in. Jerry folded and Paul showed he had caught two face cards. Poker is hard on the low rollers.

Johnny Moss remembered me from the bridge tournament and from Longview. He told me to come early the next day and he would stake me in a bridge game. None of the gamblers were very good at bridge, except for Sailor Roberts. A couple of months earlier, Bill Smith and I had played bridge all night long against Pat Renfro and Longgoodie, and trounced them easily despite giving them a spot.

Later, Jerry got in a marathon gin rummy match. We went home with Tuffy Hufstedler and they played gin nearly all night. Jerry made enough money for us to try the big Hold’em game the next day.

The next afternoon, Johnny Moss and I played partners in three rubbers of auction bridge for a dollar a point. He also made some side bets. I never once had enough face cards to make a bid. We lost all three rubbers and the Hold’em game started. Jerry was smart enough to get the seat right behind Johnny Moss, but we were both clearly out-bankrolled. This was the most talented gathering of poker players imaginable at the time. No wonder we got broke! The big producers in those days were the bookmakers, bootleggers, and the oilmen. Famous gamblers from all over came to Pinkie’s joint. They strutted up licking their chops and limped away licking their wounds.

Mickey Cohen, the biggest mob boss on the west coast, came to Odessa to gamble with Paul Harvey and his oilmen. Cohen was Bennie “Bugsy” Seigel’s right-hand man (portrayed by Harvey Keitel in the movie Bugsy). The Texas Rangers heard Cohen had arrived and demanded he leave the state. When the Rangers telephoned Paul Harvey, he asked, “Well, what is he, an outlaw?” Paul Harvey provided Cohen with a limo to Wichita Falls, but the Rangers arrested Cohen and drove him to Dallas to fly back to Los Angeles.

Johnny Moss maintained residences in both Odessa and Las Vegas for the rest of his life. During the eighties and nineties, I would always say hello to Johnny Moss at the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. He was very recognizable with his golf cap, cardigan sweater, and Buddy Holly glasses. He was extremely courteous to me, although he had a reputation of being rather hard on the dealers. Moss won a total of eight bracelets at the World Series of Poker over the years, winning his last bracelet when he was 81 in l988. Moss continued to play poker right up to his death at age 89 in 1997.

I was at the World Series almost every year after 1980. When he was pushing ninety, Johnny rode all around the Horseshoe in an electric cart. It had a little rubber horn you would squeeze like the one Harpo Marx always carried. Johnny took great delight in honking the horn. He played twenty dollar limit and usually napped at the table. These naps might last a round. The dealers knew not to bother him. Around Binion’s, Johnny Moss was treated like a king. He lived there free, courtesy of Jack Binion. Johnny Moss rolled up beside me the last time I saw him and we played in the ten and twenty dollar limit Hold ‘em game. The other players all knew who he was. He got out a small piece of paper from his wallet and said, “Johnny, read that. That’s what I got.” It said “gout.”

They called him the Grand Old Man of Poker, and he really was a grand old man.

Johnny Moss Timeline
1907 – Born in Marshall, Texas.
1908 – Moved to Dallas.
1919 – Started playing poker.
1923 – Started working at a poker room watching for cheaters.
1926 – Married Virgie. They stayed together his whole life.
1927 – Daughter Eleoweese born.
1928 – Moved to Olney, Texas for the oil boom. First partnered with Pat Renfro.
1930 – They moved to Graham, Texas for the oil boom.
1938 – Moved to Lubbock, Texas and was promptly hijacked.
1938 – Celebrated golf match in Lubbock with Titanic Thompson. Ti bet Johnny he couldn’t shoot a 46 on nine holes with a four iron. Johnny had his four iron welded into a two iron. Ti sent a man around to raise the cups on all the holes. Johnny caught on and sent his caddy around to put the cups back as they were. Johnny won the bet. Titanic was the model for the character Sky Masterson in the play and movie Guys and Dolls. Marlon Brando played Sky in the movie.
1939 – Moved back to Dallas and won $250,000 in one poker game. Lost it all on the horses.
1942 – Moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana.
1943 – Drafted into the Navy as a Seebee.
1945 – Honorable Discharge
1949 – Famous five month heads-up match at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas with Nick “the Greek” Dandalos. Moss and Benny Binion won nearly three million dollars from the Greek.
1950 – Met Amarillo Slim.
1953 – Met Doyle Brunson. Doyle has said that Johnny Moss was the best no-limit Hold ‘em player in the world in his day.
1970 – Selected first World Series Champion by a vote of his peers.
1971 – Won the first World Series Championship
1974 – Won the World Series Championship.
1979 – Inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
1997 – Johnny Moss died at age 89. He won eight World Series bracelets and numerous other tournaments in his lifetime.

Johnny Hughes is the author of a novel entitled Texas Poker Wisdom that will be published in late 2007. Sources: Jenkins, Don. Johnny Moss: Champion of Champions. Copyright: Johnny Moss. Nugent, John. Mickey Cohen: In My Own Words. Prentice-Hall. Stowers, Carlton. The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson. Eakin Press.

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April 2007