When the Most Famous Gambler in the World was a Shill

When the Most Famous Gambler in the World was a Shill

Thursday, 1 April 2010

By Johnny Hughes

In 1949, Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Dandolos (often spelled Dandolas) had his worst poker year ever. It was to haunt him for life and lead to one murder.

First, and most famously, the Greek played Johnny Moss and others, off and on for five months and lost a lot of his bankroll. I'd guess two million. Writers James McManus and Michael Craig question whether this match actually took place and, if it did, whether it could have been for such high stakes, but more importantly they decided that Johnny Moss was a broke and a liar, because they did not do their research homework. I dispute all these claims, and my Nick the Greek information comes from court records, his biography and many other accounts they missed.

Johnny Moss came to Las Vegas in 1949 to play the Greek heads up, and I think Benny Binion was staking Moss. Speaking of his father, Ted Binion said, "He lost $400,000 when he first came out here in 1946." With the high limits, one man lost $470,000 in one day at the dice. Those were the kinds of stakes that Benny considered “high”. Writers say Nick the Greek had won $50 million and broken all the gamblers on the east coast, including huge mob boss Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein usually seemed to beat Nick the Greek, but the enormous stakes there, and the Ray Ryan match, more of which later, would indicate Johnny and the Greek were playing as high as Johnny claimed.

Jim McManus says that the other “Greek”, Jimmy Snyder, was there advising Benny to get a Texan to play the Greek. Benny and Johnny had been paper boys together in Dallas as teenagers, and Johnny was the best and most famous poker player in Texas. Make that gambler, because his golf matches were also incredible.

They played at the Las Vegas Club, controlled by Benny. Moss called it the Horseshoe in his bio, wrongly, because the Horseshoe didn’t come into being until 1951. I've played a lot of stake money, as did Johnny Moss. I believe Binion put up the bankroll to play the Greek on the halves, as was commonplace. It Moss had of lost, he'd owe Benny half.

Benny Binion had been exiled to a town of 18,000 people when he came to Las Vegas. He put his bankroll in the Westerner, then the Las Vegas Club, then the Eldorado, which became the Horseshoe. In a gambling license hearing for the Horseshoe, the front man was Dr. Monte Bernstein. Benny was there, but remained silent; he was listed as the “restaurant manager”. Dr. Bernstein said, "No person connected to the Eldorado Corporation has a criminal record." The Mayor and the Lieutenant Governor spoke for Benny's man. The newspaper did not report Binion had been arrested a few times, including for two homicides that were self-defense. Michael Craig bases a lot on what was not in the Strip / mob / casino advertiser's newspaper. They never told the true story of Nick the Greek while he was alive, nor after his death. Craig also bases a lot on what was not in Benny's rambling stories when he was old. But as Benny himself said, "I'll tell you the truth, but I won't tell you everything."

Michael Craig, James McManus and Des Wilson all write that Benny Binion did not mention Johnny Moss in his oral history of 1973 from the University of Nevada. Instead, he discussed Moss and his match with Puggy Pearson at the WSOP final table. He discussed Moss' age and bluffing. It is the only poker match he did describe.

They state also that Benny Binion did not mention any poker match from 1949, but Benny does tell of taking the Greek to pay off when he lost "five hundred thousand and somethin" at poker. They also state that Benny Binion was not mentioned in the eulogy or obituary of Nick the Greek, yet Benny was mentioned in the third line, was on the front row, and he was a pall bearer.

For certain, from court records and an interview with Herb Marynell, Ray Ryan's biographer, in the fall of 1949, the Greek played heads up low-ball draw, indoors and outdoors, at the Thunderbird and the Flamingo for 15 days or more, off and on with high-roller, friend of movie stars, oil man, and big-time bookie Ray Ryan. Ryan won $550,000 from the Greek, which would validate that Moss and the Greek were also playing that high. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were performing at the Flamingo and Jeanne Martin, Dean's wife, would go watch them play out by the swimming pool. Jerry Lewis was already in debt to the mob casinos for his gambling and they had him on an allowance. In his oral history, Benny Binion spoke of the Greek: "After he ran out of money, he'd come down here to eat, and he'd ride the bus... One day a guy beat him out of $500,000 and somethin' playing poker... I went with him to get the money to take back to the guy."

Nick the Greek had gambled with the biggest mob bosses, including Al Capone, Dutch Schultz and “Legs” Diamond. It was said he could walk the streets of Chicago with $100,000 in his pocket. The Greek, from Chicago and a mob darling, went to the biggest Chicago bosses, Tony Accardo and Gus Giancana (Frank Sinatra's pal) and said he had been cheated at poker. He did not think Benny Binion and Johnny Moss had cheated him, only Ray Ryan. Moss' win was a cool score; Ryan's win was a hot score. According to his biographer, Cy Rice, this was the Greek's last real bankroll. He also said the Greek arrived in Las Vegas with $2.5 million, what was left of $5 million given to him in a suitcase by Dutch Schultz to hold. Dutch was killed. I doubt this theory, but I do believe he had that much money when he hit town and went broke in 1949, mostly to poker.

The mob bosses asked psychotic killer, Marshall Caifano, to get the Greek’s money back. Initially, he asked for a $1,000,000 from Ray Ryan to avenge the poker cheating. Apparently, Ryan had a confederate with binoculars signal the Greek's hand with a short-wave device to a receiver worn at the waist. In low ball, a flash of a face card colour will do it if you are "sending them over”. This was depicted in the James Bond movie Goldfinger right before Ray Ryan was murdered for this long grudge in 1977.

Along the way, Nick the Greek and Marshall Caifano tried to kidnap and extort Ray Ryan inside the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, and were arrested for it in 1963 by the FBI. Nick the Greek turned state's evidence and became an unindicted co-conspirator. The Las Vegas newspapers did not tell of this or the truth about Nick the Greek. A survey showed that the Greek was a major tourist attraction in Las Vegas, ahead of the Hoover Dam. The myth was that he shot dice at the Strip casinos – read, mob casinos – each day. He was the most famous gambler in the world, and he was shilling, pretending to gamble to draw a crowd.

When crusading editor of The Las Vegas Sun, Hank Greenspun, attacked the anti-Semitic Senator McCarran in the early 1950s, the Strip casinos pulled all their advertising. Benny Binion would not, and he won Greenspun's lifelong friendship. The Las Vegas newspapers never told the truth about Nick the Greek, or many things.

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was the first of four legendary "Outside Men" sent to Las Vegas. This was the one person who scared everybody, and who could represent the Mafia back home in all the casinos they controlled. He first came in 1941. In a top mob meeting at the Hotel Nacional in 1946, in Havana, Cuba, it was voted he had to be killed, but not in Las Vegas. An agreement was made not to do things to hurt the image.

Chicago was the central Mafia control over Las Vegas, and bosses Tony Accardo and Gus Giancana, over the years, sent in three Outside Men, the last two the worst possible choices. Johnny Roselli was first, then Marshall Caifano in the 1950s, and Tony Spilotro in the 1970s. All three made it into the blacklist of excluded persons, meaning they were not allowed to enter a casino. James McManus wrote that Frank Sinatra was also on the blacklist of excluded persons, and that Johnny Moss was "banned" from Las Vegas for 20 years! Wrong again. Frank Sinatra sang there, often. Two of the four Outside Men had movies made about them: Bugsy and Casino. And Johnny Roselli was the Tom Hagen character in The Godfather.

All three of the later Outside Men, Roselli, Caifano, and Spilotro were involved in card-cheating scandals. Roselli was a very smooth operator, the CIA contact for attempts on Castro, and a roving Mafia charmer and enforcer. He went to prison for the Los Angeles Frair's Club gin rummy cheating scandals that bilked America's show business elite of millions over a five-year period. The mob bosses killed Roselli and Spilotro, while Caifano lived to be 92. Again, it was a peephole in the ceiling and short-wave electronic signals that Roselli's confederates used to cheat. Johnny Roselli was the mob guy that went to movie producer Harry Conn to persuade him to cast Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. This scene is depicted in The Godfather.

If you described Caifano and Spilotro, the same adjectives apply, chillingly. Five foot-five, volatile, sadistic killers with a long list of gruesome hits behind them which included torture, vices, blow torches and car bombs. Both were totally self-centered and generated great fear when they entered a room. They brought the worst publicity and law enforcement heat to Las Vegas.

When I went to Las Vegas in 1960, I played some auction bridge at Binion's Horseshoe and was being cheated by three people. When I told them I could not pay, a booming voice behind me said I didn't have to. I had met Benny Binion. My old gambling mentor Curly Cavitt said I could use his name to "vouch" me in. Benny sent me across the street to the Golden Nugget where I went to work shilling in the poker room for Poker Hall of Fame member Bill Boyd. Michael Craig writes that Boyd was a paragon of virtue and ran an honest poker room for decades. Actually, we shills signalled, as Boyd trained us to do, and the rake was massive, much of it palmed. We cheated.

I saw Nick the Greek shooting dice at the Sands and was told he was just a shill for the mob joints, which meant all the Strip hotels, and that he owed them a ton of money. The thing to watch in Las Vegas in 1960 was the ten-cent craps at Binion's Horseshoe. A dice table right by the sidewalk had a neon sign that read "Ten Cent Craps", and another sign that said "Watch Your Own Bets". It was packed, and system players were writing down each roll of the dice.

Big Sid Wyman, Poker Hall of Fame member, was an old-time gambler and hotel owner. He owned a very big piece of the casinos and knew how to run them. He dealt with the press, unions, celebrities, high rollers, movie stars and junkets. He'd gone from having a piece of varied joints to a big piece of the Dunes in 1962. In 1968, Sid Wyman brought Johnny Moss to the Dunes to spread the poker in front of the main showroom. According to Poker Hall of Fame member, Crandell Addington, "This was the biggest cash poker game of all time. The early World Series of Poker was a minnow compared to the Dunes/Aladdin game."

One of Sid Wyman's owner/partners, another huge poker player, and the biggest sucker of all time, was Major Riddle. He was only one of the big producers in the poker game. He lost so much that he lost control of the Dunes. Doyle Brunson, an excellent authority on these matters, said that Major Riddle lost $40 million over time. Johnny Moss got his share.

Johnny Moss had won and lost $5 million in his first five years in Las Vegas. His winnings came at poker and golf, his losses at dice and horses. He stayed away for a few years, because as Doyle Brunson wrote, mobster Gus Greenbaum thought he was cheated with a peephole. Everyone knew the Ray Ryan story and that the mob was unhappy. Also, his mentor, stakehorse and protector, Benny Binion, was in prison. Maybe Moss just said it had been Greenbaum because Marshall Caifano had already murdered him and his wife in Phoenix in 1958. He nearly cut their heads off. If it wasn't for his admiration and long devotion to Nick the Greek, you would never have thought Caifano was a very sentimental guy.

I am offended by poker writers who leap to conclusions by thinking that because Johnny Moss was the poker host with Sid Wyman, he was broke. The most reliable poker historians, bar none, are Poker Hall of Fame members Crandell Addington and Doyle Brunson. Crandell wrote to me that the poker game that was Johnny Moss' and Sid Wyman's game at the Dunes, and later the Aladdin, was the biggest cash poker game of all time. It included Poker Hall of Fame members Johnny Moss, Sid Wyman, Addington, Brunson, Billy Baxter, Felton "Corky" McCorquodale, Joe Bernstein, Red Wynne, Puggy Pearson, and Sarge Ferris. These ten Poker Hall of Famers had plenty of producers around, including movie stars and mob guys.

Edwin "Bud" Shrake was at the Dunes in 1970 to interview Johnny Moss, a real interview. Pots of $250,000 were commonplace, and they didn't make the poker history books. Sid Wyman did a whole lot of the talking in an earlier interview in Collier's with Nick the Greek, and in the interview with Johnny Moss. Moss was steadily shipping that money back to Texas when Jon Bradshaw and Michael Craig say he was broke, and before he won eight bracelets and lots of other poker tournaments. Age, sleep, money, and gambling didn't mean the same to Johnny Moss as it does to guessing writers. Doyle Brunson said, "Johnny was more fearless, more dedicated and more consumed by poker than anyone I've ever known."

My cousin, Bill Stapp, worked the dice and blackjack at several mob joints. He spent decades in Las Vegas and tells great stories. He was at the Dunes when the Sid Wyman was in charge. Poker Hall of Fame member Billy Baxter wrote me that, "Sid Wyman was one of the greatest gentlemen in gambling of all time. A great man." Everyone loved Sid: employees, the press, big time poker players, other casino bosses, movie stars, the whales he brought in on junkets, and the afternoon Minksky's Follies girls, an early topless act.

The legendary poker player Joe Bernstein was playing in the game with Titanic Thompson and Arnold Rothstein that resulted in Rothstein's later death. Bernstein bit one of the dealers, a friend of my cousin’s, when he crapped out at the dice table. Bernstein always tried to cheat at gin. Puggy pissed on a dealer once. Can you imagine having all the living, early Poker Hall of Fame members around the Dunes? They played high! And Johnny Moss always got his share.

When Sports Illustrated and one of Texas' best authors, Bud Shrake, interviewed Johnny Moss and several of the Poker Hall of Famers in 1970, it was a Sid Wyman production that didn't even mention that Johnny Moss had just been voted the first ever WSOP Champion down at Binion's Horseshoe. Neither did Johnny Moss mention that he built two apartment houses in Odessa, Texas in 1967, which his family, whom I have talked with, operated until 2007. Moss was never broke after the late 1950s. When Shrake interviewed Titanic Thompson, he told of the golf match with Johnny Moss in Lubbock in 1938, where he pulled the cups up, and Moss sent his caddy around to put them back down. Moss told the same identical story to Shrake. When I met Johnny Moss in 1959, he was the most famous gambler in Texas. Titanic Thompson also told of travelling with Nick the Greek, and them cheating together in California by signaling and using marked cards [Titanic Thompson and Son, Bluff Europe, May 2007]. Who knows?

In 1954, Collier's Magazine did a three-part story on Nick the Greek, his first interview, and where much of the information, true, and erroneous originated. The story was written by Hank Greenspun and managed by Sid Wyman, one of the most important men in the history of poker. Greenspun started out as Bugsy Siegel's publicity man and had a piece of the Sands for a while. It was all one big pitch for the mob joints, the Strip casinos, and it quoted Sid Wyman a great deal. Of course, the Greek didn't mention Benny Binion, who was in prison, Ray Ryan, or Johnny Moss. Instead, he told old stories about his alleged triumphs back east. Most of it was malarkey, trying to get folks to believe that you could win at dice. At the time, Nick the Greek was broke and trying to hustle loans and stake money. He didn't tell that he was broke and he sure didn't tell how he got broke.

Michael Craig, as evidence of his theory, cites the fact this article did not mention Johnny Moss. Even worse is citing Jon Bradshaw's Fast Company and its interview with Johnny Moss to indicate he was a broke. I don't think that interview even took place. This was in 1973. It says Moss was old, tired, and broke, and had not played in the World Series of Poker main event in 1972. He was at the final table. The publisher added an introduction to Bradshaw's book that said Bradshaw was a liar, that he told whoppers, inserted himself into the story and had zero credibility. Bradshaw kept changing his own fictional biography.

I think Jon Bradshaw was there at the World Series, but do not believe his dialogue with Johnny Moss, or anyone else. Bradshaw's book is plagiarised straight from Bud Shrake's Sports Illustrated interview. Sentence after sentence are nearly identical, with silly, impossible dialogue thrown in. He also plagiarised Shrake about Titanic Thompson. It is the worst case of plagiarism I have ever witnessed.

One silly biography of Nick the Greek, by Ted Thackery, written in child-like prose, has the Greek and John F. Kennedy riding around Las Vegas and agreeing to eliminate the mob. The Greek says all the joints had juice-dice and electro magnets. My cousin, Bill Stapp, said cheating at dice from either side of the table was extremely rare, since it is unnecessary and the gaming agents could take away the gambling license.

The biggest myth Michael Craig and James McManus believe is that the biggest poker games had a lot of cheating. When you get the Hall of Fame talent they overlooked at the Dunes poker table, everyone knows all about cheating. The reason Johnny Moss was selected by Sid Wyman to host the biggest poker game of all time was that the most famous road gamblers in America would gather, and they knew it would be a square game. Who would cheat all these Hall of Famers in a mob joint? [See my article, Remembering Johnny Moss, Bluff Europe, April, 2007]. In decades of poker, I've seen cheating only a few times. I caught Titanic Thompson's son at it, the best cheat on the road.

In 1960, the year I saw him shilling, the Greek was still very mad about the 1949 cheating, but obviously not mad at Benny Binion or Johnny Moss, just Ray Ryan. And Marshall Caifano was a lot madder. Again, he asked for money for the Greek from Ryan, but Ryan refused. In 1963, the now famous high-roller Ryan was staying at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Marshall Caifano had been put on the blacklist of persons excluded from casinos in 1960, but he made a show of being seen in mob joints. The Gaming Control Board sent in an army of agents to inspect the cards and dice at Strip casinos as a warning. Califano went to Ryan's room to talk with him about getting money for Nick the Greek. When Ryan saw the Greek and Charles Delmonico in the hall, he knew they were on the snatch, meaning to kidnap him. Ryan ran out through the casino.

The FBI arrested Caifano and Nick the Greek for extortion and attempted kidnapping, but of course it didn't make the newspapers in Las Vegas. The Greek turned state's evidence and became an unindicted co-conspirator. He testified against his long-term admirer, the sadistic killer Caifano. So did Ray Ryan.

Ryan was a stubborn, vain man. He was the major developer in Palms Springs, owned a Kenyan Safari Club with his best friend, actor William Holden, that had Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and a string of notables as members. Several mob figures, including Johnny Roselli, asked Ryan not to testify. He predicted, correctly, that the Internal Revenue Service would use the trial evidence to hound Ryan the rest of his life, and they did.

In 1964, the Greek filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Ray Ryan for that old poker game in the fall of 1949. It was thrown out. Meanwhile, Caifano went to prison and the Greek moved to California and played the cheap $5 limit games at Gardena. He died in 1966, or Caifano might have killed him. Five years after he got out of prison, someone blew up Ray Ryan's car. Several FBI informants told the story of Marshall Caifano's long grudge against Ray Ryan and Caifano having him murdered.

Michael Craig and Jim McManus get the Greek's age wrong. He was 66 at the time of the match in 1949, not 56. He shot the don't pass line. He was known at the Aristotle of the Don't Pass Line, since he was a Greek philosopher. They both make a big deal of the fact that the Las Vegas newspapers didn't mention Benny Binion, the Horseshoe, poker, or Moss when Nick the Greek died. Hank Greenspun, one of the pall bearers, mentioned Benny Binion in the third line of the newspaper story and the eulogy. He told a story Benny had told him about a Governor of Texas. Benny was the only one in attendance mentioned and was a pall bearer also, sitting right up front. Honorary pall bearers included top politicians, and also Ted and Jack Binion, Moe Dalitz, Sid Wyman, Major Riddle, Joe Bernstein and Johnny Hughes, not me.

After 1949, Nick the Greek was a changed man. One night he went in to the Horseshoe, maybe 1951, and lost $200,000 on credit betting the don't pass line. Then he went across the street to the Golden Nugget, and lost $60,000 on credit. He went to all the Strip casinos and wrote markers. He went to Reno and California and the word spread. The Greek's markers and his word were never any good again. He'd get staked some for poker and dice, and lose. He put the touch on every one he saw. That's when Sid Wyman persuaded Nick the Broke to do his only interview with Collier's in 1954. It repeated the now-ironic-to-everyone-in-Las-Vegas lie that the Greek was always good for his debts. The Greek's stories there, and in Cy Rice's biography, really stop in 1949, the last year he really played high. He shilled, and hustled, and borrowed for eighteen more years. He died with he was 84 in 1966, busto.
This is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Nick the Greek and Other Gambling Stories by Johnny Hughes. Thanks to Phillip Conneller, as this was his idea. Thanks to Poker Hall of Fame members Crandell Addington, Doyle Brunson, and Billy Baxter.

Tags: johnny hughes, columnist