In a voice that sounds like a recorded announcement Eighty Dollar Natey says, "Pleased to make your acquaintance." His handshake is quick and slight, his flesh cold. His eyes, sunk in black pockets in a face otherwise white as alabaster, move around the casino on a sunny morning in Glitter Gulch in downtown Las Vegas. He is searching for clients among players who have been up all night at the green tables. What Eighty Dollar Natey does is lend small sums of money to people who go broke. He demands a very high rate of interest, but they pay it.
Out on the Strip, five miles from where Eighty Dollar Natey prowls through the morning, the casinos in the resort hotels look the same inside no matter what the hour. If it is midnight and it is snowing outside you can't tell it from a summer noon. There are no clocks, and the light is always the same late-afternoon glow. You know if it is evening, because people will be lined up for the dinner show then, to see girls with plumes doing numbers that have not changed much from what dance-hall flowers were doing when the Nevada legislature voted for legal gambling 102 years ago. The players haven't changed much at heart either, except they now arrive from far greater distances on jet planes that shuttle them in at all hours every day of the year for action at the tables and among the rows of spinning fruit.
At the Dunes Hotel, in a corner near the entrance to the coffee shop, are four poker tables. A shoulder-high fence separates the tables from the rest of the room. Three tables are empty. At the other table—right rear, closest to the door with the sign on it that says WOMEN—are a dealer and five other men. Two of the men wear cardigan sweaters and golf shirts, one wears a sport jacket, another a wrinkled suit. The last is young, and his hair hangs over the collar of his tight, red body shirt. Only the dealer wears a tie. There appears to be nothing very special about the table or the players. They could be in the locker room of almost any country club.
After a while one of the men—the one wearing a red cardigan—quietly slides back his chair and gets up from the table, where he had been sitting for 40 hours.
"You got to have a strong belly for this game," he says. "If you scream, it'll only irritate you and you'll lose. They won't give your money back nohow." For a moment he studies the people setting up a clamor of bells and voices in the casino. It is no coincidence that resort hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas resemble resort hotels in Miami Beach, for their books list some of the same owners and their customers are often the same. Hundreds of these people rushing from handle to wheel in the casino have flown in on chartered planes as guests of the house, and the man in the red sweater shakes his head.
"If a fellow on a junket would lose $400 and quit, he'd have all the best of it," he says. "But there's lots of suckers that get in deep and don't know no way out but to keep throwing."
He thinks for a minute. "Well, that ain't my problem," he says. "I've just had the best hand going into the last card about 30 straight times, and every time they outdrawed me. I lost $18,000 and would of lost $100,000 if I hadn't of took some insurance. Sometimes it does irritate me, I got to admit that."
Now that Johnny Moss has abandoned his chair and come to the bar you can see the surface of the poker table. On it are stacks of black chips, too many to count. A black chip is worth $100. It is not unknown for a single pot at that table to contain $250,000. A pot of $70,000 is common. That is cash money. No markers, no personal checks. The winner picks it up.
At that right rear table in the casino at the Dunes, day after day, the richest established permanent poker game in the world takes place. Players come and go. Tommy Abdo, a regular player and a very high roller, arose from his chair at that table one night, walked about 10 feet to the gate in the fence and fell to the floor with a heart attack. "Somebody count my checks," he said, and died. But the game goes on.
From the balcony of his room, Johnny Moss can see the mountains change colors with the seasons. Nearly every night he joins the game at the Dunes, which is encouraged by some of the hotel owners who like to play big poker. The hotel collects $50 per hour from each player, for which he receives food, drink and an honest deal. But the greatest advantage is that when a man steps out of the game he can immediately deposit his money in the casino safe and ride up to his room with empty pockets. Thus he is not apt to get stuck up in the elevator.
Moss also manages the poker room at Benny Binion's Horseshoe Club in Glitter Gulch. He and Binion are old friends who were hustlers as kids on the streets of East Dallas, and occasionally there is a no-limit poker game at the Horseshoe. The Horseshoe also has a $2,500 limit at craps, highest in the country. This is of purely speculative interest to Moss, who does not shoot craps. Anymore.
The story is told by old gamblers that Moss was summoned to Las Vegas in 1951 by Benny Binion to play in a spectacular poker game against Nick Dandolos, who was known as Nick the Greek. Moss broke the Greek, they say, and stayed in Las Vegas for three years. In that time, according to the legend, Moss won $5 million at cards and $1.5 million playing golf. But in 1954 he left Las Vegas $500,000 in debt. He had lost it all shooting craps. Moss paid back the money in five years at $100,000 per year by going on the road as a poker player. He did not return to Las Vegas until 1968 when his friend Sid Wyman, casino boss and part owner of the Dunes, asked him to return.
Like most citizens, whether they gamble or not, Moss is wary of the Internal Revenue Service. All he will admit about his first three years in Las Vegas is that whatever he won was taken away by the dice. "You might get hot and win at dice or baccarat or blackjack for a couple of days, but there ain't a man alive can stay with them games against the house for a long period of time and not wind up broke," he says. "You don't see me shooting no dice, and I used to be a good shooter."
Moss watches the players at the pinball machines, but his mind is elsewhere. "I'll tell you about Las Vegas," he says. "Everybody out here is trying to get his hand into your pocket. They smell money. If you got it, they're somewhere right this minute scheming how to get it away from you. Always figuring, figuring, figuring how to hustle you. A sucker don't ever catch on. A smart man don't ever sleep. He's got to keep ducking the traps."
Jean Magowan, publicity director for the Dunes, is asked to describe Johnny Moss. "Oh, Mr. Moss is a darling," she says. "He's such a sweet man. So quiet and nice and grandfatherly. You'd trust him with anything. He looks like a cherub. Yes, he looks exactly like the kind of man you'd like to sit down and play cards with."
Sid Wyman is behind his desk in his office off the casino floor at the Dunes. Wyman, an enormous man with a slap-bass voice, is noted as a top cardplayer in his own right, one who "plays all the games," as the gamblers say, and you don't become part owner of the Dunes by losing.
"One thing about poker players," Wyman says, "they all think they're the world champion. It's as simple as that. But Johnny Moss happens to be the champion player. If you put 10 games together, like a decathlon, he'd be the best at eight and probably second in the other two. He's a real hard man to play with. He never divulges anything. A lot of poker players, you look hard and long enough, you'll find a little weakness, a chink in the armor that you might be able to penetrate. But Johnny—never, nothing.
"He's got know-how. Being able to feel the pulse of the other players is tremendously instrumental in determining whether you win or lose. Many people, if you put enough steam on them, you take the money down—because they might be a little lacking in heart, lacking bankroll, lacking in many things that you sit in judgment on at that table. A lot of players show bravery leap m where the angels fear to tread. Johnny shows courage—that's when you think it over and then tread Any man that comes in here and puts his money down on the poker table in large doses feels he's a champion Player It's as simple as that. But I'd have to say that 98% of them go home empty. Not Johnny.
"One great quality he's got is a very small regard for money. If money is really important to you, you'll never be a good high player. To Johnny, money is just paper to gamble with. That's one reason he's a great no-limit player. He's got heart and he knows psychology. He can move his checks in such a fashion that he gets his opponents in so deep that it becomes just as dangerous for them to stop as to go ahead. He makes them call him, and he busts 'em. It's as simple as that.
"Johnny is great at selling a hand. Some guy, you can win $100,000 from him if you win it $2,000 at a time. The same guy, if you win $20,000 from him on one hand he'll quit and never play with you again. I was playing stud one night with a fellow named Slim. He had eight-10-jack-queen-up. I had a pair of sixes. It was a small game, and I said to myself if he bets $2,500 I'm gonna pass, because he's trying to sell the hand, but if he bets more I'm gonna call. He bet $2,900. I just called it, put it right in, made him a miser. My sixes took it. If he'd tried to sell me a little cheaper, he'd of got it. You must know your man!
"I'll sum up poker playing in a hurry. When a good player gets lucky he wins the whole table. And when a poor Player gets lucky he wins just a small corner of the table. I sum it up for you just like that."
Ranking in the hierarchy of gamblers are Jews, Greeks Chinese and Texans, in no certain order. There is an adage that a casino is assured of success if it attracts a flourishing Jewish trade. Greeks are said to be cunning, Chinese clever and persistent. The mystique about poker players from Texas is that the best ones are very high rollers and nerveless.
"I'd always heard about these big poker players from Texas," says Jack Richardson, a New York writer. "I kept thinking, well, I'm a good player and I want to try myself against them. I came into a pretty good stake. So one night I sat in a game with these big players from Texas, and before I'd seen the last card of my first hand I had already risked a significant portion of my stake. They'd put me into a position where I had to win a hand right away or my stake would be gone. I was in the wrong league. Later I asked one of these fellows to teach me about poker. He was the perfect guy, was called Doc, had a curly cowlick, the whole thing. He sat me down in his kitchen at the table. Doc left the room. An hour went by. I was thinking, what the hell, getting very restless. Then he came back and said, 'You just had your first lesson. Patience.' "
Some of the biggest poker games ever held were in small hotels in Texas during the Depression. Gamblers and street hustlers were going into the oil business, and they were betting leases and rigs as well as cash. "If you played a week you could win a million dollars, win it in a night if it shaped up right," Johnny Moss recalls. "There were games, like at the old Metropolitan Hotel in Fort Worth, that nobody would believe the sums involved if I told you today. You got to be a good gambler, anyhow, to get rich in the oil business. Some of them players came out worth S40 million, what with poker and dice and oil leases and whatnot. Money didn't mean nothing to them, but gambling did. Some of them big oldtime oilmen still play in big poker games, but only for the pleasure of stepping on a professional gambler if they can. I like to see them come around."
High rollers are thrilled by numbers. "When you've rolled for a thousand who wants to roll for a dime anymore?" says Jack Binion. The late Little Man Popwell, famous as a compulsive high roller, was trying to borrow $10,000 in Pittsburgh a few years ago. A friend told him, "I happen to know you got $290,000 with you. What you need with $10,000?" Little Man replied, "I got a good thing on a football game, and I want to bet $300,000."
Johnny Moss had been playing in high games for years when Benny Binion called him and said, "They got a fellow out here that thinks he can play stud poker." Moss packed and headed for Las Vegas for his confrontation with Nick the Greek—a classic session. "I wasn't the best stud player in the world no way, but I could play good stud, you know, and I figured I'd better do it," Moss says. "We got at it, and there was hundreds of people sweating the game; people everywhere, and the table was full of checks."
Early in the game Moss had two nines up. The biggest card Nick the Greek had showing was an eight. On the fifth card the Greek caught a jack. Moss bet $20,000. The Greek raised $20,000.
"I think I got a jack in the hole," the Greek said.
"I told him, 'Greek, if you got a jack in the hole you are liable to win yourself a damn big pot,' " says Moss. "I shoved out another $20,000, and the Greek turned over a jack.
"The biggest bet me and Nick made on the sail of a card was after we'd took to playing lowball, deuce to the seven. Two-three-four-five-seven is the best hand in that game, and you play it like draw poker. Nick bet $60,000, and I bet him $60,000 more. He drawed one card. I stayed pat with an eight-six.
"We went to betting again. He turned over an eight-five. That one hand cost me $250,000. But we kept on playing for days, and finally the Greek said, I got to let you go.' I had broke him, you see."
It is a peculiar thing about high-rolling gamblers that they can lose their entire roll—sums that are literally fortunes—and pop up a few days later with another basket of money. Joe Bernstein, who used to gamble with the murdered Arnold Rothstein, has won astronomically at craps and baccarat and promptly lost it all back at the same tables. "My bankroll has been this long," he says, stretching out his arms, "and it has been this long," pinching his fingers together. Now in his 70s, Bernstein is tanned, with slick white hair and dresses like a Palm Beach dandy. Not long ago he hit himself a lick at the Horseshoe crap table, and gamblers flew in from all over the country to try to hustle Bernstein out of his money. "You never saw so many wolves crowding around," says Jack Binion. The question that naturally occurs is why doesn't Bernstein, at his age, put something aside? "It's just not in his makeup to do that," Binion says. "He's a gambler."
High rollers don't always recover by luck or skill at the tables. Some have "stake horses," rich men who bankroll them for a percentage of their winnings. Some sell pieces of their play to other gamblers. A few lend money to each other in times of varying fortune. The usual terms are that the money is to be paid back when the borrower is winning again, often with a percentage of the winnings as a bonus. Occasionally money is loaned "on principle," which means payable on demand, with no excuses.
There is quite a bit of pride associated with this. "One day some boys broke me in Dallas," Moss recalls. "If I'd had $300 I would of left town, but I didn't know where to get it. So that night I got in another game and lost $80,000. Well, I knew where to get that. I wouldn't ask nobody for $300, but $80,000 was easy."
Born in Marshall, Texas in 1907, Johnny Moss was moved to Fort Worth, where his mother died when he was 6 months old. Traveling in a covered wagon, the family proceeded to Dallas and sold their horses to the fire department. When Johnny was 5 a telephone pole fell on his father's leg and crushed it. "He got gangrene poison, and they had to take his leg off," Moss says. "So my daddy was crippled, and he run out of money, you know, and we moved over to East Dallas, and I think I got promoted from the high second to the low third when I was about 8 or 9, but I had to leave school and go to selling papers. I got hold of a bicycle and delivered for the Mackey Telegraph Company and finally got me a motorcycle and went to work for a drugstore.
"Benny Binion was a kid working on the streets in East Dallas, and so was another gambler named Bennie Bickers, and so was Chill Wills, the movie actor. I learned how to gamble when I was about 9 years old, shooting craps and playing dominoes. I hung around the domino parlors and was one of the best even when I was a kid. I made a living at dominoes by the time I was 15. I was learning all the games and learning about crooked dice, marked cards, how to protect myself.
"So one day some of us kids are sitting in front of a drugstore and a guy goes past in a Cadillac. 'Look at that sucker,' they say, 'he's worth $100,000.' Another guy goes past in a Marmon Eight. 'Boy, look at that sucker going there,' they say, 'he's worth about $50,000.' Then up comes an old Model T driven by a gambler called Blackie. 'This here's the smartest man in the world,' the kids say. Well, I'd known Blackie since he showed me how to make dice when I was 10. So Blackie conies over to me and asks to borrow 50¢ For that he was gonna buy five gallons of gas, two hamburgers and a Coke. I get up and dust my pants off and give him 50¢, and I say, 'Boys, I'm gonna go where the suckers are. I don't need the smartest man in the world.' "
Moss went to work in a Dallas gambling house as a lookout man, watching for cheaters. "First thing you know I turned out to be one of the best draw players in the card business," he says. "Next I joined the Elks Club because there was good, tight players there who could teach me." Still in his teens, Moss was on the road as a poker player. He worked the East Texas oilfields during the boom. He carried a pistol in his pocket and traveled wherever there was a big game.
By then he had married a girl named Virgie Ann. Although she is a Baptist and disapproves of gambling, they remain married after 44 years. This is an astonishing record for a gambler, or anybody else, and has been achieved partly because Moss keeps his gambling life and his home life separate. An anecdote was told about another Fort Worth gambler named Jawbreaker, who was reading a newspaper in a bar one afternoon and saw that Montgomery Ward was having a sale on screen doors. "I got to go pick one up," he said. "Our back door has been broke for six months, and my wife's all over me about it." The point was that Jawbreaker seldom had less than $5,000 cash in his pocket in an envelope bound by rubber bands, and could have ordered a screen door anytime, without waiting for a sale.
"But that was his gambling money, not his house money," says Moss. "I never touch our house money. I'd rather borrow from a bellhop than ask Virgie for a penny. I don't have no comment to her about gambling, win or lose." The Mosses own two apartment houses in Odessa, Texas. Virgie manages one, and their daughter Eleoweese runs the other. Moss goes home now and then from Las Vegas and lies beside the pool. "Virgie is a good manager with money. I might end up with nothing if it wasn't for her. She says she'd pay me $1,000 a week to stay home and drink whiskey," he says. "But what would I do with $1,000 a week if I couldn't gamble?"
Virgie's loyalty withstood severe testing early in their marriage. At 20, Moss won $100,000 in a game and told her to buy a house. Before she could pick one out he was broke again. Later, in Lubbock, Texas, Johnny bet $5,000 he could shoot a 46 on the nine-hole golf course using only a four-iron. At a blacksmith shop Moss bent his four-iron into about a 2½-iron. He was up every morning at dawn practicing. On the day of the contest Titanic Thompson, the fabled gambler who was betting against Moss, asked if Johnny would like to wager another $3,300 on shooting a 45. "Ti knew $8,300 was all the money we had in the world," says Moss. "Virgie asked me to hold out at least enough to pay our hotel bill, but I bet it all. I'd never shot better than 46 in practice, but I knew when that money was on the line I could beat it."
On the first hole Moss' 10-foot putt for a birdie rolled straight at the hole and curved off. As he walked to the second tee, Moss was pondering. "My caddie said the ball had hit a rock, but there wasn't no rocks there. I had given the greenkeeper $100 to keep the cups where they'd been when I was practicing. Couldn't be but one thing. Ti had got out there early and raised the cups." Moss sent his caddie to the second green to stomp the cup back down, a job accomplished so enthusiastically that a putt that should have gone wide went instead around the rim and dropped in for a birdie. Moss' caddie and Thompson raced to the third green. The game proceeded that way, and at the end Moss had shot 41 and won all bets.
Gamblers tell of another match Moss played in Roswell, N. Mex. for $10,000 per hole. They say his caddie, who was getting 10%, won enough that day to buy 18 rent houses in West Texas.
Ploys used on golf courses by gamblers are innumerable and sometimes fantastic. They range from outright cheating to gamesmanship to simple practical tricks, such as an old one that is currently popular again in Las Vegas—smearing the club face with Vaseline to prevent the ball from spinning into a hook or slice. On a tight hole at the Dunes golf course you see the jars of Vaseline emerge from each bag, and when the club is swung you hear slurk! rather than whack! Moss remembers a big-money match years ago when his caddie found an opponent's lost ball in the rough and hid it in Moss' bag. Moments later the opponent joyfully cried out that he had located his ball resting on a mound of grass with a clear shot to the green. "That ain't your ball," said Moss. The opponent looked at him for a long time and then said, "Johnny, if that ain't my ball, where is my ball?"
"I don't play golf anymore because I'm too old, but I was real successful at it when I did play," says Moss. "I never could shoot better than the high 70s, but the thing was I could always shoot my own game no matter what the bet. I never thought about the money or about the other guy, and the cup always looked big as a bucket. I knew how to handicap the match. There was a lot of guys who was three shots better than me, but when the money got real high I was three shots better than them. I knew they was going to choke, you see, and I knew I wasn't."
Playing in the New Mexico amateur tournament, in the third flight, Moss met a man he couldn't reach. "I was betting $10,000 with some other gamblers that I could beat this fellow. He was a skinny little schoolteacher. I tried to get him to bet me 25¢ a hole to give him something to think about, then down to a nickel a hole, but he wouldn't bet. He kept hitting the ball down the middle, and he was killing me. His name was Buggs. My caddie was a real good boy named Elmo out of Paducah, Texas, and I told him to think of something. Well, on the next hole the caddie says, 'Your shot, Mr. Insect.' He says, 'My name is Buggs!' My caddie says, 'What's the difference between a bug and a insect? Your shot.' That schoolteacher got so mad I didn't have no more trouble with him."
The casino cage at the Dunes is about 100 feet from the right rear poker table. The front two poker tables—nickel ante, 25¢ minimum bet, $20 limit—are usually occupied by players who have no concept of the sums changing hands behind them. When a man cashes in at the right rear table there are armed guards to him to the cage. "It's got to be this way," Moss says. "This country is full of thieves, thousands of them. They've ruined room poker. You go out to play at some roadhouse, you get hijacked. I've been hit on the head, and they've stuck guns at Virgie. If I do go out on the road to play, I carry a double-barrel shotgun with me. I got it cocked when I go to my car and when I go to my room. If a hijacker wants my money anymore he's got to shoot me to get it, and there ain't many thieves will face a shotgun. But it ain't no kind of life for me on the road, either."
Years ago Moss was playing in a weekly poker game at a place in Beeville, Texas that was built like a pillbox. "I got a phone call from a guy in Dallas telling me I ought to skip the game for a while. That meant a hijacking coming up. I laid out for a couple of weeks and nothing happened. Then I went back, and we was playing, and all of a sudden they shot tear gas into the room, and all these guys with shotguns and gas masks, like they'd come out of space, had us surrounded. It was like a Army attack. They took a lot of money off us that night. Later when the police caught one of them, they closed off a whole block around his house in Dallas and used a loudspeaker to tell him to give up. That's what kind of notorious guy you're liable to run into."
All the thieves don't use guns. Some use mirrors, marked decks, magnets, fast fingers, "holdout machines" that produce cards from sleeves, palms that chips stick to and dozens of other methods, including combining against a sucker to break him. Moss regards all this with a sort of neutral disdain. Once he flew from France to a town in Alabama after being tipped to a big game, and when he arrived he recognized five old acquaintances who were ganging up to beat a couple of rich suckers. "They offered me 40% if I'd stay and play, but I said I was sick and flew on back to Paris," he says. "The one thing a professional gambler has got is his reputation. If you become known as a cheater and a thief, that's no good, you see. There's different kinds of gamblers. There's gamblers, cheaters and cheating gamblers. If a cheater can't cheat he won't play. If a cheating gambler can't cheat he'll play, but he'll lose because he can't beat nobody but suckers. What burns me up is every time a dice dealer or a pit boss gets arrested the newspapers say he's a gambler. Well, he ain't no gambler—he's a workingman. A real top gambler, he don't ever work or cut in with thieves."
A gambler named Amarillo Slim was responsible for widening Moss' education about thieves. Amarillo Slim called him to come to London, where one of Moss' favorite poker games, hold 'em, was being played. Moss and Amarillo Slim played a few times in a gambling club and won, and then Moss began to notice they had acquired a companion. "This guy was real broad, and he spoke English and went everywhere with us," says Moss. "Slim explained this guy was from a London gambling gang that had cut theirselves in for 30% of our action. I said, well, we don't have to put up with that because nobody in London carries a gun, and so we don't have nothing to be scared of. Slim said, well, maybe this guy don't have no gun, but he does carry a hatchet that he uses to nail your hands to the floor if you don't come across. I decided I'd just go on home."
Although a professional gambler's life is precarious, fraught with robbers and runs of luck, one gambler, Puggy Pearson, has worked out a philosophy that allows him to maintain an even view of the world. Leaning on the fence beside the right rear poker table at the Dunes, chewing a cigar, wearing a straw hat and a golf shirt and watching stacks of black chips piling up in the middle of the table, Puggy explains how a man can adjust himself to the swing between fat and broke:
"Your body is just to carry your head around, that's all. Your head can get too far ahead of your body, but your mind don't know it. When you start losing it's because your head and your body ain't together. You got to quit for a while and cool yourself off. Like a guy can sit there for a week at that table, living on coffee and cigarettes, and he can get into a mental state when he don't know his body can't carry his head no more without some rest.
"Gambling is two things—knowing when you got the best of a 60-40 proposition and knowing how to manage yourself. Suppose you got no eyes or ears and you and me are gonna pitch pennies at a line. First I spin you around so you get dizzy and don't know what direction the line is at. Then if I've got $1,000 and I bet it all on one throw you could still toss your penny in the air and it might roll onto that line and break me. That's bad management. What I got to do is divide my $1,000 into 10 bets. Since I got far the best of it, I'll probably win all 10. But if I lose one you won't break me. There's thousands of good players who don't win. They don't know how to bet."
In the case of Johnny Moss, however, his specialty is knowing when to shove out all the chips. "No-limit poker is my game," Moss says. "Playing limit, even a high limit, they can always stay in and call you. Playing no-limit, you can win a big pot without even drawing all the cards. You can win a lot of money just by winning the antes if you know what you're doing. I'll show you what I mean. One time I heard this boy trying to borrow money on the phone, and a few minutes later we got tangled up in a big pot and I knew he couldn't get no more money. So I moved on him and took it. You got to do that. You can't allow no sugar in the game. If it was my own brother I would of broke him. If you want to be gentle to a fellow you can give him his money back later. Be easy on somebody during the game, they'll tear you up. You know your man, you look for a 'tell' that will show you what he's thinking, you move your checks right, and you bust him. That's the game."
But there is a way to hedge even then. It is called "insurance." An insurance broker will hang around a big game. Before the last card is turned he will offer odds on the best hand. An example of this was in a hold 'em game one recent night at the Dunes. With $70,000 in the pot, it was figured that Player A was 10 to 1 to win the hand over Player B. The broker offered 8 to 1, and Player A took it for $5,000. Player B drew a lucky card and won the pot. But Player A still picked up $40,000 from the insurance broker.
Hold 'em is a game in which two cards are dealt to each player and three are dealt facedown in the middle. The hole cards are bet, then the three in the middle are turned up and are bet as if in the hand of each player. Finally two more cards are turned up and bet on, making it a seven-card game. Hold 'em is a wild, high-gambling game, back in fashion with big bettors after almost dying out. Another popular game now is razz, a seven-card stud low game. They also play ace to five and deuce to seven, five-card draw games with the low hand winning. Sometimes there are five-card stud games, high or low, or seven-card high stud, but these classic games are somewhat out of style at the moment.
"People don't play so much stud anymore," says Red Wynne, who is in his 70s and has been known as one of the country's best stud players for 50 years. "It's because stud is too hard a game. You got to be a good, strong player. With razz or hold 'em, there's a lot of luck, anybody can win. Just like everything else these days. It used to be that kids wanted to gamble and make something of their-selves. Now they just want to smoke weed and take the easy way."
It is nearly midnight now, although the same soft, dull light fills the casino. Johnny Moss is standing at the bar, drinking coffee from a glass with a napkin around it. He is talking about the time he was in a car wreck and a couple of friends were killed, and he awoke in the hospital with a deacon praying beside the bed. Moss says he asked the deacon if gambling was a sin. The deacon replied, "You trying to find out something for nothing?"
Everyone laughs. Another gambler named Sarge is standing there. They are waiting to see if Joe Bernstein will show up again. Earlier, Bernstein had lost a bit to Moss playing pitch and then had stomped out of the Dunes in a rage after making a point at the dice table that didn't count because the dice hit the dealer on the hand. They talk about Bernstein's voice and remember how loud it was the night the IRS agents rushed up to the poker table and confiscated his chips. Bernstein had followed the agents out to the car, waved one chip at them and bellowed: "You forgot this one, you bastards!"
Moss is restless. He wants to play. A game had almost started at the right rear table, but one player had demanded they play razz with a $300 limit, and Moss got up and walked off. "Them yellow checks hurt my eyes," he said, referring insultingly to $5 chips. He takes off his glasses and puts them into his sweater pocket. His eyes are still sharp, but with the glasses he says he can see a fingernail flick on a card from across the room.
"Joe is coming," says Sarge. "He's still mad."
"I know what you buzzards are after, and you're not gonna get it," Bernstein says. He lights a cigar and orders a drink. "But I might be willing to teach you, John Moss, how to play a game called gin rummy. A boy like you ought to learn all the games."
"Teach me!" says Sarge.
They grin and go to the right rear table and sit down. After an hour or two the game of gin will turn into a game of hold 'em, and at this time tomorrow night they may still be sitting there, with black chips and $100 bills stacked up before them in numbers that rise and dwindle with the passing of the hours. "Sometimes it gets kind of exciting," Moss says.
Behind piles of $100 chips, Moss sits at his table in the Dunes.
TIPS FROM JOHNNY MOSS ON HOW TO WIN IN THE OFFICE POKER GAME
• Don't bluff. In a limit game try to be sure you are going to turn over the best hand. When you have it, bet it. When you don't, get out.
• Play for position. If you are the first bettor you need a stronger hand than if you can trail the bet.
• Study the guys you're playing with.
• Even if you're not in the pot, watch every hand and try to guess what it is.
• Beware of cheaters.
• Don't drink.
• Have patience and wait for a good hand. Just sit still when you have to.
• In a high-low split game always play for the low hand. You can make a high hand accidentally.
• Never act as if you are better than the people you are doing business with.