A moment or two with Mr. Johnny Moss

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The following is one in an occasional series of recollections by Aquasino director of poker operations Dan Malka, who has rubbed elbows with just about every big name in poker history.

In the fall of 1978, my third week as a poker dealer at the Las Vegas Dunes cardroom, I was dealing a $30-$60 stud game and legendary poker champ Johnny Moss sat in Seat 4. “Texas Johnny” was about 70 years old at the time but still a bear of a man. The No. 5 seat, a 40-year-old out-of-towner, was putting heat on me from the start. The 40-year-old finally won a big pot and stiffed me.

Quiet up to this point, Moss says to him: “Now, my dealers know we’re playing for a lot of money and that players get mad when they’re losing. But you’ve been riding this dealer since he got in the box and you just won a good pot. You can’t tip him?”
The No. 5 seat ignored him. Johnny squared his chair toward him, slammed his fist on the table and said, “Now give this dealer a red chip ($5) right now or I’ll throw your ass the hell out of my poker room!”

The guy nervously spilled three red chips my way. I grabbed them, tapped the box, looked Johnny in the eyes and said “Thank you.”

Moss nodded.

The next two hands were dealt in dead silence, then the No. 3 seat, a local, said, “Johnny, I don’t want to get you all riled up again, but you forgot this isn’t your cardroom anymore.”

Said Moss: “I don’t forget anything. I know they gave my cardroom to the college boy (Dartmouth graduate and future Hall of Famer Chip Reese), but it was always my cardroom and it will be again. You’ll see.”

Moss always was in the Dunes cardroom playing or sitting on a covered table reading a newspaper. Nobody ever sat next to him except for Mrs. Moss on the rare occasion. I asked another dealer why nobody ever sat by him and he said, “Because he’s a rough character; take my advice and stay away from him. You’ll be better off.”

Well, Moss was the kind of rough character I liked. I was 23 and liked hearing people’s life stories. How could I pass up the opportunity to hear one from Moss?
I stood by his table and said, “Mr. Moss, I was wondering, would you mind if I sat down by you?”
He stared at me, then looked away, and then said “Here’s the sports page; sit down.”
Nothing else was said. We both just read our papers until he said, “You better go push Table 3 now.” He knew our rotation!

After about three times of just reading the paper next to him, Moss said, “These other guys around here figure they better call me Mr. Moss, but from now on you can call me Johnny. But you still have to call Mrs. Moss ‘Mrs. Moss.’ Everybody has to.”

“I know that, Johhny,” I said.

“You know, I could tell you a few things about this business if you had a mind to listen to me,” he said.

“That’s what I had in mind when I came to sit next to you, Johnny.”

“Well, all right then,” he said.

Every time I had a chance I would sit next to him. He’d talk and I would listen.

Moss turned out to be right about the Dunes. Reese started winning so much money playing that he gave the cardroom to Doug Dalton (the current Bellagio director of poker).
Doyle Brunson became cardroom host for Major Riddle at the Silverbird. All of the players followed Brunson to the Silverbird and he made Eric Drache cardroom manager. Drache gave me a job there and Dalton left the Dunes for a gig in California.

After a while the Dunes changed the location of the poker room and expanded it, but most important, Moss was back as poker boss of the Dunes.

He wasted little time building a strong low-limit room the old-school way. He’d host the games, hired dealer players, balanced tables and gave breaks on the rake. On my days off from the Silverbird I’d stop in at the Dunes and give Johnny a play.

About 15 years later on the last day of a four-day Vegas trip, I decided to drop in at the Horseshoe to see if there was anyone I’d recognize from the old days. Sitting there by himself on a covered table in the poker room reading a newspaper was 85-year-old Johnny Moss. I walked up, stood in front of him and said, “Mr. Moss, I wonder if you might remember me?”

He stared at me a minute and snapped, “Yeah, I remember telling you ya didn’t have to call me Mr. Moss!”

I smiled wide, shook his hand, sat down and said, “Johnny, how ya doin’?”
Moss: “Well you probably heard about Mrs. Moss.”

“Yeah, Johnny, sorry to hear it. She was a fine lady.”

“Are you still in the business?” he said.

“Yeah, Johnny. I went to Florida and helped train the poker staff at an Indian casino and now manage cardrooms on cruise ships, traveling the world and making good money.”

Moss wasn’t particularly impressed with this. Instead he was staring at the poker podium.

“See that guy over there? (Referring to long-time Horseshoe cardroom manager Jim Albrect.) I want to get up out of this chair, walk right up to him, fire his ass and hand you his job! But Benny (Horseshoe founder, owner and close friend) doesn’t care what I think anymore. He says we’re too old now. Well hell, he’s probably too old. He lets his fool college boy son (Yale grad Jack Binion) run this whole damn place. What the hell do these college boys know about our business anyway? I tell ya, it’s not right.
“It’s not right that you had to leave Vegas just to run a damn cardroom. It’s not right that I made this place. One of my boys should be running it, one of the boys that learned from me!”

I realized there wasn’t any point in telling him I was glad to be out of Vegas, or that I was one of those college boys, or that I never actually worked for him. It was enough for me to know the greatest poker player of his time and an old-school poker boss would have picked me to be on his team. I thanked him for the thought and said my last farewell.
Johnny Moss passed away shortly thereafter.

— Dan Malka is the director of poker operations for Aquasino Partners LLC in South Carolina. You can write to him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.