Modern poker has its share of legendary names; we’re thinking of the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Phil Galfond, and even a few players not named ‘Phil’.
But when it comes to the old school, there are few who embodied the image of the freewheeling, high-stakes gambler more than Nick Dandalos, who passed away 57 years ago today, on Christmas Day 1966.
Dandalos, who was widely known as ‘Nick the Greek’, emigrated from his native Greece to North America around the turn of the 20th century. During his time in Chicago, Montreal, Las Vegas and California he established a reputation as one of the highest stakes gamblers ever to place a bet.
Stories of his escapades in casinos, at horse tracks and at the poker tables have passed into legend, perhaps none more so than the – possibly apocryphal – marathon poker game he played versus Johnny Moss in 1949.
The five-month heads-up game
It was Benny Binion, owner of the Horseshoe in downtown Vegas, who is believed to have orchestrated and hosted the epic game between two of the era’s greatest poker players.
Dandalos, the quintessential sky-high gambler, took on Johnny Moss (later known as ‘The Grand Old Man of Poker’), in a heads-up match which took in every form of poker played at the time. They played for five months straight, drawing crowds to the Horseshoe to witness the high stakes public duel. Rumor had it that while Moss slept between sessions to recover, Dandalos would often hit the pits, playing his beloved dice or table games.
As one might expect, if the rumor were true, the story ends with Moss ahead to the tune of $2-4 million and with Dandalos uttering the immortal line, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
Whether the game ever took place remains a subject for debate (records show that the Horseshoe wasn’t open during 1949) but, as the saying goes, ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’.
‘Little Al from Princeton’
As a well-known socialite, Dandalos had connections across all strata of society. Thus another funny ‘Nick the Greek’ story – true or not – involves Albert Einstein paying a visit to Las Vegas and being given a tour of the town by Dandalos.
Aware that Einstein’s reputation as a scientific genius was unlikely to have reached some of the mobsters and gambling pals with whom he usually associated, Dandalos is rumored to have introduced him as “Little Al from Princeton,” who “controls a lot of the action around Jersey”.
“Hey, it’s action”
When you’re always willing to bet it all, the downswings can be catastrophic. And so it was that, having won and lost many hundreds of millions of dollars during his life, Dandalos saw out his twilight years in relative poverty, playing $5 limit draw poker in Gardena, California.
When a player at his table asked how it felt, playing for low stakes having once played for the highest around, he replied with another now-legendary quip: “Hey, it’s action, isn’t it?”
That line, like many Dandalos is reported to have said – and many of the things he is reported to have done – is difficult, if not impossible, to verify. But many would argue that’s not the point: when Nick Dandalos passed away aged 83, on Christmas Day in 1966, he left a legacy of great poker stories that we still tell today.
And there’s one fact of his life which is undisputable: when the Poker Hall of Fame was established in 1979, two of the first names inducted were Johnny Moss and Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandalos: rivals in the greatest poker game ever played…maybe.
Images courtesy of the University of Nevada/Creative Commons and Ginny M/FindaGrave