"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?"