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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."