Men Of Action -- Nick 'The Greek' Dandolos
Exploring The Lives Of History's Greatest Gamblers
Welcome to Card Player’s new series, Men of Action, which will explore the lives of some of history’s greatest gamblers and sportsmen.
Nick the Greek, reigning King of the Gamblers, tosses another $5 chip into the pot. At this point in his life, he’s playing as high as he can. Most of his once-thick black hair has gone the same way as his money — down the drain.
It doesn’t matter to the Greek. The stakes were always relative for him and so this is as good as calling $20,000 against Johnny Moss. It’s a great, final test of his philosophy. It’s a way to make sure he’s being exactly who he is, Nicholas Andrea Dandolos, celebrated gambler and gentlemen extraordinaire.
“I play for the risk, not for the money,” he once said. “A trout fisherman fishes for sport, not for meat. This attitude creates mystery in the mind of the opposition. Nobody wants to put a mystery out of action. They want to see how it comes out.”
Soon he would be dead, the perfect end to a perfect story, about as broke as a street urchin, mourned by American royalty and buried in a golden casket. Rock bottom, broke for the last time, and lowered into the ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in, where else, but Las Vegas.
“Death is a sound sleep undisturbed by foolish dreams,” he said a decade earlier to an exhausted dealer who only wanted to sleep.
“Death is a chute to hell,” groaned the dealer.
“Nothing of the kind. Hell dies with you,” Dandolos said.
This is how Dandolos entered American consciousness as the “King of All Gamblers” when Collier’s Magazine published a three-part article describing the millions and millions of dollars the Greek won and lost living the life of a philosopher-gambler.
Written by Collier’s writer Richard Donovan and Hank Greenspun, the work painted the picture of Nick the Greek as a man who flits on the surface of the mysterious gambling world with a dignity never before seen.
He’s not only the King of the Gamblers, but he’s the “Fabulous” King, dressed in a bow tie and blazer, his dark hair shoved back away his face, a cigar as close by as a philosophical quip on the stupidity of superstition or the meaning of money to a man like himself.
“What came went,” he said, addressing why he could only be even, as he claimed. “I have been rich and busted 73 times in my life. The exhilaration of this form of economic existence is beyond my power to describe.”
Where the money came from was a bit of a mystery. Born in 1883 in Crete, he came to the United States as a young man with an allowance, a well-off college grad with a degree in Philosophy and love of poetry. A man who spoke five languages and recited Socrates.
The Collier’s article claims he ran his modest stake up to $500,000 betting horses in Canada with the help of a jockey who may or may not have been fixing the races. The next 30 years of his life was spent living off his family’s fortune gambling whatever money he could get his hands on in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, gambling in the highest stratospheres in places run by gangsters until he eventually landed in a then cow-poke town called Las Vegas.
He sustained his lifestyle, according to Collier’s, by one of four ways: A small group of wealthy Greeks, a large poor group of Greeks, a wealthy New York widow, or various out-of-state mobsters. Collier’s also said that Dandolos gave away more than $20 million to charities and each morning, he handed out cash to people who lined up to ask for it.
The series followed Dandolos around Vegas for a few days, watching him blow $90,000
here, $60,000 there, all the while remaining upright and civilized, an example of how to be a gentleman, a man with such a disregard for money that he’s sent at least $100,000 to the cleaners in a pair of pants and left a hat hanging on a rack in a restaurant with $80,000 stuck in the band.
Hank Greenspun, the co-author, had a very good reason to build Dandolos into a must-see attraction. Greenspun not only owned the Las Vegas Sun, he was a major player in the real estate market in Vegas, owning land that is now Henderson. The chance to give Collier’s two-million readers another reason to visit was priceless. Nick the Greek was gold.
To poker aficionados, Dandolos is most famous for facing off against Johnny Moss in 1951, in a spectacle that is linked to the beginning of the World Series of Poker. The game of mixed poker swelled into a match of five-card stud that supposedly lasted several months and ended with Dandolos uttering his famous line of surrender “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
That match was first mentioned in the January 1971 Sports Illustrated feature article on Moss, but Moss didn’t address the game himself. The author, Edwin Shrake, mentions it as a story the old gamblers like to tell. According to Shrake, the year was 1951.
Moss talked about the game in interviews later and said it was 1949, that he won $4 million and eventually left Vegas several years later $500,000 in debt because he loved to play craps.
There’s a very real possibility the game never took place, or at least didn’t take place as it’s now imagined, with Nick the Greek facing down Moss, hour after hour, railbirds straining over each other’s shoulders to get a better peak at the exposed cards and all those chips and to see what it all looks like, to live the life of a gambler.
There is no record of Dandolos talking about the game, not even in the major feature article published in Collier’s that was as much public relations as it was biography. There is not one newspaper article from either 1949 or ‘51 that mentions the match. Dandolos’ obituaries do not mention anything about poker.
Benny Binion is said to have only agreed to set up the match for Dandolos if he would play it publicly as a sort of side-show. Binion was a master gimmick-man, yet, if this was the case, he failed to generate one news story about the historical match despite his friendship with Hank Greenspun.
Also, in the Collier’s article, a large paragraph lists the many people Dandolos gambled with, and nowhere is Johnny Moss’s name. Of the 20 or so people mentioned, not one is the Texas gambler.
Ray Ryan is there, however, right between Swifty Morgan and Blondie Hall. Twenty-three years later, Ryan got into his car, turned the ignition and then evaporated in an explosion set by a mobster name Marshall Caifano.
That week-long game of low-ball played by the poolside of the Flamingo ended up with Ray Ryan dying in a fireball.
While the details of the Moss-Dandolos game are sketchy, a match of five-card stud lowball between Dandolos and California businessmen and gambler Ryan are a bit more forthcoming because the episode ended up in the courts.
The two played five-card stud lowball for about a week. Dandolos lost a minimum of $323,000, but he claims to have lost more like $550,000 before they called it quits.
Did Ryan have a guy on the roof with a spyglass reading the Greek’s hole card, sending the information through a buzzer connected to his leg via shortwave radio or did he win the pile of cash fair and square?
Nobody really knows if Dandolos suspected this ruse or if Caifano convinced him it was true years later, but in any case, it gave Caifano enough of an excuse to try to shake-down Ryan since the Greek was a friend of the Chicago syndicate and mobster enforcers are usually madmen.
Caifano was a five-foot-nothing pile of evil. He was described by the Feds as an enforcer for the mob and he is tied to – but never convicted – of multiple murders. He allegdely really liked blowing people up.
At the end of April, 1963, Caifano contacted Ryan in Vegas and told him they wanted $60,000 a year and $15,000 for Dandolos to make up for his slight. They hit him in the chest, to make sure he knew they were serious, and left him shaken but determined not to give in.
Caifano and his associates did too good of job scaring Ryan. When they showed up at his hotel room on May 1, he ran, panicked, into the lobby, shouting “Shoot me in the back. That’s the way you do business.” And then he ran to the Feds who charged Caifano and a few of his cohorts with extortion and fraud.
During Caifano’s extortion trail, Dandolos was asked by a U.S. Attorney was his profession was.
“Retired,” said the 81-year-old.
When asked if his former profession would have been gambling, the Greek said, “That
description might fit it.”
Dandolos testified that Ryan owned him $109,000. He said that Ryan made a deal to pay-off Dandolos to save himself embarrassment of being known as a cheat. He also distanced himself from Caifano and the two other men.
“I never authorized anyone to collect any money, because I thought Ryan would pay me, of course,” he said at the extortion trial in 1964.
Caifano got 10 years. Dandolos tried to sue Ryan for $1.5 million, but the case was tossed.
After Caifano got out of jail, Ray Ryan’s car blew up when he tried to start it. That was in 1977. Caifano was never charged and died of natural causes in 2003 at the age of 92. Funny how that worked out.
Dandolos spent his last days in a hotel in Beverly Hills, playing low-stakes poker in Gardenia until he died on Christmas day in 1966. He was 83. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in its first class in 1979, along with Johnny Moss.
Frank Sinatra cried at his funeral.
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