The Biggest Game of All

Benny Binion, was intrigued by an offer put to him one day to organise and stage the biggest poker game ever played. Nick “The Greek” Dandalos wanted to play, and beat, the best and Binion knew just the man.

He and Johnny Moss were friends from their days in Dallas where Moss had carved a reputation as the best Draw Poker player of them all – a feat he would go on to repeat in Texas Hold’em. Moss lived for the game of poker and reportedly played every day of his honeymoon, on one memorable occasion reaching behind him and taking his wife’s wedding ring off her finger before putting it into the pot.

Ever the opportunist, Binion said he would host and organise the game as long as it was played in public in his casino and both parties agreed.

The game lasted an amazing five months in total with the players only pausing to sleep – and even that was optional for Dandalos. Moss recalls coming down some evenings after a 4 hour break to see The Greek standing at The Craps tables, keen to start, and asking him why he insisted on sleeping his life away!

The legendary hand came during a stint of 5 Card Stud – not Moss’ preferred structure – in which each player gets dealt one card face down and a card face up before there is a round of betting and then receives three more cards face up, each followed by a another round of betting. It is a very pure form of poker, very little played these days on account of the low hands that are created which most new players feel creates little excitement. In this particular hand, Moss started with a nine face down and a six face up. Dandalos was showing an eight.

After an insignificant couple of bets, Moss caught an unhelpful two while Dandalos drew a four. The next card brought Moss another nine making him a pair of nines and Dandalos a six. At this point in the hand, Moss knew he was ahead because there was no card which Dandalos could have “in the hole” that is face down which could give him a superior hand. With a six and an eight showing, nothing could beat Moss’s pair of nines and therefore Moss confidently bet $25,000. It’s easy sometimes to be nonchalant about the size of bets in big poker games so it bears consideration that this single bet was very nearly as much as the contents of the most lucrative Deal or No Deal boxes. Dandalos called, however, maybe with a pair of eights, maybe a pair of sixes, maybe – better still for Moss – a seven on the off-chance that he might make a highly unlikely straight.

The next card brought an unhelpful and irrelevant two for Moss and an equally unlikely four for Dandalos. Again, Moss knew 100% that he must be winning at this point and bet out again – $30,000 -  enough to maximise his win but not enough to scare off his opponent who by this time, with just one more card to come, stood very little chance of winning the hand. Incredibly, the bet was called.

Moss’ final card was again an unhelpful three but Dandalos received an equally trashy jack. There were only three cards in the whole deck which Dandalos could have “in the hole” which could beat Moss at this point – one of the remaining three jacks to five Dandalos a pair of jacks. But for The Greek to have one would have meant that he had put $50,000 into the pot before that point with literally nothing; hoping, praying, feeling that he would catch one of just three jacks by the end of the hand. To Moss’ astonishment and delight, Dandalos bet out $50,000 and without too much hesitation Moss, believing his hand had to be better, pushed all his money into the middle of the table. More than $500,000. A huge bet. In any game. Of any era.

Apparently, in the pause that followed, Dandalos hung his head and Moss started to count the money in the middle as you do when you know that the pot is imminently going to pushed your way. Instead of folding his cards, however, Dandalos looked up at Moss and raised his eyebrows…

“Mr Moss, I think I have a Jack down there in the hole.” He said, essentially claiming to have won most of Moss’ fortune at that time.

“Greek” said Moss “If you’ve got a jack down there you’re gonna win yourself one helluva pot.”

Dandalos called the bet and turned over a Jack to reveal one of the craziest plays in all of poker and one of its biggest pots. He had bet more money than many Americans earned in a lifetime on a hand which until his last miracle card was just Jack, Eight, Six, Four! And Moss, regarded as one of the best five players ever to play the game had just played the biggest hand of his life. And lost.

Borrowing money to get back into the game Moss must have had some negative thoughts although he has never revealed them in all the time he talked about it since. All he ever said is that he knew that if his opponent continued to gamble like that he would break him in the end.

Eight weeks later, Dandalos, two million dollars worse off, rose from his chair and uttered the immortal words “Mr Moss, I’m going to have to let you go.” Johnny Moss went on to become the greatest player of his generation and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos was eventually seen playing $5 limit poker in the casinos of Gardena, California having won – and lost – more money during the course of his lifetime than most of us will ever see during the course of ours.

Posted 11:00am by Caspar and filed in Decision Making, Risk

Fate and Destiny? Or Chaos and Insanity?

About eight years ago, my poker mentor and I were tucking into our fourth plate from the Bellagio all-you-can-eat buffet when I decided to bemoan the bad run of cards I had experienced that week. My guru ordered a jug of coke before telling me a story which has stayed with me every day since then: an old gambler who had come to town many years previously to play in The Big Game but now, 15 years later, was reduced to passing chips around the $3-$6 Limit Holdem tables downtown. His bankroll, once nearly a million, now stood at just $6,000 – a sum from which he eked out the most basic of returns and humblest of lifestyles.

“Most of his income came from the occasional handout from his son and the buffet comps which he received from the casinos after every four hours of live play. It was humiliating to queue for them at the cashier’s desk every day, but necessary. Necessary.”

“One night, after drinking too many free White Russians in The Freemont, he goes “on tilt” and burns through $1500 in four hours. Chasing flushes, inside straights and trying to fill up on the river; by midnight, he’s lost another $2000. He knows that there’s no coming back from this. It’s double or quits time. Move up or cash out. For good.”

“He heads across to Binions and takes everything he has out of his strongbox before putting his name down on the No Limit list. When a seat becomes available he sits down with $2,460 avoiding eye contact with players probably glad to see him there. A loser at the table. Better than that, a man who used to be somebody. Someone to say you’ve beaten.”

“The first few hands pass without incident before there is a raise and then a re-raise before him and he looks down and sees aces. He thinks for a while; frowns; gives the impression that he’s considering his options, knowing full well that this might be the last hand of poker that he ever plays. Then moves all-in. I guess his opponents saw it for what it practically was: the last play of a desperate degenerate. They call him. His aces stand up against their queens and jacks. And suddenly he’s trebled through and on a roll.”

“Two more wins later and he’s on $10,000 for the first time in two years and ordering Evian.”

“After three hours at the table he’s in the zone. Making great reads. Laying down straights. Playing like the young man he once was. Acute. Alert. In the moment. And once again, the money’s rolling in: $20,000, $25,000, $30,000, back down to $20,000 before doubling through to $40,000. Some berate the last gasp of a long-term loser. Others don’t begrudge their losses having taken so much from him for so long.”

“Sitting up straight, his hubris and bravado now restored announces his intentions. ‘Ah know ah’m gettin’ lucky and you know ah’m gettin’ lucky and ah know you know what’s happening here but let me make it very clear: Ah’m gonna play tonight until ah make two hundred thousand. Then ah’m up. I’m out. And gone for good. Ah’m not going til that happens so… who wants to donate to mah fund?’”

“Sensing that he’s not joking, the players start to laugh and relax into the game. He might be playing well, he might not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. But one thing is obvious, he’s getting lucky. Some have to think hard to remember a rush like it. His pairs trip up, his middle pins hit, he flops quads twice! The point is that if he’s really gonna sit there til he turns $2500 into $200,000 he’ll be there for quite a while. Long enough, they reason for his luck to turn and the hours to take their toll on his ability to make any kind of meaningful decision. They place their faith in the long run and take him on; happy to lose money in the meantime.”

“But the long run in this game is pretty long as we know” my mentor said, taking a sip of his coke “and that rush never ended.” He just kept on making money: $50,000, $70,000… $55,000 then a huge pot which took him up to $120,000! But still he didn’t walk away.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because he had a goal, I guess. I don’t know for sure. By two in the morning, he was physically and mentally spent but still resolved to make it to the $200,000 mark. I guess he saw it as his retirement fund. Enough to buy a small farm in Wyoming. Enough to never have to play the game again. Enough to move on. His price of freedom. I don’t know.”

“Then after nearly 6 hours of play, he looks down and sees aces once again and once again two players raise it up. Once again, he re-raises, this time to $6,000, a price which one young player calls and another more experienced player passes up. The flop comes 3 K 10, his opponent checks, he bets $12,000 and his opponent raises it by $30,000 more. At this point, in a different game you might well throw your hand away.  The check raise is so powerful there that – well what you gonna put him on? Ace King?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know the opponent.” I say. “King Ten is possible. A pair of tens in the hole. Even a pair of kings is possible I guess.”
“They’re all possible. Everything’s possible. The guy could be stone cold bluffing. Reckoning that if all you have in this world is $120,000 you don’t want to bet $30,000 of it on anything but the holy nuts. The question’s not what’s possible but what’s likely and how likely. Given all the likelihoods, what would you do?”
“Once again, I don’t know the way the other guy plays but… how much money does the other guy have?”
“Correct. How much money does he have. Not a question we would usually ask but in this case, playing with our entire bankroll on the table… crucial. The other guy has $96,000 left on the table. We have just over a hundred. If we lose everything on this hand we’re back down to $6,000. Exactly what we had 12 hours ago. Our bankroll for the last 3 years. So what would you do?” He paused. Probably waiting for an answer which never came.

“What he did was to go all in. Again. He reasoned that either a pair of aces were the best hand there and then or that by pushing $100,000 into the middle of the table he would do a good enough job of persuading his opponent that they were. He was wrong. In reality it was a nothing bet. If his opponent had less than a pair of aces he would have folded, more and he would have called. As it was, the young fella barely paused for breath before calling the bet for everything he had and turning over two kings. Trips.”

At this point in the story, what you need to understand is that our man has a pair of aces – a hand he started with in his first two cards – but his opponent has used the king in the middle of the table together with his two kings to make three of a kind, Kings. A better hand. The best hand, in fact, at this point in the hand: “the nuts” – so-called because in the early days of poker when one had the best possible hand, one would bet the nuts from the wheels of one’s wagon outside; literally the proverbial “keys to the Porsche”.

Crucially, though, Texas Holdem is played with seven cards in total from which the best five cards play. This means that two cards are yet to be dealt out into the middle of the table and with two aces left in the deck and two chances yet to hit one of them (to give him three aces) our man had a 10% chance of winning by the last – or river – card.

“People said that as the dealer made to deal the turn neither player moved a muscle. Probably terrified by the potential loss or gain ahead of them, they just stared impassively as the next card came out – a 2 of diamonds. While the young gun was now a 95% favourite he’d played long enough to know that this was not a certainty. By any means. As the dealer burnt the last card, the old man stopped him and addressed the table, earnestly, his Texan drawl more noticeable than ever:

‘Whatever the river… ah’m staying. Ah’m leaving here with $200,000.’ People felt genuinely moved by his resolve and belief. They knew deep down at that point that that was now unlikely but hell… they’d all seen much crazier things happen at a poker table. They rooted for the underdog but sensed the inevitable…”

“The point is, son” my mentor placed his empty glass on the table “you come to me tonight and you tell me that you’re feeling sorry for yourself. That you’re missing flops and draws and everything’s awry. Next time you feel like that, you remember this man’s story. You think how it must feel to come so close to having everything you ever wanted for the last 10 years and seeing it snatched away on the turn of a card. Don’t tell me that the luck just ain’t with you, man, if you need luck you’re not playing right!” After a three month run in which I found it hard not to hit my hand I felt suitably ashamed for complaining about a bad five days..
“What happened in the end?” I mumbled out of curiosity. My mentor paused…

“Sonofabitch caught his ace on the river and won himself a $233,000 pot. Went from $2,500 to 100 times that in less than a working day.”

“More remarkably, he went on to do exactly what he said he would. He didn’t play another hand, didn’t try and ride his luck, he just got up and fetched a chip tray to take his winnings to the cashier. Once there, he had it counted and recounted then bundled into Benjamins. To the cashier’s astonishment, he even closed his strongbox, signed out, put the cash into his pockets and walked casually out of the casino – the eyes of the whole poker room upon him.”

“He only had two hundred and thirty thousand on him but he must have felt a million dollars as he walked out that door and into the warm night air.”

“Once outside, he took a deep breath and allowed his shoulders to sink by two full inches. What to do now? He looked up at the clear sky above him at the billion twinkling stars that you used to be able to see in the desert night sky before they erected that Freemont Street Experience thing and took the first step of the rest of his life.”

“A split second later the night bus applied its brakes with a screech but could stop from hitting him at forty miles an hour. Paramedics arrived but pronounced him dead at the scene. Police arrested a couple of people who went round picking up some of the hundred dollar bills that blew out of his coat and wafted around the sidewalk.”

“If he hadn’t gotten so lucky he would probably still be alive today.”

My mentor poured himself another glass of coke before offering me one from the jug which the waitress had left at our table. A lot of the ice had melted so I declined.

“Because if I Don’t I’ll Die”

Lawrie Tallack is now an actor which is a rare career progression when you consider that he was once a fighter pilot in the RAF. A veteran of the gulf war and 200 parachute jumps, Lawrie was no stranger to taking calculated risks!

One evening his Commanding Officer came in to warn them that they would be making a jump the next day from a high altitude balloon. “Don’t worry though boys” he said “it’s really not that different to what you’re used to. Just bear in mind that when you jump it really is a long way to fall before you open up.”

“And then he paused” Lawrie recalls “and seemed to relive a traumatic memory or something before reiterating that it really really was a long way to fall.”

For some reason, Lawrie went to sleep that night unnerved by what was intended as a pep talk! After hardly sleeping at all during the night, he went to his superiors and informed them that he could not bring himself to do the jump. In short, he refused.

In blackjack there is a (fairly common) situation in which you have 16 and the dealer has a 7 or higher showing. Given that you’re trying to make 21 without going bust only a 5 or lower will improve your hand. A 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen or King will bust you. And yet the book (that is the guide to basic strategy which has been worked out according to the inexorable maths) tells you to hit – to take a card. It feels so counterintuitive. And yet the book is adamant: you must hit the hand. Why?

The bottom line is that you are in a terrible position there. Not as terrible as being in a plane hurtling to earth but you have 16 – the worst possible total – and the dealer has a 10 (let’s say). You are going to lose a lot of money in this situation on the average. The VALUE of this situation is negative. BUT you will lose LESS money in the long run than by standing pat. Yes you will bust yourself 8 times out of 13 but the times you will improve will win it for you enough times to outweigh those losses.

The point is that in everything we do we need to take a Long Term approach. Even though by hitting the 16 we may bust and it’s going to be painful, it is the right thing to do. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard. It will be painful. But it’s right because the alternative is MORE painful and therefore risky.

There are definitely risks we cannot afford to take. But there are also risks that we cannot afford not to take. And not taking any “risks” is the greatest risk of all.

After his refusal to obey an order, Lawrie’s disciplinary hearing was inevitable and effectively the conclusion was foregone. You can’t refuse to do a jump in the RAF. Loving his job and desperate not to lose it, Lawrie pointed to his exemplary record in the services, all of which they said had already been taken into consideration. They had – they said – his safety at heart:

“What if you were in a plane Tallack hurtling towards the ground at terminal velocity and had to eject hmmm? What would you do then? We have to know that you would put your safety first.”
“Well of course I would. I’d eject insisted Lawrie. But they were unconvinced.
“How? How do we know that?”

To Lawrie the answer seemed perfectly obvious. “Because I know that if I don’t… I’ll die!” He said.

Posted 11:00am by Caspar and filed in Decision Making, Risk