5 Things You Didn't Know About Nick the Greek

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Are you worried about putting up a five-spot to play in your office's NFL picks pool this weekend? Does the idea of putting down $10 on a blackjack hand make you queasy? We're not sure these anecdotes will make you feel any better, but if you don't want to play games of chance yourself, here are a few interesting facts about one of history's most legendary gamblers, Nick "the Greek" Dandolos.

1. He Really Was Greek

Nick the Greek was born Nicholas Andreas Dandolos in Crete at some point around the turn of the 20th century. (Dandolos was cagey about revealing his age. While some friends insisted he was born in 1883, he claimed to be just 60 when he died in 1966.) Although he was born into a wealthy family, Dandolos was a diligent student and earned a degree in philosophy at the Greek Evangelical College "“ a degree that would later earn him the nickname "The Aristotle of the Don't Pass Line." He didn't stay in Greece and become the next great Greek philosopher, though. Dandolos' family sent him to the United States with an allowance of $150 a month.

Dandolos, of course, used the allowance to bankroll his early gambling adventures. After a short stay in Chicago he moved to Montreal and began betting on horse races. As it turned out, Nick the Greek had a knack for picking the ponies; he allegedly turned his allowance into $500,000 in just one racing season.

2. He Was Equally Good at Winning and Losing Money

According to Dandolos, he took the half-million he'd won playing the horses and returned to Chicago. In the Windy City he learned how to shoot craps and play cards, two pursuits that led to him promptly dropping the entire gigantic bankroll during a run of bad luck.

This loss sort of set the stage for the rest of Nick the Greek's life. He never really seemed all that interested in money; what he really wanted from gambling was the action. Although he estimated he won and lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million total in his life, he also added that he went from rags to riches and back around 73 times over the course of his career.

How could someone build such huge fortunes and then just fritter them away? One of Nick the Greek's most famous quotes offers a quick explanation: "The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing."

3. He Could Run a (Poker) Marathon

In 1949, Nick the Greek called up famed casino owner Benny Binion to ask for Binion's help in finding a heads-up poker game against one of the world's best high-stakes players. Binion agreed to help set up the game against Johnny Moss, but on one condition: the entire one-on-one match be played in the lobby of Binion's casino, where the public could watch.

Binion ended up getting more publicity for his casino than he'd bargained for. Dandolos and Moss played each other constantly for five whole months. The only breaks in the action came when the two players had to sleep, and they hopped from one poker format to another. After five months, Moss finally nailed Dandolos on a particularly large five-card stud hand. The exhausted Nick the Greek stood up from the table and famously said, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go," shook Moss' hand, and retired from the game.
Some observers estimated that Moss had taken $2 million off of Dandolos, while Moss later claimed he'd pegged the Greek for $4 million.

The real winners were poker fans, though, as the wild popularity of this marathon session among spectators later inspired Binion to start the World Series of Poker.

4. He Didn't Help the Early Movie Business

While Nick the Greek loved poker and betting the don't-pass line at craps, his favorite pursuit was supposedly faro, a largely obsolete card game that was popular in the Old West. Dandolos could go on long faro binges that nearly equaled his poker marathon. At one point Nick the Greek arranged for movie producer and Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle to stake him for a three-month faro bender in Reno. The cards weren't falling for Nick the Greek, and Laemmle ended up losing every dime he put up to back Dandolos.

5. He May Have Shown Einstein the Town

Dandolos was a popular, garrulous fellow, so when big names came to visit Vegas, friends would occasionally arrange for Nick the Greek to show the tourists around. One possibly apocryphal story tells of how Dandolos gave Albert Einstein the grand tour of Vegas during Einstein's tenure at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.

As the story goes, Dandolos didn't want to have his gambling cronies mock Einstein for being a scientist, so he introduced the physicist as "Little Al from Princeton" and explained to his friends that Little Al "controlled a lot of the action around Jersey."

Although it's impossible to know if that story actually happened, Nick the Greek definitely interacted with at least one brilliant scientist. Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and Manhattan Project researcher Richard Feynman wrote in his autobiography about how Dandolos taught him his betting system of winning by avoiding the obvious bets at table games.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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September 11, 2009 - 9:35am
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