Very few gamblers gain legendary status within the gambling world, but Nick the Greek is one of them.
He is something of an OG in poker circles, having made a name for himself during a casino career that was many decades long, amassing famous friends along the way and gaining a reputation as one of the best high stakes gamblers of his time.
He died in 1966, but the fact that people still talk about him today so many years later, tells you something of the impact he had on the industry.
He was primarily known as a poker player, and was even posthumously inducted into the poker hall of fame in 1979, but Nick the Greek was a man who played every game in the casino.
Indeed, one of his nicknames was ‘The Aristotle of the Don’t Pass Line’ thanks to his love of craps, his Greek heritage, and his philosophy degree.
Faro is another game that he loved, which even back then was pretty much extinct, a left over relic of the days of the Wild West; so he really was a casino game connoisseur.
The most interesting thing about Nick the Greek though, is that he was never really in it for the money. He just loved the games and the element of risk was what spurred him on.
It’s hard for a modern gambler to understand, or anyone with a sensible head on their shoulders for that matter, but with his encyclopaedic knowledge of casino games and his thirst for action, Nick knew what he was doing, and he didn’t really care about the outcome.
He even once said:
“The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.”
Not sure we would agree with him there, but it tells you a lot about the guy’s mindset.
The Early Years of Nick the Greek
Those of us who were in our 20s and 30s when Guy Richie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels came out, may well conjure up a very different image when we hear the name Nick the Greek, so let’s be clear, we are not talking about this guy.
Although both of them were at one point “walking around with Liberia’s deficit in their skyrocket”.
No, the man we are interested in today is Nicholaos Andreas Dandolos, a professional gambler and high roller who was active during the early and mid 1900s.
Born in Crete in 1883, he had a good start as he was from a wealthy family, but ironically, it was because of his fortunate beginnings that he would ultimately end up broke.
If his grandfather hadn’t sent him to America with a $150 a month allowance (which was a lot back in 1901), he may never have discovered gambling, and might instead have put his philosophy degree to use.
He ended up in Chicago where he met a girl, but the relationship went bad, and he ran off to Canada to get over it. Here, he met a jockey who taught him all about betting on the horses, and Nick’s love of gambling began.
It took him just 6 months to win and then lose $500k at the racetracks, at which point his primary interest switched to casino gaming and he headed back to Chicago where he became rather good at card games, but especially poker.
He would regularly win/lose $100,000 in a day, which at the time was a lot more than it sounds. It would be millions in today’s money. There were fewer people gambling at such high stakes back in those days too, so he would have been a real curiosity and caused quite a stir.
His reputation as the highest of high rollers was firmly established in Chicago, where he lived for many years, but bigger things were coming.
Settling in Las Vegas
Gambling was illegal in Nevada until 1931, but when the law changed, it was an obvious destination for Dandolos, with Reno and Las Vegas battling out to becoming the gambling capital of the state and eventually the country, and plenty of other casinos springing up besides.
Before long he had moved there permanently, and this meant that Nick the Greek was at Vegas from the start, and watched the place grow into the attraction it would become, getting to know all the movers and shakers of the time.
Many of them offered employment opportunities to Nick, much preferring him to be working for them than playing against them, but he never took a job and remained an independent casino player for his whole life.
His charitable nature also came into the forefront once he got to Vegas, and it is estimated that he gave over $20 million to local charities, not to mention the many random acts of kindness people still tell stories about, and the huge tips he would regularly give to dealers and croupiers.
A thoroughly nice man by all accounts, despite having some pretty shady friends and connections as you will hear about shortly.
He never married or had a family, but you could say he was married to Las Vegas – the two clearly had a lot of love for each other.
Inspiring the World Series of Poker
In 1939 aged 57 and seeking a real challenge, Nick called his friend Benny Binion, the famous casino owner (as well as being a murdering mob boss), and asked him to find a world class high stakes poker player for a heads up game.
Binion hooked Nick up with Johnny Moss, and they set a date to begin playing, the deal being that the two would play in Binion’s casino and the public were allowed to watch.
This brought publicity for Binion due to the calibre of the players and the stakes they were playing at; previously, watching poker for entertainment wasn’t really a ‘thing’.
The game went on for 5 months.
The pair would obviously break to eat and sleep, but the rumour goes that much of the time, Nick used the breaks to play craps instead.
They played every poker variant in existence at the time, but eventually, reportedly $2 million down, Nick the Greek stood up and uttered arguably the most famous quote in poker:
“Mr Moss, I’m going to have to let you go.”
The game was finally over, and Moss has since said that he thinks he won more like $4 million during those months, but we will never know for sure.
What we do know though, is that Benny Binion got shed loads of publicity for his casino from the game, and so he set out to arrange more games under a similar arrangement to keep the crowds coming back.
Eventually, these heads-up games turned into a 6 player tournament, that itself evolved into a freeze-out format, and thus, the World Series of Poker came into existence.
It might have been Benny Binion that dreamed up the competition and got it established, but it would never have happened without Nick the Greek picking up the phone that day in 1939.
Of Nick, Benny Binion has said:
“He was the strangest character I’ve ever met. No one ever knew where his money came from. Then he ran out of money. A guy once beat him at a poker game for about half a million. The money was in a chest in his room, which wasn’t even locked.”
Frank Sinatra, Albert Einstein, and the Mafia
There are many legends about Nick and his exploits over the years, many stories that no one really knows the full truth of, but we are all quite happy to retell.
They have every chance of being at least based in truth though, even if they have been embellished over time; when you gamble the sort of stakes that Nick the Greek did, you end up in some pretty interesting situations.
So legendary were Nick’s big bets, that he drew the attention of the likes of Frank Sinatra and Aristotle Onassis, who eventually became his friends, and he had links to movie producers too, one of whom, Universal Pictures co-founder Carl Laemmle, bankrolled him for a disastrous 3 month gambling run in Reno. He lost the lot.
One great story goes that Nick was playing poker against none other than Frank Costello, mafia boss and the inspiration for Vito Corleone in The Godfather trilogy.
He was $500,000 up and decided to call it quits, only for the mob boss to accuse him of leaving the game when the going was good and calling him a coward.
This was no dingy back-room card game; it was a VIP affair with the likes of King Farouk I of Egypt in attendance, so Nick was in no danger of being murdered (he had many friends who were ‘made men’), but equally he had to respond to this challenge.
He took a fresh deck of cards, asked the King of Egypt to shuffle them, then told Costello to split the deck.
“Whichever of us gets the highest card, wins $500,000”
Costello did not take him up on the offer.
On another occasion, Nick was showing Albert Einstein around Vegas.
Yep, Mr Theory of Relativity himself.
As one of the most well-connected people in the city, Nick the Greek was often asked to show important/wealthy/famous people around when they visited.
Apparently, wary that his rough gambling pals would tease or belittle Einstein if they knew he was a scientist, Nick introduced him as ‘Little Al from Princeton’, and told his friend that Einstein controlled a lot of the action in Jersey.
This was during Einstein’s time teaching at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, so it was a generous stretching of the truth.
Who knows if anyone believed it, but Einstein seems to have made it through his visit unscathed.
One Time Millionaire Dies Penniless
By the end of his life, Nick the Greek was no longer betting eye watering stakes because he had very little money left.
He was still hungry for action though, even into his 80s, reportedly playing $5 hands at small-stakes games in California, to the dismay of those who recognised him.
It is estimated that he became rich and then went broke over 70 times during his gambling career, winning and losing more than $500 million over the years, but ultimately, he was left with nothing.
He lived to a ripe old age though for someone born at the end of the 19th century; he passed away in 1966 aged 83, and on Christmas day too.
He was still playing poker right up until the end, he simply loved the game in all of its forms.
Despite dying almost penniless, his funeral was elaborate to say the least, complete with a golden casket.
Nick had made many wealthy and influential friends during his life, and they came together to give him the send off they thought he deserved.
His funeral service was attended by Hollywood stars, international royalty, and underworld bosses alike, not to mention many well respected gamblers of the time.
From his eulogy:
“Nick, you were so pure and honest that the only properties that you ever claimed were your charities.”
This was in reference to the fact that Nick owned nothing when he died.
The person who said it, was Frank Sinatra.
He is perhaps best summed up in his own words though:
“I play for the risk, not for the money. 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.”
It was this attitude that allowed him to gamble in the way that he did.
Money simply wasn’t important to him, he just loved to gamble, and this freed him up mentally to make bets that most of us would be far too sensible to risk.
Crucially, Nick understood the risk he was taking, and went for it anyway.