His full name was Nicholas Andrea Dandolos, but he was known throughout the gambling world as "Nick the Greek".
Nick Dandalos was born in Crete in 1883. During his life, he won and lost an estimated $500 million.
But that's not an accurate statement-since he died over 50 years ago, it's only fair to account for inflation and translate that into today's dollars:
He won and lost $15 billion of today's money during his life.
He went from rags to riches and back to rags again dozens of times.
He did all this as an independent gambler, too. He never had anyone staking him. If he had a marker, he paid it, and he was always on time, too.
This is Nick Dandalos's story.
A Portrait of a Gambler as a Young Man
Nick Dandalos was raised rich. His father sold rugs. His godfather built ships. His childhood was a life of privilege, and he earned a degree in philosophy from the Greek Evangelical College. He moved to the United States when he was only 18, but unlike many immigrants, he came here with more than the clothes on his back.
His grandfather gave him a $150 weekly allowance. That doesn't sound like much now, but this would have been in 1901. Accounting for inflation, that would be $4000 a week in today's money.
We don't care where you live. $4000 a week is enough to live on, especially for an 18-year-old.
It was fashionable at the turn of the century for well-to-do families to send their young men to the United States with an allowance. The goal was to provide him with an education.
Nick the Greek sure got one, but it wasn't quite what his family had in mind.
Dandolos started his life in the United States in Chicago, but it didn't take him long to move to Montreal.
What did he do there?
He gambled on horses after befriending a jockey named Phil Musgrave. It didn't take him long to use his keen mind and education to get a good grasp of probabilities and how to use them to his advantage.
He won over $500,000 on horse racing in a single season. That was a fortune then. He could have done anything he wanted to.
What did Nick the Greek want to do?
He apparently wanted to move back to Chicago and lose his fortune playing dice and cards.
He got good at those games, though. When he played cards or dice in a casino, he was an attraction. His personality surely helped. And he often won or lost $100,000 during a session.
In fact, he once lost $1.6 million playing craps in New York. That craps session had gone on for 12 days straight. It's probably the biggest loss in the history of the game.
The Poker Career of Nick the Greek
Below we share some of the anecdotes we've heard about Nick the Greek's career as a poker player.
Nick Dandalos once bought into a stud poker game for $20,000. After 7 hours of hard play, he'd won over $500,000. The biggest post during that session was $150,000, which he won when he had four of a kind (10s), and his opponent had a full house with aces and jacks.
But that's not the most interesting part of the story. Those are just numbers and hands.
The other player had been rude and insulting to Dandalos throughout the session.
At the end of the session, Dandalos challenged him to cut the cards once for $200,000.
The other player lost. He slumped in his seat and started crying.
Apparently it doesn't pay to be rude to one of the greatest gamblers in the world.
One of the more entertaining anecdotes about Nick the Greek's exploits involves his escorting of Albert Einstein to various poker games-either in Las Vegas or in Manhattan-the details aren't entirely clear. Depending on which version of the story you hear, Nick introduced Albert Einstein to the other poker players as "Little Al from Princeton" or as "Little Al from Jersey".
In some versions of the story, this took place in Vegas, but according to Dandalos's memoir, it was actually set up by the State Department and happened in Manhattan. Since poker for money was illegal in Manhattan, Dandalos insisted upon assurances from his friend in the State Department that they would make sure that the law didn't get involved.
Another anecdote we often see related is about Dandalos gambling with a high roller from Texas. Dandalos was up a million dollars, but he got tired and wanted to call it a night.
The Texan accused him of being a chicken.
Dandalos asked for a new deck of cards. He shuffled them, asked the Texas to cut the cards, and offered to bet the entire million on which of them got the higher card.
The Texan lost this game of chicken, and Nick Dandalos got to go home and get some much-needed rest.
You've heard of the World Series of Poker, right?
What if we told you that Nick the Greek started the World Series of Poker?
It's true. In January of 1949, Nick Dandalos sat down to play heads-up poker with Johnny Moss. They played every game imaginable, too:
- 5 Card Draw
- 5 Card Stud
- 7 Card Stud
- 7 Card Stud High-Low
- Ace-5 Lowball
- 2-7 Lowbal
And the game lasted almost 5 months. The two players only stopped to eat and sleep.
It was actually the brain child of Benny Binion, a master promoter. It was meant to be a tourist attraction, and boy did it work. They played every day in the foyer of the Horseshoe Casino.
It later became the inspiration for the World Series of Poker.
It's hard to imagine two more distinct styles of play, either. Nick Dandalos was well-educated, well-spoken, and talkative. He'd beat practically every poker game on the East Coast at this point. By contrast, Johnny Moss wasn't well-educated, and he'd spent most of his career playing poker in Texas in private games. He was quiet and introspective.
Moss turned out to be the better poker player. Dandalos lost between $2 and $4 million to him.
He ended this first WSOP by telling Moss: "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go."
The Low Rolling Years and Death of Nick Dandalos
When you gamble for large sums of money long enough, you inevitably face periods where you're up a lot of money and other periods when you're down a lot of money.
Dandalos himself estimated that he had won and lost a fortune at least 73 times in his life.
But in his later years, he was almost broke. He played poker for $5 a hand in his twilight years.
Someone asked him how he could be interested in gambling for such low stakes when he used to bet millions at a time.
Nick Dandalos replied, "Hey, it's action, isn't it?"
He stayed in action even when he was tired and sick. He even had physicians treating him while he was at the poker table.
He died on December 25, 1966. He was broke.
It's estimated that over the course of his life he had donated over $20 million to charity.
Hank Greenspun, found of the Las Vegas Sun, famously called him the "King of the Gamblers". Here's what he wrote about his friend:
"Luck was a lady and she has been the love of his life."
He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame 13 years later-at the same time as his once-rival, Johnny Moss. They were the first two players to be so honored.
Nick the Greek is the subject of two books:
You won't find many more interesting characters in the annals of gambler history than Nick the Greek. From his origins as an actual Greek from a wealthy family, Nick Dandalos distinguished himself in multiple ways.
But as a gambler, his biggest claim to fame is the fortune he won and then lost again repeatedly throughout his life.
Author: Shane Rivers
Updated: December 2016