Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends
of West Texas Music
by Christopher Oglesby
Published by the University
of Texas Press:
"As a whole, the interviews create
a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also
of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues
such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue.
This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets
to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often
inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is
the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor,
and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go
mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing
likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and
"Indeed, Oglesby's introduction of more
than two dozen musicians who called Lubbock home should be required
reading not only for music fans, but for Lubbock residents and
anyone thinking about moving here. On these pages, music becomes
a part of Lubbock's living history."
- William Kerns, Lubbock Avalanche Journal
Remembering Johnny Moss
by Johnny Hughes
The first time I met Johnny Moss was in Longview, Texas in 1959.
On the five hundred mile drive from Lubbock, Curly Green taught
me about gambling with his stories about Johnny Moss and Pat
Renfro, who had been partners when they were only twenty-one
years old, back in 1928. In his Cadillac, Curly had a high-powered
rifle, a sawed-off shotgun, a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol,
and the .38 caliber revolver that he always carried inside gambling
joints. Johnny Moss and Curly had known each other many years
in Dallas. Both men wore the baggy, pleated, dark colored slacks
that would help disguise the barking iron they always carried.
Being robbed or arrested was common place. Pat, Curly, and Johnny
had just been robbed in a large poker game in Corpus Christi,
The robbers were real pros out of Kansas City. They had machine
guns and tear gas. Curly ran into the bathroom and hid most of
his bankroll and his doorknob-size diamond ring. The robbers
told him to come out or they would shoot through the door. As
soon as Curly came out, the main masked bandit asked him, "Curly,
where's that ring?"
The robbers made everyone line up and searched them. Then they
announced that they were going to search again and if anyone
was holding out they would be pistol whipped. Pat said, "Hey,
you missed a little dab." pointing to four hundred-dollar
bills in his shirt pocket.
The robbers took Curly's Cadillac but they told him they would
leave it a couple of miles down the road. Hijackers were a lot
better class of people back in those days than they are now.
When Curly went to his car, he was counting the Mexican money
in boxes in the trunk. He had been fading dice in Mexico and
had stacks of the much cheaper currency. The laws saw him and
it was in the newspapers that the robbers had missed thousands
of dollars which was not true.
We were often arrested at poker and dice games. Once when Johnny
Moss was flying home from Alabama, he was having a pleasant conversation
with a nice man. The gentleman asked, "Have we flown across
the state line?" When Johnny said he thought they had, the
FBI man arrested him for interstate gambling.
Curly told me that the poker game in Longview would be huge.
He expected to play and to buy part of the action of Pat and
Johnny. Johnny Moss had won millions of dollars at poker, golf,
and bowling. He lost millions shooting dice and betting sports
and the horses. The big game was at the Elks Club in Longview.
It was gambling night. There were five open dice tables down
stairs. You could shoot or fade, throwing wads of cash on the
table. Curly staked several faders. Upstairs there were two poker
games. One was a five dollar limit seven stud game. I jumped
in there with three hundred dollars. Curly watched as a very
old man in bib overalls cheated me, using an overhand stack.
Curly said he didn't pull me up because this was just part of
Johnny Moss was the dominant force in the big poker game. He
talked the most, verbally challenging people, "Come on.
We drove a long way to gamble." He seemed to have the largest
stack of currency. I climbed up in a shoe-shine chair in the
corner of the room to watch. Back then we gambled with paper
money. We didn't use chips because of the frequent raids by the
law. People usually kept twenties on the bottom, hundreds and
larger in the middle, and fives on top. You couldn't look across
the green felt and count a man down. You could not ask how much
money an opponent had until it was all bet. The game was razz,
seven stud, low ball to the wheel. The short stacks had a few
thousand in front of them. When there were two or three cards
showing, anyone with an advantage moved all in and the pot usually
ended there. If Johnny Moss had an even gamble, he would move
in on the short stacks. Moss would announce that he could cover
them so no one knew how much money was in his five-inch high
stack of bills. At the time, five hundred dollar bills and thousand
dollar bills were in circulation. Curly taught me how to move
money in and out of the game secretly. He had a pocket full of
coarse notes, as the bigger bills were called. You could get
in a pot with someone you thought was a short stack only to find
they were on heavy money. If Johnny Moss doubled up a short stack,
it was only then that there was a count. If he won, you couldn't
even tell how big the pot was since he just swooped up the money.
When a pot was being played, people who were not in the pot kept
quite. Moss ribbed and scolded and dared his opponents, making
talk his weapon to tilt people. When a pot finished, there were
zero celebration or gloating. When a man suffered a big loss
or got knocked out, he showed no emotion. It was quite at the
end of a pot because you did not rib a loser. I was aware that
many of the men in the room, including Curly and Johnny, had
At first, Curly, Pat Renfro, and Johnny Moss all played in the
game. Pat played extremely tight as he did in all games all his
life, regardless of what was going on around him. When a short
stack got broke, there was always someone waiting to sit in.
Late in the night it was apparent that Johnny Moss was losing
and moaning about his luck. Curly quit the game about even. He
gave more money to Johnny and Pat since the game was getting
bigger as the night wore on. Finally, Johnny Moss went on a rush
about daylight, breaking several players.
A few months later, Johnny Moss spent an afternoon sweating my
partner and I in a bridge tournament in Oklahoma City. As always,
I was mostly taken by his eyes and his poker face. His eyes were
piercing, all-knowing, fearless, scary, bemused, cold, predatory,
and conceited. It appeared as if he could see right through you
and the backs of your cards. His eyes seemed to be permanently
half opened. He scanned the room studying every detail.
Johnny Moss moved to Odessa, Texas in the mid-fifties to be near
the oil boom, gambling, and the big-time gamblers including Paul
Harvey and Tom "Pinkie" Roden. They had one of the
biggest poker games in Texas for many years. Paul Harvey, a big-time
bookmaker and gambler, catered to the oil-rich Texans in Midland
and Odessa. One time, Paul and Johnny played heads-up poker for
five days and nights. They took a two day break and played another
five days and nights. Needless to say, Johnny won. Pinkie had
been Texas' biggest bootlegger before he established the state's
largest chain of retail liquor stores. Pinkie owned a small hotel
in Odessa called the Inn of the Golden West. The poker games
were in a private club in the hotel called the Golden Rooster.
This was the home game of Johnny Moss and many of the future
winners of the early World Series including Moss, Amarillo Slim,
Doyle Brunson, Brian "Sailor" Roberts, Bill Smith,
and Jack "Treetop" Straus. All of the famous road gamblers
of the fifties and sixties went to Odessa to try Johnny Moss
including Pat Renfro, Doc Ramsey, James "Longgoodie"
Roy, Joe Floyd, and Charlie Hendrix.
My partner, Jerry Blair, and I rode down to Odessa to try the
big game in 1961, when we were twenty-one. We rode down from
Lubbock with our dear friend Bill Smith, who won the main World
Series event in 1985. We knew our bankrolls of around five hundred
each were laughable. We thought we could beat anyone at Texas
Hold 'em. The very first pot Jerry played in the seven-five lowball
game, he caught a pat ten and raised it on up. Paul Harvey drew
two cards and moved Jerry all in. Jerry folded and Paul showed
he had caught two face cards. Poker is hard on the low rollers.
Johnny Moss remembered me from the bridge tournament and from
Longview. He told me to come early the next day and he would
stake me in a bridge game.. None of the gamblers were very good
at bridge except Sailor Roberts. A couple of months earlier,
Bill Smith and I had played bridge all night long against Pat
Renfro and Longgoodie and trounced them easily despite giving
them a spot.
Later, Jerry got in a marathon gin rummy match. We went home
with Tuffy Hufstedler and they played gin nearly all night. Jerry
made enough money for us to try the big Hold 'em game the next
The next afternoon, Johnny Moss and I played partners in three
rubbers of auction bridge for a dollar a point. He also made
some side bets. I never once had enough face cards to make a
bid. We lost all three rubbers and the Hold 'em game started.
Jerry was smart enough to get the seat right behind Johnny Moss
but we were both clearly out bankrolled. This was the most talented
gathering of poker players imaginable at the time. No wonder
we got broke The big producers in those days were the bookmakers,
bootleggers, and the oil men. Famous gamblers from all over came
to Pinkie's joint. They strutted up licking their chops and limped
away licking their wounds.
Mickey Cohen, the biggest mob boss on the west coast, came to
Odessa to gamble with Paul Harvey and his oil men. He was portrayed
by Harvey Keitel in the movie Bugsy. He was Bennie Seigel's right-hand
man. The Texas Rangers heard Cohen had arrived and demanded he
leave the state. When the Rangers telephoned Paul Harvey, he
asked, "Well, what is he, an outlaw?" Paul Harvey provided
Cohen a limo to Wichita Falls but the Rangers arrested him and
drove him to Dallas where he flew back to Los Angeles.
Johnny Moss maintained his residence in Odessa and Las Vegas
for the rest of his life. During the eighties and nineties, I
would always say hello to Johnny Moss at the World Series of
Poker at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas. He was very recognizable
with his golf cap, cardigan sweater, and Buddy Holly glasses.
He was extremely courteous to me but he had a reputation of being
rather hard on the dealers. Moss won a total of eight bracelets
at the World Series of Poker over the years. He won his last
bracelet when he was 81 in l988. Moss continued to play poker
right up to his death at age 89 in 1997.
I was at the World Series almost every year after 1980. When
he was pushing ninety, Johnny rode all around the Horseshoe in
this electric cart. It had this little rubber horn you would
squeeze like the one Harpo Marx always carried. He took great
delight in honking the horn. He played twenty dollar limit and
usually napped at the table. These naps might last a round. The
dealers knew not to bother him. Around Binion's, Johnny Moss
was treated like a King. He lived there free courtesy of Jack
Binion. Johnny Moss rolled up beside me the last time I saw him
and we played in the ten and twenty dollar limit Hold 'em game.
The other players all knew who he was. He got out a small piece
of paper from his wallet and said, "Johnny, read that. That's
what I got." It said "gout". They called him the
Grand Old Man of Poker and he really was a grand old man. The
Jenkins, Don. Johnny Moss: Champion of Champions. Copyright:
Nugent, John. Mickey Cohen: In My Own Words. Prentice-Hall.
Stowers, Carlton. The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson. Eakin Press.
Johnny Moss Timeline (sidebar)
1907 - Born in Marshall, Texas.
1908 - Moved to Dallas.
1919 - Started playing poker.
1923 - Started working at a poker room watching for cheaters.
1927 - Married Virgie. They stayed together his whole life.
1926 - Daughter Eleoweese born.
1928 - Moved to Olney, Texas for the oil boom. First partnered
with Pat Renfro.
1930 - They moved to Graham, Texas for the oil boom.
1938 - Moved to Lubbock, Texas and was promptly hijacked.
1938 - Celebrated golf match in Lubbock with Titanic Thompson.
Ti bet Johnny he couldn't shoot a 46 on nine holes with a four
iron. Johnny had his four iron welded into a two iron. Ti sent
a man around to raise the cups on all the holes. Johnny caught
on and sent his caddy around to put the cups back as they were.
Johnny won the bet. Titanic was the model for the character Sky
Masterson in the play and movie Guys and Dolls. Marlon Brando
played Sky in the movie.
1939 - Moved back to Dallas and won $250,000 in one poker game.
Lost it all on the horses.
1942 - Moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana.
1943 - Drafted into the Navy as a Seebee.
1945 - Honorable Discharge
1949 - Famous five month heads-up match at Binion's Horseshoe
in Las Vegas with Nick "the Greek" Dandalos. Moss and
Benny Binion won nearly three million dollars from the Greek.
1950 - Met Amarillo Slim.
1953 - Met Doyle Brunson. Doyle has said that Johnny Moss was
the best no-limit Hold 'em player in the world in his day.
1970 - Selected first World Series Champion by a vote of his
1971 - Won the first World Series Championship
1974 - Won the World Series Championship.
1979 - The only living inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame.
1997 - Johnny Moss died at age 89. He won eight World Series
bracelets and numerous other tournaments in his lifetime.
This story originally appeared in Bluff Magazine. April. 2007
For more Johnny Hughes stories
go to: "Old
Hard Luck Harry & the Owl, or "Titanic Thompson