The Gambling Legend that was Nick the Greek

The nickname of Nicholaos Andreas Dandolos, “Nick the Greek”, will remain in history as synonymous to gambling, as the Greek American man was dubbed “the philosopher of gambling”.

Several Greeks made history in the United States, but Nick Dandolos is one of few who is remembered the most. Frank Sinatra and Aristotle Onassis were two of his biggest fans.

The story of Nick the Greek is the stuff that old Hollywood movies were made of. He went from rags to riches 75 times, and it is estimated that during his illustrious gambling career he won and lost more than 500 million dollars.

Nicholaos Andreas Dandolos was born on April 27, 1883 in Rethymnon, Crete. His family came from Smyrna and they were well-off. His father sold carpets and his godfather was a shipbuilder. He studied philosophy at the Evangelical School of Smyrna. At the age of 18, his grandfather gave him an allowance of $150 dollars a week to go to the United States.

His first stop was Chicago, but after an unsuccessful relationship with a young woman, he moved to Montreal, Canada. It was there that he began gambling when he met a horse racer who taught him the secrets of horse racing. In just six months, the young greek managed to win $500,000 — which he lost as easily and fast as he won.

It was when he returned to Chicago that he decided to become a gambler. He soon became a connoisseur of card playing and dice and started winning at card clubs. He became the master of the bluff. Card club owners tried to recruit him as they believed that it would be better to have him on their side of the table.

Nick the Greek soon became a celebrity at Chicago clubs because of the large sums he was gambling. It was not unusual for him to win or lose $100,000 (some $6.5 million in value today). On a roll of the dice or a game of poker, he would bet thousands. Soon the legend was born.

His wins were as loud as his losses. One time in New York he lost $ 1.6 million on a dice tournament that lasted 12 days. In another event he left with $ 500,000 in his pocket, after a seven-hour poker game.

When gambling became legal in the State of Nevada in 1931, Dandolos moved permanently to Las Vegas. The casinos in sin city became his ultimate playground and he was one of its greatest attractions.

Despite generous offers by casino owners such a s Benny Binion, as well as mafia bosses, Nick the Greek stayed independent and never worked for anyone. At some point Binion invited Johnny Moss, the only other gambler who could match the Greek, to play against him.

Binion took advantage of the situation to help promote his casino, the Horsheshoe, by advertising the two poker giants’ competition at his place. The whole world was watching and Binion would be the ultimate winner, because no matter which of the two players won, the crowds flocked to his casino.

The battle of the two poker giants lasted five months. At the time Dandolos was 57 and Moss 42. The game was exhausting and the two players only took breaks to eat and sleep. In order to keep the audience’s interest, the two gamblers were confronted with a number of variations of the poker game. Day after day, huge amounts of hands were changing, and thousands of people watched with bated breath. And so one afternoon, as Nick was penniless — having lost $4 million — he stood up and said to his opponent: “Mr Moss, I will have to let you go.” Then he walked away and found consolation in Plato’s writings.

Years later, that memorable battle would give birth to a current legend of poker, the Poker World Series.

Stories and anecdotes about the great gambler abound. In a historic poker game in New York, with VIP viewers like King of Egypt, Farouk I, Nick was confronted on the table with the “godfather” of the New York Mafia, Frank Costello. After Dandolos left the Italian mobster without a cent and made to leave, the mafia boss told him: “Greek, you leave the table because you are a coward!” Then Nick asked King Farouk to shuffle the deck and said to Costello: “And now amico, pull a card. The biggest one wins $500,000.” All the mafia boss did was light a cigar, pick up his coat and leave with his goons.

The next day the New York Times praised the Greek gambler as the undisputed poker king who humiliated Costello. This is when Frank Sinatra, Telly Savalas and Aristotle Onassis became his friends.

In another memorable incident of his adventurous life, Nick the Greek lost $300,000 on a New Year’s Eve game. A few minutes before the New Year, Nick the Greek moaned: “I hope the change of the year to change my luck as well.” At dawn he was winning $1.25 million, which he then lost to the roulette and horse races.

Near the end of his life, broke once again, Nick the Greek was found playing small-sized poker games in California. When an admirer asked him how he could play for pennies when a few years back he was playing for millions, Dandolos replied: “It’s still poker, isn’t it?”

The great Greek gambler was mostly playing for the game, not the money. He gave about $20 million to charity, today’s equivalent of $400 million. He continued to play in California until his death.

Even his death was befitting to a great gambler, as Nick the Greek passed away on Christmas Day in 1966, probably after a poker game.