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The Gambling Legend That Was Nick the Greek

nick the greek gambling legend
The Gambling Legend That Was Nick the Greek. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

“Nick the Greek” will forever be remembered as one of the most famous legends of gambling in the United States.

On Christmas Eve 1966, “Nick the Greek” took his last breath, leaving behind an almost-mythical life spent as the high-stakes “Gentleman of gambling.”

Many Greeks have 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.

But as fate would have it in the end, the legendary gambler died penniless, without any property at all.

The life of gambling legend Nick the Greek

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.

As a young man, Nick studied philosophy at the Evangelical School of Greece. At the age of 18, his grandfather gave him an allowance of $150 a week, a massive sum at the time, to go to the United States.

His first stop was Chicago, but after an unsuccessful relationship with a young woman, Nick the Greek pulled up stakes and moved to Montreal, Canada.

It was there that he began gambling when he met a horse racer who taught him the secrets of that sport of champions.

In just six months, the young Greek managed to win $500,000, which he lost as easily and quickly as he had 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.

The Greek gambling wiz 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 than as a player.

Nick the Greek was known to wager incredible sums

Nick the Greek soon became a legend 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) per day. On a roll of the dice or a game of poker, he would bet thousands. Soon the legend was born.

His wins were as gigantic as his losses. One time in New York, Nick the Greek lost $1.6 million on a dice tournament that lasted 12 days.

In another event, he left a seven-hour poker game with $500,000 in his pocket.

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 as Benny Binion, as well as mafia bosses, Nick the Greek stayed independent and never worked for anyone.

Five-month-long poker game paved way for World Series of Poker

At some point, Binion invited Johnny Moss, the only other gambler who could match Nick the Greek, to play against him.

Binion took advantage of the situation to help promote his casino, the Horseshoe, 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, according to friends, found consolation in the writings of Plato.

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

Nick the Greek at the center of many popular stories

Stories and anecdotes about the gambling legend have been widely told throughout the years.

In a historic poker game in New York, with VIP viewers like the 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 declared to him: “Greek, you leave the table because you are a coward!”

Nick then wisely asked King Farouk to shuffle the deck, while saying 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, accompanied by his goons.

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

But the Greek immigrant had many other famous friends already, even Albert Einstein.

As hard as it may be to believe today, Nick the Greek would indeed often go on a night out with the great physicist, but fearing that his patrons would not respect his brilliant friend, he would often introduce him as “Little Al from Princeton.” (Einstein was a member of the Institute of Applied Studies at Princeton University).

Einstein, however, reportedly enjoyed himself a great deal on these outings.

In another memorable incident of his adventurous life, Nick lost $300,000 on a New Year’s Eve game.

A few minutes before the New Year, he moaned: “I hope the change of the year will change my luck as well.” At dawn he won $1.25 million, which he then lost to roulette and horse races.

The death of the great gambler

Near the end of his life, broke once again, Nick the Greek was found playing small-stakes 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 gambling legend was mostly playing for the game, not the money.

Over his career, he gave about $20 million to charity, which would today be equivalent to $400 million.

Dandolos continued to play in California until his death at the age of eighty-three.

At the time of his death, some wealthy and influential friends got together and decided to give him the most elaborate funeral they could imagine with a golden casket, and he was buried with all the respect and honors he deserved.

Everyone attended his funeral, including all his famous and wealthy friends from the old days, from the biggest stars to royalty and from the most powerful mob bosses to the biggest gamblers.

Everyone from the heyday of gambling and show business was there.

The first one at the funeral, unsurprisingly, was Frank Sinatra. Crying like a baby, Sinatra said in his eulogy, “Nick, you were so pure and honest that the only properties that you ever claimed were your charities.”

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