The Sad Music of Change (A Songbird for Nick the Greek)

The Sad Music of Change (A Songbird for Nick the Greek)

Nicholas Dandolos (Nick the Greek) was a professional gambler and high-roller of legendary repute in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s.  Rumor has it, he once broke the house in Vegas in the early ’50s.  He is also the subject of a marvelous novel by the great Chicago novelist, Harry Mark Petrakis, whose Greektown-set novels illuminate that community for the rest of the city.

Dandolos was fearless.  He is said to have won and lost over 500 million dollars in his lifetime, only to die in near destitution in Gardena, California in 1966.

He was born in Crete to wealthy parents in 1883.  At 18, he moved to Chicago and pretty much cleaned up at the racetrack.  He was a flamboyant and charming guy whose legend quickly grew until he was nearly as big an attraction at casinos as the headliners who entertained the swells were.

Petrakis’ novel, Nick the Greek, was published in 1978 and is a marvelous read.  It chronicles the life of a man who went from rags to riches some 70 times; always with good humor and charm.  At one point, after a marathon poker match, lasting some 5 months and down a couple million, Nick told his opponent (a man some 24 years his junior), “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”  Such was the good humor of Nick the Greek.

As a kid I was a caddy, which was where I first learned how to gamble.  And Jesus, did we gamble; on cards, Ruts (a mutant form of miniature golf, played in the caddy yard on a stone parking lot), football, baseball,  Pins, (where you bet on whomever’s golfer gets on the green first), how far you could piss, pitching quarters…you name it.  No game in the caddy shack was without a gambling component.  And it was a good thing; you learned how to hold your mud when you were down, how to win graciously,  how to lose like a gentleman. . .or not.  You learned a lot about who you were in relation to other guys; how to compete, how to bluff, how to stand, how to protect yourself, how to strut.

There were always assholes; the guys who won or lost badly, the braggarts and whiners, the badmouth guys, who were soon enough separated out from the elite gamblers who’d not make time for them or give them a seat at their game.

There was no small amount of social Darwinism in the rituals of  caddy shack games of chance.  It was frowned upon but tolerated.  And in these games of chance we found out a little more each day, who we were going to be in the world.

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