Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gambling in the Old West #western @JacquieRogers

Gambling in the Old West
by Jacquie Rogers

Gambling in the Old West was not considered a vice as it is today.  People who immigrated risked life and limb, not to mention their life savings, on hitting it rich, whether in land or gold, or both, so it's only reasonable to see why gambling was ubiquitous.  Bat Masterson wrote: "Gambling was a respected profession, almost equal in rank to Medicine and a lot higher than Dentistry and Undertaking."

I'm not a gambler (although there's a casino less than a mile from my house), but my protagonist in Sleight of Heart (High-Stakes Heroes), Burke O'Shaunessey, is a riverboat gambler so I had to delve into the lives and attitudes of the gamblers who left their marks on history.

Westerners bet on anything that moved — how fast it could go and how high it could jump. They bet on foot races, boxing matches, flea-jumping contests, frog-jumping contests, bear and bull matches, dog fights, cock fights, as well as cow-boy tournament events such as saddlebronc riding.

But most of all, westerners like to play the ponies: “Gradually, as wealthy men made a hobby or a sideline of breeding horses, Western races became more carefully orchestrated, the crowds grew and betting flourished. Indeed, gambling and a day at the races became a virtually synonymous. And when Westerners got around to staging formal stakes races the prizes were sometimes much richer than those back East. In 1873 what was billed as “The richest race in the world” was run at Ocean View Park in San Francisco. The winner’s purse was $20,000 paid in gold. In the same year New York’s famous Belmont was worth only $5,200 and Maryland’s Preakness a mere $1,800.” [Gamblers of the Old West, p.200]

While horse racing was wildly popular, a close second was boxing. This sport wasn’t exactly the refined version we have today. Boxers wore no gloves and a round lasted until one of them knocked the other down  with no limit to the number of rounds. As long as both fighters could throw a punch, the match was active. The winner took the purse which could be as much as $10,000.

And of course they played the card and dice games.  Faro was by far the most popular gambling game.  Professional gamblers in the Old West, the really good ones, were called “thoroughbred gamblers.” I’m listing several thoroughbreds and sources where you can get more information, as well as a few famous gamblers, not necessarily thoroughbreds, but definitely well-known.

George Devol
Mississippi riverboat gambler, born in 1829, who worked the river for 40+ years and made a fortune on 3-card monte, poker, and keno. He wrote a fabulous book, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, that I used when I researched Sleight of Heart. I've never found anything even close to this book's helpfulness as far as explaining how gambling and conning works. Mr. Devol was probably charming, rough, and genius (in his way).  He came from a good family who had no idea what to do with such a rambunctious boy, and he won and lost many fortunes over his lifetime.

Elanora Dumont (Madam Mustache)
Quoted from American Gambler Online (which no longer contains history):
“In the 1850s Elanora Dumont was a sexy young dealer who attracted love-starved players that gladly lost their gold to this expert player. As she grew in popularity so did her earning. Eventually she owned her own casino, "Dumont Palace" which also prospered, because she enjoyed a reputation for fairness and free food. The mustache appeared suddenly well after she'd made her money. Following a busted romance and a worse marriage which left her broke and alone, she poisoned herself 1879.”

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II
A very colorful character, indeed! Soapy is more in the spirit of con men than traditional gamblers, but his talents spanned both and he certainly can’t be overlooked. His family came to Texas from Georgia and early on, young Jeff showed quite an ability for organization, a skill that served him well in building his bunco empire.

Originally running a shell game, he graduated to the soap scheme where he wrapped 5-cent bars of soap with in plain paper, some wrapping covered $20, or $100-dollar bills, and he sold the bars for $5 a piece. Of course, the only people who actually “won” were on Soapy’s payroll.

Always ready to make a buck, Soapy did everything from fixing elections (once with Bat Masterson) to the more standard job owning and operating a poker hall.

His great-grandson, Jeff Smith, wrote Soapy's definitive biography: Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.  And there's lots of great information about him at the Alias Soapy Smith website.

Wyatt Earp
Everything has been written about him, but I’m including him because he was a renowned gambler who owned gaming halls and saloons throughout the West. Here’s an interesting site about Earp’s life: The Wyatt Earp History Page.

Poker Alice (Ivers)

"Praise the Lord and place your bets. I'll take your money with no regrets." Poker Alice was an amazing woman. Outstanding mathematical ability stood her well throughout the years while she made her way quite nicely through a man’s world.  My heroine in Sleight of Heart, Alexandra Campbell, is based on her  and on my aunt Grace, who was so good at counting cards that she was unwelcome in Reno casinos.

There’s a good article about Poker Alice at Legends of America, and another article on Alice's Sturgis, SD, house.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837-1876)
We've all heard of aces and eights, the dead man's hand, of Wild Bill Hickok, shot in a Deadwood saloon by Jack McCall. James Butler Hickok fancied himself a gambler, but lost more than he won. Still, when we think of Old West gamblers, his name always comes to mind. Here's a good article on the life of Hickok at Kansas Heritage.

William Barclay "Bat" Masterson (1856-1921)
Bat Masterson made his living as a sports writer for 38 years, but was best known as a lawman and a gambler. He played poker and faro, of course, but he also loved base-ball and was especially fond of boxing. You can learn more about Bat Masterson on the Ford County Historical Society page.

And there you have a handful of gamblers  not all of them the thoroughbred variety, but well known, nevertheless.

Interesting Books

Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, George H. Devol, originally published in 1887 by Devol & Haines, Cincinnati. Republished by Applewood Books, 18 North Road, Bedford, MA, 01730. ISBN 1-55709-110-2. This book is a series of vignettes by Mr. Devol recounting various adventures he had as a Mississippi riverboat gambler.

Gamblers of the Old West, from the Editors of Time-Life Books. ISBN 0-7835-4903-2. This is a terrific book with many fine illustrations the aid in the understanding of gambling in the 19th century. Please bear in mind that the terminology is often modern.

Games You Can’t Lose: A Guide for Sucker$, Harry Anderson and Turk Pipkin, Burford Books, 1989, 2001. ISBN 1-58080-086-6. While certainly not a historical reference, this book is an interesting read for anyone who’s writing a con artist character.

Card Control: Practical Methods and Forty Original Card Experiments, Arthur H. Buckley, Dover Publications, Inc., 1993 (first published in 1946), ISBN 0-486-27757-7. Need to deal from the bottom or stack the deck? This book shows you how. Not that I got anything but gales of laughter from my husband and friends when I tried cheating... (Remember the manual dexterity requirement?)

The Pocket Guide to Dice and Dice Games, Dr. Keith Souter

Interesting Sites:
Gambling in the United States
Western slang and phrases

May your saddle never slip.

Jacquie Rogers 
Romancing The West
Hearts of Owyhee series
#1: Much Ado About Marshals
#2: Much Ado About Madams
#3: Much Ado About Mavericks

Until Nov. 1, Sleight of Heart is only available in the 9 Ways to Fall in Love box set.  9 romance novels for 99¢, including two western historicals.


  1. What is it about western women that they usually had crappy love lives and ended up testitute? Poor Madame Mustache.
    I taught my niece to play poker when she was 7. Over the years she has picked up some skills. She's 12 now and neats me...often. We never really gamble even though we do play with poker chips, but we have played for discarded things like old Barbie dolls, hair clips and nail polish. She always likes to have 7 UP with fruit slices and an umbrella in it in a martini glass. Sometimes she'll put on her shades to look cool.
    I guess back in the old west they didn't have sports bars, so gambling was the next best thing.
    Loved your blog, Jacquie.

  2. Always a fascinating subject. Since Masterson resided in the Denver area I spent some time studying him and found the biography by DeArment a great read. The list you have is full of colorful characters. Of course Poker Alice was also in Colorado, but I leave the research for her to my friend who portrays her. Doris

  3. Great post and very useful, Jacquie. I have filed it for reference.

    Poker Alice is the inspiration for a character in my next Doc Marcus Quigley story, although I suspect she is a much darker character than Alexandra campbell, your heroine.

    Many thanks for the reference and link to my book. That was a pleasant surprise.


  4. Jacquie, Your research is just great. Much to do about Marshals is a deal I won't pass up. I'm ordering it today.

  5. Jacquie, as always a fantastic blog post from you! Love these tidbits and pictures of these old gamblers--I'm especially fascinated by the women! Thanks for putting this together--great research!

  6. Sarah, sounds like great fun with your niece--a thoroughbred in the making!

  7. Doris, Colorado had a lot of famous gamblers, which is why I set Sleight of Heart there. Colorado also had lots of trains--and what's there to do besides gamble? ☺ Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Keith, you're most welcome. When will your book be on Kindle?

    About Poker Alice, I find it interesting that she started off as an observer, then a player, then a top-notch and popular dealer. So much is written about the plight of women, but a whole lot of western women didn't pay attention and made very good incomes in both traditional and non-traditional careers. Poker Alice is fascinating because of her sharp intellect, and because the men pretty well knew she'd beat them, but sought her out anyway.

  9. Jerry, thanks--I should point out that Much Ado About Marshals doesn't have any gambling or trick in it--I saved that all for Sleight of Heart, which is only available in the box set until November 1.

  10. Cheryl, thanks! And me, too. Lots of other women were involved, too. Many of the men hired women to help keep the other players distracted (sometimes to help cheat, sometimes not), and at the end of the day, they split the take.

  11. Awesome resources, Jacquie! I can't count my fingers, let alone my cards. Good for Poker Alice for winning in a man's world.

  12. I'll look again, then, Keith. I only saw it in print, which of course doesn't do me much good. I have both an eInk Kindle and a Kindle Fire, and the illustrations should show nicely on the Fire.

  13. Meg, in blackjack, I can keep track for the first two hands, but then I'm lost. Most people only count the aces and facecards, but my aunt kept track of them all.

  14. I used to play tournament Euchre and also Pinochle when I was young. That's when I could remember what might still be coming... but I've lost that ability. LOL Guess I have more important things to remember. ;-)

  15. Meg, Euchre was really popular on the Mississippi riverboats. I don't know how to play it--might need to pick your brain. ☺

  16. Great article, Jacquie. I love that quote by Bat Masterson.

  17. Thanks, Matt. Bat Masterson was sure an interesting fellow.

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