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Old West Legends IconOLD WEST LEGENDS

Gambling in the Old West

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Playing Poker at Egan's Saloon in Burns, Oregon, 1882

Playing Poker at Egan's Saloon in Burns, Oregon, 1882. This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!

 

 

 

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Whether on a riverboat atop the Mighty Mississippi, or in the smoky dimness of a mining camp saloon, a lucky draw could turn a broken man into a winner. In the days of the frontier west, poker was king with the mustachioed likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, "Canada” Bill Jones, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and hundreds of others.

In the old west towns of Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone, and Virginia City, gamblers played with their back to the wall and their guns at their sides, as dealers dealt games with names such as Chuck-A-Luck, Three Card Monte, High Dice, and Faro, by far the favorite in the wild west saloons.

The exact origin of poker is unknown but many have speculated that it originated from a 16th century Persian card game called As Nas. Played with a 25 card deck containing five suits, the rules were similar to today’s Five Card Stud. Others are of the opinion that it was invented by the Chinese in 900 A.D. In all likelihood, the game derived from elements of various gambling diversions that have been around from the beginning of time.

Poker in the United States was first widely played in New Orleans by French settlers playing a card game that involved bluffing and betting called Poque in the early 1800's. This old poker game was similar to the "draw poker” game we play today. New Orleans evolved as America’s first gambling city as riverboat men, plantation owners and farmers avidly pursued the betting sport.

The first American gambling casino was opened in New Orleans around 1822 by a man named John Davis. The club, open twenty-four hours a day, provided gourmet food, liquor, roulette wheels, Faro tables, poker, and other games. Davis also made certain that painted ladies were never far away. Dozens of imitators soon followed making the gaming dens the primary attraction of New Orleans. The city's status as an international port and its thriving gambling industry created a new profession, called the card "sharper."

Professional gamblers and cheats gathered in a waterfront area known as "the swamp," an area even the police were afraid to frequent, and any gambler lucky enough to win stood a good chance of losing his earnings to thieves outside of the gambling rooms and saloons.

Gambling was outlawed in the rest of the huge Louisiana territory in 1811, but New Orleans continued to enjoy the prosperity brought by gambling for more than 100 years. Though the law was passed for the entire Louisiana Purchase, it was obviously not enforced and casinos and gambling began to spread.

As commerce developed on the waterways, gambling traveled up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, then westward via covered wagons, and later on the railroad. The first written reference in the United States came from Jonathan H. Greer in 1834 when he referred to the amusement as the "cheating game.”

 

James Bowie

James Bowie was co-commander of the Alamo and lethal with a knife.

 

Some of the first gambling dens outside of New Orleans were started on river towns that were popular to both travelers and professional gamblers. It was here that many "sharpers” preyed on these transient people, with their pockets filled with their life savings, on the way to the new frontier. The dishonest gamblers also often ran confidence games and other con artist businesses, in order to gaff the unwary pioneers. A host of companies specialized in manufacturing and selling card cheating devices. One riverboat gambler named George Devol was so proud of his ability to slip a stacked deck into a game that he once used four of them in one poker hand, dealing four aces to each of his four opponents.

 

It was professional gamblers who were largely responsible for the poker boom. Considering themselves as entrepreneurs, they took advantage of America’s growing obsession with gambling. Though having a high opinion of themselves, the public viewed them with disdain, considering them as contributing nothing to society. This viewpoint was often warranted in many cases, as a large number of professional gamblers often cheated in order to win. To be successful, professional gamblers had to have irresistible personalities in order to attract men to play with them. Often dressing in dandy clothes, their success depended partly on chance and partly on skill, sometimes on slight of hand, and in the Old West, their shooting abilities. By the 1830s, citizens began to blame professional gamblers for any and every crime in the area and gambling itself began to be attacked.

 

It was during these riverboat gambling heydays that an interesting story occurred in 1832. On a Mississippi steamboat four men were playing poker, three of which were professional gamblers, and the fourth, a hapless traveler from Natchez. Soon, the young naïve man had lost all his money to the rigged game. Devastated, the Natchez man planned to throw himself into the river; however, an observer prevented his suicide attempt, and then joined the card game with the "sharps.” In the middle of a high stakes hand, the stranger caught one of the professionals cheating and pulled a knife on the gambler, yelling, "Show your hand! If it contains more than five cards I shall kill you!” When he twisted the cheater’s wrist, six cards fell to the table. Immediately, the stranger took the $70,000 pot, returning $50,000 to the Natchez man and keeping $20,000 for his trouble. Shocked, the Natchez man stuttered, "Who the devil are you, anyway?” to which the stranger responded, "I am James Bowie.”

Anxious citizens of these river port towns grew more and more wary of the confidence men that were multiplying so quickly. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the citizens rage had become so increased by 1835, five cardsharps were lynched by a vigilante group. It was soon after this that many of the gamblers moved onto the riverboats, benefiting from the transient riverboat lifestyle.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, America pushed her boundaries West, where the frontier was born of speculators, travelers, and miners. These hardy pioneers had high risk taking characteristics, making any gambling situation a popular pastime for these rough and tumble men of the frontier. In virtually every mining camp and prairie town a poker table could soon be found in each saloon, surrounded by prospectors, lawmen, cowboys, railroad workers, soldiers, and outlaws for a chance to tempt fortune and fate.

 

Continued Next Page

 

If you're playing a poker game and you look around the table and and can't tell who the sucker is, it's you.

-- Paul Newman

Playing Faro in the days of the Old West

Playing Faro during the days of the Old West

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!

 

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From Legends' General Store

Western and Saloon Style DecorWestern & Saloon Style Decor - With Legends' fascination with the Old West and all things historic, we love decorating in a Western style and we know that many of you do too. To help with providing the perfect ambiance, we carry a number of items including Vintage Photographs, Nostalgic Tin Signs, Wild West Photo Art, economical Old West and Outlaw Wanted posters, Glassware and Tools for your bar, Saloon Style Wall Art, and lots more.

 

 

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