Gambling in the Old West

As the Gold Rush gained momentum, San Francisco replaced New Orleans as the center for gambling in the United States. Over one hundred thriving saloons and brothels met the sailors and fortune-seeking travelers as they disembarked at the San Francisco harbor and stumbled into the infamous Barbary Coast Waterfront District.

Faro in Tonapah, Nevada in 1905

Faro in Tonapah, Nevada in 1905

Faro was by far the most popular and prolific game played in Old West saloons, followed by Brag, Three-card-monte, and dice games such as High-low, Chuck-a-luck, and Grand hazard.  It was also about this time that gambling began invite more diversity including Hispanics, blacks, Chinese and women in the games.  Three of the more famous women gamblers of this time were Calamity Jane, Poker Alice, and Madame Mustache.

Before long, many of the Old West mining camps such as Deadwood, Leadville, and Tombstone became as well known for gunfights over card games than they did for their wealth of gold and silver ore.  Professional gamblers such as Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok learned early to hone their six-shooter skills at the same pace as their gambling abilities. Taking swift action upon the green cloth became part of the gamblers’ code – shoot first and ask questions later.

One such occasion that clearly showed the quick and violent code was when Doc Holliday was dealing Faro to a local bully named Ed Bailey in Fort Griffin, Texas.  Bailey was unimpressed with Doc’s reputation and in an attempt to irritate him; he kept picking up the discards and looking at them. Peeking at the discards was strictly prohibited by the rules of Western Poker, a violation that could force the player to forfeit the pot.

Though Holliday warned Bailey twice, the bully ignored him and picked up the discards again. This time, Doc raked in the pot without showing his hand, nor saying a word.  Bailey immediately brought out his pistol from under the table, but before the man could pull the trigger, Doc’s lethal knife slashed the man across the stomach.  With blood spilled everywhere, Bailey lay sprawled out dead across the table.

Inevitably there were liquored up miners and cowboys who would shoot up the saloons and sometimes the poker winner when they were angered by their losses. Even Wild Bill Hickok, who is mostly known for his heroics and prowess with a six-shooter, took advantage of those abilities when faced with a loss in Deadwood, South Dakota. Shortly before midnight after a night of drinking and gambling, Hickok was playing a two-handed game with a man named McDonald when the stakes began to increase with every card dealt.

When the hand was complete and the middle of the table piled high with money, McDonald showed his hand, displaying three jacks. To this, Hickok responded, “I have a full house – aces over sixes,” then threw his hand face down upon the table.  However, when McDonald picked up Hickok’s hand, he exclaimed, “I see only two aces and one six.”  Wasting no time, Wild Bill drew his six-shooter with his right hand and replied, “Here’s my other six.” Then he flashed a bowie knife with his left hand, stating, “And here’s my one spot.”  McDonald immediately back down saying coolly, “That hand is good.  Take the pot.”

By the end of the 19th century, gambling had spread like wildfire through the many mining camps, multiplying as the gold and silver hunters spread across the West, searching for new strikes.  It was about this time that both states and cities started to take advantage of these growing ventures by taxing gambling dens and raising money for their communities.

It was also during the late 1800s that many towns and states across the western frontier began to enact new laws against gambling.  Attempting to gain new levels of respectability, the laws primarily targeted the “professional gambler” more than gaming in general. Some types of gambling were made illegal, while limits were established on others. Initially, anti-gaming laws were weak and had little real effect on gambling, as they were difficult to enforce, establishments simply introduced new variants, and penalties were light.

Reno, Nevada Gambling, 1910

Reno, Nevada Gambling, 1910

However, the laws were gradually strengthened and ironically, Nevada was one of the first states in the West to totally make gambling illegal in 1909. Other states soon followed suit and true to the worst fears of the Puritans, gangsters combined liquor and gambling in the cities of New York, Cleveland and Chicago during the 1920s.

By the time construction on the Hoover Dam was underway in 1931, Nevada relaxed its gambling laws and casinos once more began to flourish. By 1939 there were six casinos and sixteen saloons in Las Vegas.  As automobile traffic increased and people began to travel more for leisure, Las Vegas began to boom into the gambling Mecca it is today.

Over the years, poker has evolved through legitimate casinos and backroom games to its many present variations. Over the last decade several states have reintroduced gambling in limited formats and the fastest growing gambling opportunity today doesn’t even require you to leave your home, as you log onto your computer to tempt the fates. Carefully regulated by gaming laws, poker is now the most popular card game in the world.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September, 2017.

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

See our Gamblin’ In the Old West Photo Gallery HERE!

Playing Faro

Playing Faro

Also See:

Faro or “Bucking the Tiger”

Frontier Gambler

George Devol – Card Sharp of the Old West

Saloons of the Wild West

Scoundrels of the Old West


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