500 Must Be a Peach of a Hand – A guide to gambling in the Old West

Poker is the most famous type of gambling that’s depicted in western movies. Who can forget Doc Holliday’s opening scene in Tombstone where he stabs Ed Bailey before raking in a fortune of coins and jewellery. It’s not just the movies though, Wild Bill Hickock’s unfortunate departure from the world while clutching aces and eights only helped to fuel the stereotype of the western gambler, but what was it actually like to be a gambler like Doc Holliday?

What games were there?

A Faro casekeeper on display at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tucson.
A faro case keeper and derringer on display at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tucson.

People think of poker when they think of the Old West but Faro was just as popular. Other games included Spanish monte, twenty-one, roulette and chuck-a-luck. The later was the cheapest game of all and only required a five cent bet to get started. Three dice were placed in a bottle-shaped wire cage. The cage was tossed and if all three dice showed the same number face up, the player won the money. Unfortunately for most players, it was common for the dealer to use loaded dice.

Bets were taken on just about everything and anything. cock-fighting, horse racing, foot races, shooting competitions and boxing were all popular sports in Tombstone and attracted plenty of gambling money. Bets were even placed against competing baseball teams or the changing weather.

The Tombstone Epitaph reported:

The quarter-mile horse race at Solomonville last Monday between Bald Face Calf and Crawford was a genuine race. Crawford won by a foot. Over $3,500 changed hands.

Doc Holliday is remembered as a poker player, but he actually spent most of his professional career working as a faro dealer in saloons such as The Oriental in Tombstone. He probably would have fitted games of poker around any other work he was doing whether that was pulling teeth or dealing Faro. Comedian Eddie Foy described the shooting fray at the Comique Theater in Dodge City, and also mentioned how Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson were playing monte together and flattened like pancakes on the floor when the shooting began.

Where did gambling take place?

In frontier towns gambling happened any place that someone wanted to take a bet. In the early days of Dodge City, the town had gambling tables in every saloon in town. In later years Dodge City began fining gamblers in an effort to keep the gambling in town ‘honorable.’ The money raised went to maintain the police department.

Saloons varied greatly from small rooms or tents with a wooden board for a bar, to more luxurious gaming rooms like The Oriental in Tombstone, which bragged of its crystal chandeliers and mahogany bar. The more high-end saloons had a separate poker room in the back of the saloon. The bars were smoky and could be lit with kerosene or gas lighting depending on the town. Around 1882, Denver saloons even had electricity.

What were the working hours for a gambler?

It was normal for saloons to be open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Games could run all day and night too. Famously, it was claimed that a poker game lasted continuously over eight years in the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone. The waiting list to join the game was three days long.

Food and alcohol were available nearly all the time and it would not have been considered unusual to grab a meal or a sandwich at two o’clock in the morning. Beatty and Kelly’s Dodge City restaurant bragged in their adverts that they were the finest in Dodge and offered meals at all hours.

Tools of the trade

Card cutters were used to cut the frayed edges off cards.
Card cutters were used to cut the frayed edges off cards.

It goes without saying that a pack of cards were used. A card cutter was used to cut the frayed edges off cards.

Contrary to Hollywood’s depiction of gunfights, there were probably more fights over poker tables than in the streets. Gamblers carried derringers in concealed vest pockets for self-protection. While small, the derringer could do plenty of damage at close range. It was also common for gamblers to carry a knife. Doc Holliday’s preference is said to have been a Bowie. Considering the average Bowie was nine inches long and Doc was a skinny individual, I doubt that this is true.  He may have carried a dagger for protection, but again there is no proof of this.

High rolling gamblers tended to dress well. Silk vests, cravats and tailored suits were the norm. Doc was described in Colorado newspaper interviews as wearing dark well-fitting suits and the latest round top hat. He’s also wore a diamond stick pin with a cravat. After his death in 1887, the stick pin was returned back to the Holliday family without the diamond. Presumably, Holliday must have lost the diamond in an effort to pay off debts when his finances became tight.

Riding the Circuit

Professional gamblers like Doc Holliday were referred to as Rounders.  They would make a living gambling, travelling to new towns to find games. Since Dodge City was a cowtown, money was made from the cowboys driving cattle up from Texas during the summer months. In the winter, the cowboys left and the town grew quiet. The police force laid off policemen and the saloons lost business. Gamblers like Doc Holliday would move away to other towns to find games, returning the following summer. When Dodge City became more respectable, many of the professional gamblers including Doc Holliday, Luke Short, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp headed to New Mexico and then on to Tombstone.

Lady Gamblers

Lady gamblers were rare but not unheard of. Lottie Deno is perhaps one of the most famous examples. Lottie gambled her way around Western Texas, eventually appearing in Fort Griffin, Texas where she played poker in the Bee Hive Saloon with many of the more infamous characters of the West, including Doc Holliday. One of the stories told is that Doc was quite taken by this charming lady gambler, much to Big Nose Kate’s disgust. Big Nose Kate was jealous and started an argument with Lottie.

“Why you low down stinkin’ slut!” Lottie shouted. “If I should step in soft cow manure, I would not even clean my boot on that bastard!  I’ll show you a thing or two.”

She then pulled a gun on Kate and Doc Holliday stepped in between them. Perhaps this is just another story to add to Doc Holliday’s mythology.

Lottie Deno gambled all her life before finally putting down her cards for the last time when she died in 1934.

Card Cheats

There were plenty of card cheats in the Old West and there were plenty of ways of cheating. When the gambling establishment was crooked, the dice was sometimes loaded or bystanders were used to relay information about cards to the dealer.

Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday sporting his gambling shades.
Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, sporting his gambling shades.

It was common for cheats to mark cards with ink. The marks were small, sometimes just a dot or line near the top corner of the card. The cheat wore  tinted spectacles while playing. The sunglasses hid his eyes from other players and also made the marks on the cards pop out.

Bending or scoring the corners and edges was also a popular way of marking cards. A card cutter could also be used for cheating. Some of the cards were cut a bit thinner than the others to give the gambler ‘an edge’.

Using a shiny object could also give the gambler an extra view of their components cards. This could be a ring, a hip-flask or tin cup; anything shiny sitting on the table could help.  A mirror in the saloon could also give a gambler an advantage. It would not have been the best plan to cheat with other professional gamblers, as they would be equally aware of the methods of cheating as you would. Although, I’m sure there were plenty of unsuspecting cowboys that got taken for a ride.

I hope I’ve given you a small taste for what it may have been like to be a gambler in the Old West.

If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy my book: A Gentleman In Hell.

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