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The Spread of Gambling and Poker

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and far from the restrictions of Eastern sensibilities, New Orleans became the hub of gambling in the United States.  A small city, it had more gambling houses than New York, Boston and Philadelphia combined.  It was there that poker was first widely played by French settlers. This old poker game, poque, was similar to the “draw poker” game we play today.  Some believe that the southern drawl of the area transformed poque to pokah.  The city's status as an international port and its thriving gambling industry created a new profession, the card "sharper."

Gambling spread from New Orleans to towns up the Mississippi. Gambling dens sprung up to lure flatboat operators flush with cash from their journey to sell their goods. Natchez, Vicksburg and St. Louis all had active gambling communities and large contingents of card sharps ready to separate money from men.

The public viewed professional gamblers with disdain, feeling they contributed nothing to society.  This prejudice was warranted in many cases, as most professional gamblers cheated in order to win.  Successful professional gamblers had charismatic personalities and often dressed 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. 

With the launch of Fulton's second steamboat and its elegant roundhouse suitable for card playing, a new era in gambling began.  About this time, we find the first written reference to poker in the United States when Jonathan H. Green in 1834 published the rules to what he called “cheating game.”

It was during the riverboat gambling heyday that an interesting story occurred in 1832.  On a Mississippi steamboat four men were playing poker, three who were professional gamblers, and the fourth, a hapless traveler from Natchez.  Soon, the naïve young man had lost all his money to the rigged game.  Forlorn, the 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, 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.”
By the 1830s, citizens began to blame professional gamblers for any and every crime in the area, and gambling itself began to be attacked.  Anxious townspeople of river ports grew increasingly wary of the confidence men in their midst.  In 1835 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the town's rage reached a boiling point, and five card sharps were lynched by a vigilante group.

Fortunately for these professional gamblers, gold was discovered in California and a whole new world of suckers opened up.  Within a year of the 1849 discovery, gambling houses had sprouted up all over northern California and San Francisco replaced New Orleans as the center for gambling in the United States.  In these early days, card sharps were not welcome and most games were ‘on the square.'  Operators who didn't run an honest game had deserted tables and soon were out of business. 

Portsmouth Square was the center of the best gambling halls in the city including the El Dorado, Bella Union, Parker House and the Mazourka.  In order to draw in customers, the casino owners offered free food, bands and pretty girls. 

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.  Poker wasn't as popular with gamblers of the time because the action was too slow and there weren't enough opportunties to bet. 

At the conclusion of the Civil War and continued westward expansion, the frontiers were filled with speculators, travelers, and miners, all people with a penchant for risk taking.  Gambling was a popular pastime for these rough and tumble men.  In virtually every mining camp and prairie town saloon a poker table could be found , surrounded by prospectors, lawmen, cowboys, railroad workers, soldiers, and outlaws looking for a chance to tempt fortune and fate.

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. 

By the end of the 19th century, gambling had spread through 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 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 enacted new laws against gambling.  Attempting to gain respectability, the laws 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, as they were difficult to enforce and penalties were light.

However, the laws gradually strengthened and in 1909 Nevada was one of the first states in the West to totally make gambling illegal.  Other states soon followed suit with the result that 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 had changed 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.  Poker is now the most popular card game in the world.


The Gamblers, (Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1978)

Legends of America -

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