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The Early Days Of Poker

Poker and the Wild Wild West have become synonymous. Though the game existed before the era, it was people like Wild Bill, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp who made the game exciting. In the 1800’s, at the conclusion of the Civil War, Americans pushed West for prospects. In every mining camp and prairie town existed a poker table, if not a saloon. New Orleans was no longer the gambling capital of the world. Towns like Deadwood, Dodge City, Leadville, and Tombstone held the title. These mining towns, filled with silver and gold ore, were just as famous for their poker games as their gunfights. Learning to use a gun was almost as important in a game as learning what beats what.

The gambler’s code was quite simple. Shoot first and ask questions later. Historians remember a time when Hickok was playing a two-handed game with a man named McDonald when the stakes increased with every card dealt. With a high piled pot, McDonald showed three jacks. Hickok threw his cards down, declaring he won with a full house – aces over sixes. McDonald objected, saying he only saw two aces and one six. Without hesitating, Wild Bill flashed his six-shooter shouting “Here’s my other six”. McDonald immediately backed down and cut his losses.

Another natural player was Doc Holliday. Doc Holliday, who took on the West with his gambling skills, gun, and love “Big Nose” Kate, was Wyatt Earp’s best friend and companion at the gunfight of the O.K. Corral. Holliday loved his cards and may even be considered the first “professional gambler”. He started his career as a Faro dealer and ended it playing small games later in life. But his lack of sobriety and funds put him into a downward spiral, though he always escaped a violent death. He finally succumbed to tuberculosis peacefully in bed in 1887. He was perhaps the best Western gambler, with the right mixture of authority and manners.

In 1877, Doc was dealing cards to Ed Bailey, who was used to getting his own way all the time. To annoy Doc, he continuously looked at the discards, which was prohibited by the rules of Western Poker. This would force the player to forfeit the pot. Doc gave him a warning, but Bailey continued. So, Doc raked in the pot, just as Bailey brought out his pistol. Before he could shoot, Doc slashed him across the stomach. Blood sprayed everywhere, and Bailey was dead.

The main game in the Old West saloons was Faro. Faro is no longer played, as its odds are better than even. It was played with a standard pack of 52 cards. Players bet against a banker (dealer), who draws two cards – one that wins and another that loses – from the deck to complete a turn. Bets on which card will win or lose are placed on each turn. They referred to Faro as “Bucking the Tiger” back then. Not far behind that game are Brag, Three-Card Monte, and dice games such as High-low, Chuck-a-luck, and Grand Hazard.

Surprisingly, at this time, women poker players were beginning to surface. Annie Duke has dames like Calamity Jane, Poker Alice, and Madame Mustache to thank. They paved the way, proving women can hold their own at the table. Calamity Jane, who claimed to have once been married to Hickok, was known for her men’s clothing and habit of screaming, “Drinks are on me!” Jane was an expert card player. The Queen of Spades has even been dubbed the Calamity Jane to this day. Poker Alice, on the other hand, was a much classier player. She accompanied her husband to games but developed the bug herself. When he passed away, she took the reins, working gambling rooms across town, including breaking the bank at Silver City. She refused to play on Sundays due to her religious upbringing in England. She was the first female professional player.

Playing poker in the Wild West was tense and risky. You weren’t just playing for money, you were playing for reputation and for your life. But it was also a place where civility sometimes replaced discord. You could easily see enemies sitting down together to play a game, trying to make things right at the table. Even the lawmen played. Legendary sheriff Wyatt Earp was a successful poker player. An infamous 1881 game took place when Earp sat with a pistol on his lap, as he played Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury, his own enemies, in an all-night game. Clanton lost and went into an alcohol-fueled rage


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