Gambling Gals in the Old West

[November 14. 2022 | The Montrose Mirror | By Kathryn R. Burke]

“Ante up, gents,” instructs the lady dealing the cards. “Sweeten that pot.” But wait! A woman dealing? You bet. It’s 1885, and women aren’t always welcome at many gambling tables and establishments…as players. But a notorious few do sit at the head of the table, dealing cards (mostly from the top of the deck) and making their fortune as migrant gamblers flock to their tables. The allure of a female cardsharps, especially those with bared bosoms and packing a pistol in their petticoats, only adds to the excitement.

From the mid-1800s to about 1910, the area was booming. Ninety-five percent of the new arrivals were men. Gambling was their favorite entertainment and saloons with games their favorite hangouts. Miners, railroaders, lumberjacks, and the entrepreneurs who provided them with whiskey, women, and gambling—all designed to part them from their money—came in ever-increasing numbers. The women who followed were mostly red-light district working girls looking for a better way of life than farming and raising babies. Shady ladies, Soiled Doves—a few of the more enter enterprising left the bedroom and moved to the bar room, running the bordellos or “sporting houses” and often the gaming parlors as well. Or just running the game, usually poker or Faro, the most popular game of the time.

Men ruled. and serious gamblers considered the fairer sex bad luck. Others saw them as a distraction, which was true. Nonetheless, a surprising number of women became successful gamblers. Unfortunately, many of those gals also hooked up…at one time or another… with their male counterparts—often to their detriment. While these ladies were hot-shot card players they were less successful when it came to choosing their men. But not to worry. When the gent of the moment cleaned them out, they went back upstairs and reverted to their former profession until they had enough money to get back to the dealing cards. Or, as most of them packed a pistol and knew how to use it, they shot the man who took their money and moved on to the next boom town.

Gambling was considered a respectable profession. It was also the most popular form of entertainment—next to drinking…but the two went hand-in-hand, along with chewing tobacco and smoking cigars. Most everybody engaged in all three. Spitoons were parked at every gaming table, where sloppy spitters and spilled whiskey kept the floors slippery. (And made it hard to sneak up behind a player to peer at his hand.)

Card games went on for years. The longest poker game in history was played in the basement of the Bird Cage in Tombstone, Arizona. Played continuously for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from 1881 to 1889, it lasted for a total of eight years. An estimated $10 million was exchanged in the game. Among the most notable people who participated at one time or other were George Hearst, Diamond Jim Brady, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and Adolphus Busch. No women are mentioned in historical accounts of the Bird Cage. But they were out there, following the money from one boomtown to another and dealing cards as they went.

Perhaps the most famous of the gal gamblers was Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert. Known as   “Poker Alice,” she is not typical of how and why lady gamblers of the Old West got their start or stayed in the game. Although she was married—and widowed—three times, each union was with a good man. Alice was astute at more than just cards. Nor did she start out as a working girl. Alice only turned to running a sporting house late in life, after being widowed for the third time.

Poker Alice was a strong, independent woman at a time when women had few options in life. She smoked cigars, carried a gun, and played cards for a living, wining over a quarter of a million dollars during her career.

Continued, next issue.