The Wild West, sometimes called The Old West, is best defined as the years in the 19th century between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century. The Wild West is localized somewhere between Texas and California and as far north as Canada, depending on your definition and source. The United States experienced significant expansion during this period, growing all the way to the Pacific Ocean and slowly transforming into an industrialized society.
Statehood was slow to come to many areas, leaving a collection of mining towns and lonesome prairie settlements to be safeguarded by either the military or well-armed and rugged frontiersman. With thousands of recently discharged soldiers added to the mix, the American West became a magnet for violence, corruption, and every other negative social quality imaginable. This gave rise to a new breed of peacekeeper: think Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, men who could be just as vicious as those they were paid to keep in line.
Of course, these men couldn’t spend all day shooting one another or having sex with “soiled doves” (a colorful Old West term for prostitutes), so they passed the time by playing cards. Poker in the Old West fulfilled a valuable role, being at once a way to while away the hours and also a possible source of financial freedom.
In 1849, the California Gold Rush drew settlers and prospectors across the nation, and poker found a home in the saloons and dance halls frequented by people with gold fever. During this period, San Francisco actually unseated New Orleans as the center of gambling in the United States. This would be like modern-day Atlantic City outpacing Vegas for gambling action.
When alcohol, firearms and desperation mixed, there was bound to be trouble. This was especially true in lawless settlements such as Deadwood and Leadville, where a disagreement over poker could lead to a deadly conflict. But the popularity of the game continued to grow, and prospectors looking for new riches helped spread its influence into the remote regions of the nation.
As the Wild West period drew to a close, it became common to see blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and even an occasional woman (such as the colorfully-named Madame Moustache) enjoying a game of poker.
Other changes took place toward the end of the century. Some towns and states, tired of violence and moral corruption related to poker, passed strict regulations prohibiting gambling. In other cases, cities enacted taxes on gambling establishments and used the proceeds to make improvements to the community.
Popular Old West Card Games
Poker in the Old West looked different from the poker games played today. The most common poker games in the Old West were rudimentary versions of draw and stud poker. These games used a much smaller deck and had more than a few rule variations unfamiliar to today’s draw and stud poker players.
Poker decks in the Old West were made up of just twenty cards: A-K-Q-J-10 in the four traditional suits. These poker games started by dealing out all twenty cards to each player, and until draw poker swept across the West, there was no such thing as a draw. Hands were made up out of what cards you were dealt, rather than drawing towards a better hand.
Poker hand rankings were different in the Old West, too, with combinations called things like “full” and “triplets.” These were similar to today’s full house and three-of-a-kind, respectively. Because of the cards involved in the game, the only straight flush in the game was a Royal Flush. The lack of cards below 10 made straight flush hands irrelevant, and this hand ranking was only added after the expansion to a 52-card deck.
But poker wasn’t the only popular card game during the Old West. These games were popular too:
- Three Card Monte – Three cards are placed face-down and quickly switched around, and the player must identify the card with the queen. While some establishments might have run a fair game, the potential for sleight of hand on the part of the dealer has made Three Card Monte a popular con game in the modern era.
- Faro – From 1825 until 1915, this popular and easy-to-learn card game was played in virtually every gambling house in the Wild West. Using one deck, Faro allowed players to wager on any denomination card from the ace though king. The dealer would then draw two cards: the dealer’s card and the player’s card. All bets on the dealer’s card would go to the house, while all bets on the player’s card would be paid out at even money. Players could also bet “high card,” a wager that the player’s card would be of a higher value than the dealer’s card.
- Brag – An ancestor of poker, brag is played with three cards per player. Players wager based on the strength of their three cards, although bluffing also plays a large part in the game. For a modern example of three card brag, watch Guy Ritchie’s debut film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Wild Bill Hickok and the Dead Man’s Hand
On August 2nd, 1876, James Butler Hickok (known as “Wild Bill”) was enjoying a game of poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in the mining camp of Deadwood. The deadliest gunman of the Old West, Hickok sat with his back to the wall to avoid being shot in the back by enemies. But on this particular day, he was forced to sit with his back to the door, even though he made two unsuccessful attempts to switch places with another player.
John “Jack” McCall entered the saloon. He later claimed Hickok had killed his brother, but really he was mad about Hickok offering to loan him enough money to buy breakfast the previous morning. McCall walked up behind Hickok, pulled out a pistol, and shot him in the back of the head. The bullet exited Hickok’s right cheek. He died instantly.
As one legend died, another was born. When he was shot, Hickok was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights in his hand (all black). The identity of the fifth card has been lost to history, but anyone holding Hickok’s four cards is said to have the “Dead Man’s Hand.” The legend has become so famous that Hickok was even inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979.
Poker in the Wild West left behind a rich and colorful legacy, and the versions played in saloons and brothels still exist in the modern age. While today’s gamblers play in lavish casinos or from the comfort of their own homes, their Old West counter-parts braved violence, disease, and a lack of air conditioning.