- Historic Sites
Nation Of Gamblers
Once seen as a vice and now as a public panacea, the national passion that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble has been expanding for two centuries
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
The greatest of the lot, of course, were the riverboat gamblers, plying the Mississippi and the Ohio. They are more important as romantic figures than for their small influence over actual history, for they became heroes to little boys and girls and, after they were long gone, to adults too. Being a romantic figure, the riverboat gambler had his uniform, just as the idealized cowboy and the knight-errant have theirs, and even today everyone knows what it was: black hat, suit, and tie; black high-heel boots; frill shirt; and diamond rings. And the keystone, as the writer Herbert Asbury described it: “a fancy vest of unspeakable gaudiness.”
Being a romantic figure, the riverboat gambler acted with honor. When a young Englishman lost all his money and even his luggage to John Powell in a riverboat poker game in 1858, he went on deck and politely said goodbye to the other passengers before shooting himself dead. Powell was devastated, and he sent the luggage and all the money back to the man’s relatives in England. Poker was the most popular game when professional gamblers were playing with strangers, but among themselves they often preferred the bank type of game faro, which allows a player the best winning percentage of nearly any game of chance. Unfortunately it is also among the easiest to rig.
The riverboat gambler cheated too, of course. In fact, New York firms circulated catalogues devoted to cheating devices: “poker rings” with tiny needles that marked cards, “stripper plates” that shaved the cards so that they could be shuffled into an advantageous order, and special ink, applied with the fingertips, that could be detected only through the lenses of special eyeglasses. One gambler specialized in reworking the roulette wheel: sometimes he would stick three or four extra “16 reds” over the numbers on the wheel (and then bet on 16), and other times, for a change, he would attach tiny wires over most of the other numbers, so that the ball almost had to stop on 16 red.
An outgoing riverboat gambler named George Devol was so proud of his ability to bring a stacked deck into the game undetected that he once brought four of them into a single poker hand, dealing four aces to each of his four opponents. The betting was spirited.
“To me as a boy, the gambler was an object of awed admiration,” Hugh Fullerton recalled of his childhood in the 187Os. “There was one old fellow who took a great liking to me, and during the summers we often fished together while he told me tales of the great poker games ‘on the river.’ Four or five times a year he went away, down the river to New Orleans on the boats. He was a strikingly handsome man, low-voiced, pleasant, always perfectly dressed.”
Faro offers the best chance of winning of any gambling game. Alas, it is also among the easiest to rig.
Taking his place in folklore, the riverboat gambler, again like the cowboy and the knight-errant, represented a life of freedom, adventure, and independence. Like those others, he was more likely to be, in fact, a slave to a system in which he had long since stopped believing. Most riverboat gamblers died poor; worse than that, they had to live out many years without enough money to gamble anymore. So the pertinent reality regarding the riverboat gambler existed in the minds of the children who followed his image into new eras of popularity for gambling in America.
Before polls and projections, great suspense was attached to election day, and it became a day for heavy wagering. In 1864-August Belmont, the millionaire, told the New York Herald that he would bet all comers that George McClellan would defeat Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election. Editors at the reformminded New York Times noticed that and, disdaining McClellan even more than they did the vice of gambling, offered to direct willing bettors to Belmont’s address.
Baseball developed into a professional sport during the 186Os, and eight teams formed the National Association in 1871. Betting booths were a common feature at ballparks, and players were known to use them; rumors of “thrown” games abounded, but it took the farce perpetrated by the Louisville Grays in the 1877 season to clean up the sport. Louisville was so far ahead in the standings in mid-August that the second-place Boston Reds were considered a lost cause. The Grays, though, were losers from that point on, as the result of the lackluster play of their four starters. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran the story under the headline !!!—???—!!!. Forty-two years later this headline would be aptly translated by a boy’s legendary remark to a player implicated in the Black Sox fix: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”