- Historic Sites
The very American career of the card game you can learn in 10 minutes and work on for the rest of your life
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
These conflicting patterns persisted after the Revolution. Gambling remained subdued in New England but was pursued with abandon in the South and on the frontier. In 1827 a man named John Davis opened the nation’s first full-fledged casino in New Orleans, making the city a perfect incubator for the new game of poker.
Poker’s early days are closely linked to the riverboat gambler. This American fixture began as a cardsharp preying on the boat crews that emerged from the interior. He soon moved onto the river himself, or operated along its banks, relieving cotton traders, plantation scions, and incidental travelers of the wealth the frontier was generating. The games professionals preferred were mostly adopted from the French—roulette, vingtetun, and faro. They were banking games; players wagered against the house, which had a built-in advantage.
Poker was slower paced but acquired its own popularity. All the gambler needed was to induce a few men to sit down around a table and join in a friendly game of cards. If the play was leisurely, the stakes could grow enormous. One rash riverboat captain bet his entire interest in his vessel on four kings, only to watch his opponent lay down four aces.
Professional gamblers discarded the idea of wagering as an avocation only of aristocrats. Any man was as good as any other—as long as he had money in his pockets. Riverboat sharpers delivered poker into the age of democratic gambling, a phenomenon still on display in any Las Vegas poker room.
With his slim mustache, white hands, ruffled shirt, and dark frock coat, the professional gambler aped the manners of the gentleman even as he followed the calling of the swindler. For some, no amount of ostentation was too much. The cardsharp Jimmy Fitzgerald sported a gold watch chain 20 feet long (he looped it around his neck) and traveled with three slaves to lug his two dozen suits and custom-made Parisian boots.
The Mississippi riverboat provided an unmatched environment for these gamblers. The floating hotels carried men who were far from home and often flush with ready cash from business dealings. The long, slow journey demanded some activity to break the monotony. At every stop new players climbed aboard. By the 1830s at least 1,500 gamblers were plying the river.
The reformed cardsharp Jonathan H. Green, in an 1843 book entitled Exposure of the Arts & Miseries of Gambling , wrote about the early days of poker. Referring to the 20-card version, Green called poker a “cheating game.” Sharping was rampant, and primitive poker could be as much a con game as a card game.
Poker established itself along the Mississippi during the 1820s, but references to the game didn’t reach print until 1837. That year it was mentioned in James Hildreth’s Dragoon Cam paigns to the Rocky Mountains . In speaking of a man who “lost some cool hundreds last night at poker,” the author felt the need to explain in a footnote that poker was “a favorite game of cards at the south and west.”
Other references to poker appeared soon afterward, including a poignant and often reprinted 1838 account of a “colored fireman” on a Mississippi steamboat who was caught in a wicked losing streak and “ventured his full value as a slave” on the turn of a card. He lost, and the winner handed him over to a slave dealer. The incident was offered as an example of the “vile and pernicious practice of gaming.”
The staking of human lives was an ignoble facet of early poker playing. “It wasn’t at all uncommon to hear an old planter betting off his Negroes on a good hand,” recalled Tom Ellison, a riverboat professional. “I saw a little colored boy stand up to $300 to back his master’s faith in a little flush that wasn’t any good on earth.”
The English comic actor Joe Cowell remembered playing cards on a St. Louis–New Orleans riverboat in 1829. Poker, he noted in his memoir, was “a high-gambling Western game, founded on brag.” When the cards were dealt, “old players pack them in their hands, and peep at them as if they were afraid to trust even themselves to look.”
George Devol was a rogue who later wrote of his experiences in Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi . Starting as a riverboat cabin boy in 1839, Devol lived through the heyday when “there were five games of poker running at one time in the cabin.” On one trip he represented himself as a horse trader and used marked decks to win $4,300 before reaching New Orleans.
Secretly marking cards was only one of many techniques by which gamblers fleeced suckers. An expert “mechanic” could shuffle cards while palming another pack, deal specific cards to selected players, or hand out “seconds” and “bottoms” with moves that were virtually impossible to detect.
“I’ve seen fellows pick every card in a pack, and call it without missing once,” Tom Ellison noted. “A sucker had no more chance against those fellows than a snowball in a red-hot oven.”
Cheating did not end with the riverboat era. Later, more elaborate techniques emerged, including the use of tiny mirrors that allowed a look at cards as they were dealt, pins that left telltale pricks in specific cards, and “holdouts,” contrivances of clips and pulleys that helped a player stash valuable cards up a false sleeve or under the table for future use.
A commercial market grew up in these “advantage tools.” A New York City distributor advertised decks of marked cards at $1.25, or $10 a dozen. The company’s advertisements stated, “There is but one way to gamble successfully, and that is to get Tools to work with and have the best of every Game you get into .”