The Western Romance genre is strictly American, nowhere else in the world can lay a claim to the “Old West”. Other countries had their wild and rowdy times, but no one else had the vast open land west of the Mississippi—land of promise, change, beauty, wonder and riches. Of course there was also pain, hardship, broken dreams and death. Men had to be bold, women tough. But above all, they had to be willing to gamble.
People of all walks of life went west. Rich and poor alike. Single men and women and families. Those with trades and those with nothing more than dreams. And it was one big gamble. Not just with their lives, but with their money and possessions.
Though it’s somewhat of a slapstick movie concerning gambling in the old west, I love the move Maverick with James Garner and Mel Gibson. It portrays how acceptable gambling was.
As communities formed, some local laws were put into place, but ultimately, gambling wasn’t illegal. It was a much sought after activity and in some instances, the only hope people had. Prostitution wasn’t illegal either, and very few, if any, laws governed guns, alcohol, or drugs.
Just like those who set up other businesses—trading posts, hotels, bath houses, blacksmith shops and general stores—those setting up gaming halls were welcomed, especially by groups building churches and schools. Many gambling entrepreneurs were known for their generosity, and community leaders recognized that.
Gambling wasn’t any more taboo than riding a horse or wearing a gun. It was a part of life. Not even churches preached against gambling until after the temperament movement. Ultimately, gambling played a huge role in winning the west.
Poker was a popular game, mainly stud. The cards consisted of a deck of twenty cards. Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten in the four suits. Cards were dealt and there was no drawing for a better hand—that came in later when decks of 52 become more popular.
Three Card Monte—three cards were placed face down, quickly shuffled around, and then the player was to choose a specific card. Slight of hand made this game a con man’s dream, and it soon became the one game outlawed.
Faro was the most popular game and played in every gambling house. The player played against the dealer in this high card betting game.
In August of 1876 when Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed in Deadwood, South Dakota while sitting at a poker table, it is said he was holding a hand that contained two aces and two eights—all black. (The identity of his fifth card varies.) This hand, aces and eights, became known as “Dead Man’s Hand.” In the 1920’s, not during the old west! There was no actual account of what cards Wild Bill was holding at his time of death, or even if he was in the midst of a game. Nonetheless, Wild Bill and his ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ was indicted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979.
As towns matured, they passed laws concerning gambling, not making it illegal, but on taxing it to pay for other city needs. For many communities, it was taxed into extinction.