Poker in the Old West

The image of tables full of cowboys and dandified gamblers playing poker in saloons has become an icon of the Old West. Unlike many national myths, this one has more than a grain of truth to it. In fact, the smallest frontier burgs from St. Louis to San Francisco, from Deadwood to Tombstone, had their own saloons and poker tables.

The website Legends of America recounts a fascinating tale of riverboat gambling in 1832. It seems that during one trip, three professional gamblers and a naive traveler from Natchez, Mississippi, were playing poker.

The game was rigged, and soon the Natchez man lost all his money. Crushed, he tried to throw himself overboard to drown, but was prevented by another passenger.

Hearing the young man’s tale of woe, his rescuer decided to join the poker game. During a subsequent high-stakes hand, the stranger discovered one of the gamblers cheating.

He pulled a gigantic knife on the cardsharp, supposedly yelling: “Show your hand! If it contains more than five cards I shall kill you!”

When the knife-wielding challenger grabbed the cheater’s arm, six cards fell to the table. Confronted with the evidence, the stranger collected the $70,000 pot, presenting the Natchez man with $50,000 and keeping $20,000 himself.

Stunned, the Natchez man gasped out, “Who the devil are you, anyway?” The stranger with the enormous knife responded, “I am James Bowie.”

Such was the legend of poker along the American frontier, where it reigned supreme among the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and his partner Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, among hundreds of others.

Of all these famous Westerners, Wild Bill Hickok has the most enduring connection to poker, and in this instance his experience was observed and recorded. Legends of America recounts this story:

Wild Bill Hickok and several men, including one Jack McCall, were playing poker in a Deadwood, South Dakota, saloon on the evening of Aug. 1, 1876. McCall was a big loser that night, but Hickok, who was town marshal, kindly staked the man to enough money for a meal, and counseled McCall to stay out of poker games until he could pay off his evening’s losses.

The next afternoon Wild Bill went into Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon, where he found his favorite seat at the poker table already occupied. Hickok hesitated, but decided to join the game anyway, sitting down with his back to the door.

At the bar behind Hickok was Jack McCall, drinking up his grubstake from Wild Bill and brooding over his losses. When he saw Hickok join his regular table, McCall drew his pistol, shouted “Take that!” and fired a .45-caliber slug straight into the back of Wild Bill’s head. The lawman fell over dead, holding a poker hand containing two pairs: aces and eights.

Ever since, that card combination has been known among veteran poker players as the “dead man’s hand.”