THE HISTORY OF POKER
THE PLAYERS—19TH CENTURY LEGENDS
Poker was a very different game in the 19th century, and so were its players. Gaining massive popularity during the 19th century in the Mississippi River region, the card game became an essential part of the new American frontier ethos.
It was a game of pioneers and risk-takers during that era, with gunfights erupting over cards being reasonably common. When we look at poker's history, it is perhaps these players who seem the most mythical. But, given the context and background of the wild West, they are literal legends from an exciting time in the past.
Here we look at the most important players of the game. We start from some 19th-century legends; when poker was in its infancy and at the height of its wildness.
WILD BILL HICKOK
James Butler Hickok, also known as "Wild Bill Hickok," was more than just a poker player. Living through the American Civil War as a soldier and spy for the Union Army, he took on the roles of actor, scout, marksman, and professional poker player over his life.
Although there are no records of his poker career, Wild Bill Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979—the inaugural year. For many, Wild Bill Hickock represented the wildness that used to be part and parcel of poker in the 19th century.
On August 1st, 1876, Wild Bill Hickock played his last poker game at the "Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10" in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Usually, he would sit facing the entrance, but only inside-facing seats were available on that fateful day. He was shot dead by a drunk man who wanted revenge for losing a lot at the poker table to Hickok on the previous day.
He was playing either a five-card stud or a five-card draw at the time of his death. The hand he was holding when he got shot was two black pairs of aces and eights. Even to date, this hand is known as the "dead man's hand." It was popularized by a book written by a journalist fifty years after Wild Bill's death.
Many claim stories about Wild Bill Hickok are exaggerated, with some even casting doubt over his poker prowess. Yet, he remains one of the early legends of poker and a symbol of the wild poker era.
Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert, also known as Poker Alice, was an English poker player who became a legendary figure in the American West. Born in Devon, England, she moved to Virginia in the United States for education. In the United States she met the man who became her first husband, who introduced her to poker.
Unfortunately, the first husband passed away soon after their marriage. After his death, she started playing poker seriously to get out of her newfound financial woes. Working as a dealer and a professional player, she started making a name for herself in Deadwood, South Dakota, and became known as Poker Alice to the locals.
Over time, she proved to be an extremely competent poker player, with winnings reaching up to $6,000 per night, which was a massive sum at the time. Equally beautiful as bright, they say she sometimes used her looks to distract male players, however, she won because of her ability to count cards and calculate odds. She was known to carry a gun with her and smoke cigars frequently.
Later in life, she opened her own poker saloon in Fort Meade, South Dakota. Over the next few years—until she died in 1930—she became an infamous outlaw character, often brushing with the law but always being "true to her values."
Like Wild Bill Hickok and Poker Alice, Wyatt Earp's life was also primarily about two things—poker and the wild West. Playing many roles throughout his life, he was best known as a poker player, an expert gunfighter, and a U.S. Marshall.
Along with John "Doc" Holiday—another man of similar interests—Wyatt Earp spent most of his life fighting the old West's outlaws. They were also known for their shared interest in poker. While some details of their poker antics are possibly fabricated, they still rank as some of the early pioneers of the game.
A WILD TIME FOR POKER
During the early days of poker in the 19th century, the world was remarkably different from how it is today. Poker was a brand-new game that captured the curiosity of an entire generation and era.
In our upcoming articles, we’ll tell you about subsequent generations of legendary players and their contributions to the game in the 20th century.