Howdy, cow-pokes. The circle of cut-throat varmints sat around dusty poker tables is one of the most enduring images from the American Old West, but who were the meanest and most infamous?
The heyday of cowboy gambling lasted from 1850 until 1910, during which time gambling halls would often be the first building constructed whenever a new camp or settlement was started.
Many frontier gamblers have gone down in history for their daring exploits. These rough 'n' tough saloon sharks came from various walks of life, included both men and women, and typically erred on the wrong side of the law.
Below are ten of the fiercest frontier gamblers who ever lived.
Perhaps the most infamous female frontier shark, ‘Poker Alice’ hailed from Devon, England but quickly gained renown after settling in Virginia.
Rarely seen without a chunky cigar and a fat stack of ill-gotten cash, Ivers became the bane of pit bosses everywhere when she broke the bank at a casino in Colorado.
This pro-gambler and gunfighter was a bit of an all-round renaissance man. He used his winnings to fund multiple passions, including travelling and promoting prize fights.
Later, Masterson procured enough moolah to set up his own Olympic Athletic Club, through which he promoted up-and-coming boxers (and organised pools on matches).
This notorious outlaw is perhaps best known for his part in the O.K. Corall gunfight (which he survived). A tuberculosis sufferer, Holiday knew his days were numbered and was therefore utterly without fear, a fact reflected in his gambling habits.
He was taught to gamble from a young age by a black, female friend of the family and became a card player with a count as deadly as his aim.
Miss Dumont was French by birth, arriving in Nevada in the 1850s. A skilled blackjack dealer and card counter, she opened her own gambling den shortly after hitting the States and mostly catered to miners.
Despite her nickname, Dumont was highly respected by her ultra-macho clientele, who would come to blows over the honour of sitting at her table.
Jefferson ‘Soapy’ Smith was a slippery customer, in more ways than one. Aside from making a killing at standard table games, Smith also ran a scam that earned him his nickname.
He would show a crowd between $1 and $100, wrap the cash up in a bar of soap, place it amongst normal soap bars and invite the crowd to auction for the bar they thought contained the cash. Accomplices in the crowd would always pick the correct soap bar, while Smith pocketed the profits.
This young Texan belle settled in Deadwood, South Dakota – a legendary Dakotan scum hole. Soon after arriving, she used her copious gambling winnings to set up the Mint Gambling Saloon along with Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.
It was said that LeRoy was always armed, owning over a dozen guns and knives, which she wasn’t shy of brandishing in a pinch.
One of the most legendary figures from the American West, Wyatt Earp was actually listed as a professional gambler in the 1887 San Diego City Directory.
Like Doc Holiday, he feared nothing and brought an aggressive playing style to the poker tables. His success eventually allowed him to purchase a six-horse stable in San Francisco and settle down until his death in 1929 at the age of 80.
Although lesser-known than Poker Alice, Lottie Deno was arguably the more prolific and successful gambler of the two. She had the distinction of fleecing Doc Holiday at poker on one occasion, earning the title ‘Poker Queen.’
She eventually retired in comfort; her fortune made, and lived to the extremely respectable age of 89.
A killer on and off the tables, James ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok certainly lived up to his moniker. He was involved in a number of shootouts, killing several men in the process, and spied for the Union Army during the Civil War.
However, he died with cards in his hand, taking a bullet to the back after busting out a competitor. His last hand (said to be two pair, black aces and eights with an unknown hole card) was thereafter known as the ‘dead man’s hand.’
Dona Barcelo’s fame stemmed from misfortune. After her husband left her, she was left destitute and turned to gambling to support herself and her children.
Fortunately, this Southern beauty turned out to have a knack for cards and became a favourite of Mexican locals in Santa Fe, who dubbed her as ‘la Tules’ (Spanish for ‘thin’ or ‘reed’). Barcelo eventually became the richest woman in the city as well as the most famous female gambler of her time.
Originally published on 30/04/14. Updated 22/06/17.