There are two things we all know for sure about the Old West (the Wild West in case you were wondering). The first is that cowboys spent a great deal of time out in the wilderness alone, with no company but their horses and guns.
The second thing we know is that cheating at poker was an easy way to get yourself gunned down. We all know that scene, right? A cowboy gets caught with an ace up his sleeve, and then the guns start blazing, and when the smoke clears half the saloon is lying dead on the floor.
It’s a well-known scene, but does it accurately reflect how gambling went down, in the old days of the USA? I decided to have a little scratch around the Internet, and see what I could turn up.
Old West Gambling Origins
When I first started researching, my biggest fear was that I would learn that Old West gambling was not as violent as we had been led to believe in the movies. Imagine my astonishment when I learned that not only was gambling violent, unregulated and completely out of control in the Old West, but that movies really tended to play down just how bad it was.
It turns out that gambling in the Old West originated in New Orleans, with French settlers playing a game very similar to modern poker. The game’s popularity spread like wild fire, and soon New Orleans gained a reputation for being an area where you could go to play games of chance with cards. The first gambling house opened in 1822 in New Orleans, and many similar establishments sprang up around it.
Take note that gambling was outlawed in the rest of the Louisiana territory from 1811. The popularity of gambling spread unhindered, however, up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, since very little was done to enforce gambling laws, or regulate gambling in any way at all. And this complete lack of regulation is how spouts of violence, rapidly became associated with gambling.
Card “Sharpers” And Poker Table Murder
A “sharper” in the Old West referred to a person who was a professional gambler. It also, however, quickly became synonymous for a person who cheated at cards. That devices were made and openly sold at the time, with the sole purpose of helping you cheat at cards, should give an idea of just how bad it was. Sharpers loved such devices, and there was very little in the way of law enforcement stopping them form using the devices every chance they got.
A common practice was for Sharpers to hang around in gambling halls, keeping an eye out for new arrivals to the west. Upon spotting a naïve new pioneer, whose pockets were almost always full of life savings, Sharpers would lure them over to a game of cards. The poor souls and their life savings were soon parted.
Interestingly, Sharpers tended to think of themselves as professionals, with cheating as their honest profession. The opinion was not shared by the common folk of the time. It is not startling, then, that so many Sharpers started to get gunned down, beaten, stabbed, and thrown overboard boats cruising up the Mississippi.
Proper regulations did eventually start being introduced to gambling in the Old West, of course, and the outrageous levels of cheating and violence started to subside. But, it was a good many decades before this happened, so there must have been an awful lot of Sharper bodies washing up on the shores of the Mississippi.
I personally find it both comforting, and rather disturbing, that gambling really was as out of control as portrayed in the movies. Comforting to know that I don’t have to scoff at movies that depict cheaters being gunned down, and disturbing because my idea of what it was like in the Old West just got a whole lot grimmer. I fully accept that cowboys in the Old West had to deal with snakes in their boots, and fighting for ownership of an especially lucrative stretch of land. But that a Sharper was lurking around almost every corner to cheat you just seems unfair.
I guess we can all give a sigh of relief that in online casinos not only is it impossible to cheat, but the likelihood of being gunned down at the table, or getting caught in the crossfire of a gun battle, is very slim. I do still recommend wearing a cowboy hat when playing at online casinos; in my opinion nothing sets the mood better.