CommunityHistory

A Tailing Tale

Of Poker Alice, Wild West gambler extraordinaire

By Maggie Magoffin

A steady stream of miners, ranchers, and cowhands, filtered in and out of the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. An inexperienced musician playing an out-of-tune accordion squeezed out a familiar melody while ushering the pleasure seekers inside. Burlap curtains were pulled over the dusty windows, and fans that hung down from the ceiling turned lazily.

A distressed mahogany bar stood along one wall of the business, and behind it was a surly looking bartender. He was splashing amber liquid into glasses as fast as he could. A row of tables and chairs occupied the area opposite the bar. Every seat was filled with a card player. Among the male gamblers was one woman. Everyone called her Poker Alice. She was an alarming beauty, fair-skinned, and slim. She had one eye on the cards she was dealing, and another on the man seated at a game two tables down.

Warren G. Tubbs was studying his cards in his hand so intently he didn’t notice the huge man next to him get up and walk around behind him. The huge man with massive shoulders and ham-like hands that hung low to his sides, peered over Tubb’s shoulder and scowled down at the mountain of chips before him. Alice’s intensely blue eyes carefully watched the brute’s actions. He casually reached back at his belt and produced a sharp knife from the leather sheath hanging off his waist. Just as he was about to plunge the weapon into Tubb’s back, a gunshot rang out.

A sick look filled the man’s face, and the frivolity in the saloon came to a halt. He slowly dropped the knife. Before dropping to his knees, he turned in the direction of the bullet that hit him. Alice stared back at him, her .38-calliber pistol pointed at his head. The man fell face-first onto the floor.

The gambler’s corpse was quickly removed to make way for another player. In a matter of minutes, the action in the tavern returned to normal. Tubbs caught Alice’s gaze and grinned. He nodded to her and waggled his fingers in a kind of salute. She smiled slightly and turned her attention wholly back to the poker game in front of her.

Alice Ivers never sat down to play poker without holding at least one gun. She generally carried a pistol in the pocket of her dress and oftentimes had a backup weapon in her purse. The frontier was rough and wild, and wearing a gun, particularly while playing cards, was a matter of survival. It was a habit for Poker Alice.

Alice was born on February 17, 1851, in Sudbury, Devonshire, England. Some historians claim her father was a teacher while others maintain he was a lawyer. He brought his wife and family to the United States in 1863. They settled first in Virginia and later moved to Ft. Meade, Colorado.

Like most people at the time, the Ivers family was lured westward by gold. No matter what gold rush town her family was living in, Alice always attended school. She was a bright young girl who excelled in math. The yellow-haired, precocious child quickly grew into a handsome woman, attracting the attention of every eligible bachelor in the area. Eventually, Frank Duffield, a mining engineer, won her heart and hand. After the two married, he escorted his bride to Lake City, Colorado, where he easily found employment in that mining community. The southwestern Colorado silver camp was an unrefined, isolated location with very little to offer in terms of entertainment. With the exception of watching the cardsharps and high-hatted gamblers make a fortune off the luckless miners, there was nothing but work to occupy the time.

Bored with life as a simple homemaker and unfettered by convention, Alice began to visit the gambling parlors. Her husband and his friends taught her how to play a variety of poker games, and in no time she became an exceptional player. The fact that she was a mathematical genius added tremendously to her talent.

Most every night, Alice was seated at the faro table at the Gold Dust Gambling House, dealing cards and challenging fast-talking thrill seekers to “put their money into circulation.” She won the majority of hands she played, whether it was five-card draw, faro, or blackjack. Her days of gambling for pleasure came to an end when Frank was killed in a mining accident. Left with no other viable means of support, Alice decided to turn her hobby into a profession.

Some well-known gamblers, such as Jack “Lucky” Hardesty, were not as accepting of a woman cardsharp as others. Hardesty made his thoughts on the subject plainly known one evening when he sat down at a faro table and glanced across the green felt at Alice. He refused to play against her, insisting that faro was a man’s game.

Alice didn’t shy away from the verbal assault. She calmly conveyed her intention to remain at the table until he dealt her hand. Hardesty eventually gave in, but before he let her have any cards, he warned her not to cry when she lost to him. Poker Alice grinned.

At the end of the night, Hardesty was out everything. Alice had won more than $1,500 from him and the other men who wagered on the game. Curious onlookers were reported to have remarked that he had “lost his money like he had a hole in his pocket as big as a stove pipe.” Hardesty attributed Alice’s numerous wins to luck alone.

Alice took that so-called luck out of Colorado to other gambling spots in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and South Dakota. The name Poker Alice meant increased business for gaming houses. People flocked to see the highly skilled poker player “packing a heavy load of luck” and puffing on a thin black stogie. Alice’s reputation preceded her. At every town she was offered twenty-five dollars a night plus a portion of her winnings to act as dealer for the gaming parlor.

Excerpts taken from The Lady was a Gambler by Chris Enss.

I’m still looking for local stories for this column. Please contact me at Maggie@maggiempubliications.com or mail your stories to me at PO Box 6571, Westminster, Colorado 80021. Beginning Friday, June 26th through September, I will be at the Cholua Brothers Old Time Coffee Store on Gregory Street in Black Hawk every Friday from 12 noon to 4 pm. Please stop by, and I’ll be happy to sign a copy of Dead Man Walking or just sit awhile and chat.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button