In one way or another, stories about the golden times of the Wild West have captured my attention and imagination since infancy. The old time movies and shows like Bonanza and Kung Fu made me fall in love with this time of high perils and high rewards. For a long time, I dreamt about cowboys, saloons, and quick draw duels at the break of dawn or noon. As I became older, this fascination expanded as my love for the games of chance grew.
Gambling was a big part of life in the West. Coupled with drinking whisky and the brothels, gambling was one of the most important forms of entertainment for all the Western men, whether they were straight-shooters or outlaws. Gambling was not a leisure activity in the West; it was considered as a legitimate way to make a living.
In the States, these age-old gamblers are responsible for playing and popularizing interesting games that would later develop into the regular games we see in any casino nowadays. Brag, for example, was an ancestor of Poker. The game was played only with by giving three faced down cards to each player, who would later bet depending in how strong their dealt hand was. Bluffing, of course, was a key strategy of this game.
The most popular game in the early West was the bold Faro. The name of the game derives from the word “Pharaoh”. The story behind its etymology dates to the court of Louis XV. The King’s gambling partners named the game after an Egyptian pattern in the back of the cards. On this game, players would try to predict the order in which cards were going to be drawn from a deck of 52 cards. A green felt board with the card numbers was used where the players would place the bet or bets on the cards they thought were going to be drawn. This game relies heavily on luck and needs little strategy, which is why it was such a popular crowd pleaser.
Several faro players made a serious fortune and were able to break many faro banks on their way. One of the most famous or infamous faro players of those days was Charles Cora. An Italian immigrant, he won more than $85,000 in a half a year span and got himself banned from many establishments across Louisiana and the Mississippi.
A bunch of these players would later leave the bayou for the gold crazed crowds in San Francisco, California which, as most of us know, was considered by many westerners as the new El Dorado. And no house in San Francisco was more important or prestigious than the Parker House. Gambling pros paid a $10k monthly fee to be able to play their chips at its VIP rooms. At the peak of its heyday, more than half a million dollars could be stacked per table at this larger-than-life business.
In order to take advantage of the many mining crowds, high profile gamblers like Wyatt Earp and Charles Hoxie follow the trend of the gold rush all the way to Klondike, Canada. They opened the Dexter Saloon and started capitalizing in the liquor and gambling business. Rumor says that after Earp sold his share to Hoxie, he returned home more than $85,000 richer. Other famous gamblers of the Klondike era were Louis “Goldie” Golden, who walked away with a $72,000 pot from a poker game and Harry Woolrich who won and lost $60,000 on the same day.
The end of the gambling days of the Wild West came at the turn of the 20th century, with the anti-gambling and anti-liquor reformation laws and the closing of the border. The only town that opposed these rulings was Nevada, which has in turn become the epicenter of the gambling industry nowadays with its famously decadent and exciting Vegas Strip where modern day gamblers keep the feisty spirit of these cowboy mavericks alive.