Games of Chance

fivecarddeluxe.jpgFolks in the Old West didn’t have movies, radio or TV.  Music and theatrical performances had to be enjoyed on the spot.  Even books were rare treasures in many parts of the country.  So what was the most popular form of amusement?  Bet you can’t guess (that’s a hint).

Right!  It was gambling!

Gambling was a Western mania.  And it started long before the arrival of so-called “civilization.”  The Native Americans were avid gamblers, wagering beads, horses, tipis, weapons and (according to some stories) even their wives, on the toss of a carved bone, the flight of an arrow or the speed of a runner.  Early mountain men played against them—and probably lost.

The whites who came west tended to be risk takers, with gambling in their blood.  Men, women, even children gambled—on the trail, in their homes, at work, at celebrations, even in jail.  When a new town sprang up, one of the first businesses was likely to be a gambling hall, even if it had to be set up in a tent.

People gambled to get money or property from others.  They gambled for the thrill of risk-taking.  But mostly they gambled just to pass the time and be sociable.  Gambling took many forms.  Here are just a few of them. 

Wagering.  Anything with an uncertain outcome was fair game.  A horse race, a fight, a shooting match, the toss of a coin, even the weather.  Spinner games like roulette and wheels of fortune could be counted on to draw a crowd.

Dice games—these could be played almost anywhere, and dice were easy to carry.  Fortunes were won and lost on a single roll of the dice.  One tricky game called Hazard involved a set of three dice and a numbered board.

Faro—this was the most played casino card game.  A faro table could be found in almost every saloon in the Old West.  The game involved a board with pictures of cards on it.  Players laid chips on the pictures to bet on which number would be drawn from a deck of cards.  An abacus kept track of the numbers drawn.

Card Games—these were probably the most popular of all, and poker was king.  The game Wild Bill Hickock was playing when he was shot is legendary.  The cards in his hand, aces and eights, are known to this day as the “dead man’s hand.”  Hearts and Blackjack had their fans, too.

Gambling machines came along late in the 19th Century.  These could be set up anywhere, even some places where gambling was prohibited, and they didn’t require an operator to run them.  The first automatic three-reel slot machine was invented in the early 1900s.  It became wildly popular and is to this day.

Where there was gambling, there was cheating.  There were countless ways to cheat; and the consequences of getting caught could be grim.  But that’s a story for another time.

I’m not a gambler myself unless you count an occasional board game with the grandkids (try beating a little guy who cheats at Candy Land).  But we all enjoy reading and writing about the ultimate gamble….Love.  How about you?  Who’s your favorite Old West gambler?  Are you a game player?  A risk-taker?  Do you have favorite game? 

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

17 thoughts on “Games of Chance”

  1. Elizabth, I like the occasional scratch off tickets, since it is supose to go to the education program but i have never enjoyed watching sports on T.V. and my husband is a total sports freak so the only way i have found to enjoy the occasional football game with him is i have placed a wager on it they offer it threw the comp. where you can bet on games and i have found to be very lucky at this 9 out of 10 i will peg it on the money for the game how i do this i do not know all i know about the game is the name of the teams it makes my husband furious when i win because he has envested alot of time over years of knowing these games and the players he can tell you all about them but i can not but i CAN pick the winner!

  2. Good subject, Elizabeth! I’ve always said it’s probably a good thing I don’t live near Las Vegas. I’d probably spend a lot of time in casinos, and spend a lot of money, too. 🙂 I do manage to win or break even most times when I do gamble in a casino setting. Blackjack is my game.

    Years ago, when we lived in Southern California, we’d make one trip a year to Las Vegas, usually in early December. In those days (late 60’s, early 70’s) it wasn’t so crowded. One memorable trip I could do nothing wrong. Standing around waiting for friends, I put in three silver dollars and hit $100.

    Late one night about to call it a day, we didn’t sleep much for three night, I tried my hand at baccarat when a nice young dealer said, “Come on, it’s not hard, I’ll teach you.” Cleared 50 bucks in short order.

    We went on a cruise for our 35th anniversary. I sat at a blackjack table on the last night and won $600. Again, I could do nothing wrong. Even a priest seated next to me asked if he could touch my shoulder for good luck. (I didn’t know priests gambled!)

    My secret for success? Well, I don’t have one, other than I take a set amount to gamble with. If I lose it the first night, I’m done! I, however, never go with the mindset that I’ll lose. Uh-uh. I go to win!

    Once, on the Vegas strip, a dealer got a little impatient with me when I took a bit longer to make-up my mind than he thought I should. He was just a tad rude, “Let’s move along, ma’am.”
    Well, that ticked me off. I stared him in the face, and said, “Sir, I don’t mind you taking my money when I’m playing a game of chance, but by gum you’ll do it graciously!” The pit boss heard me, and in no time at all he rotated the dealer off that table.

    It’s probably a good thing I didn’t live in the Old West days. I’d have probably been shot! 🙂

    And I loved going to Del Mar track once a year. Probably not surprising, since we owned horses. My husband and I took a turn around San Luis Rey Downs training track one Sunday. He rode our mustang…and left me in his dust!

    Thanks for clearing up exactly what the game of Faro is, Elizabeth. I wasn’t entirely sure.

  3. Good morning! (yawn) Love your stories Lori and Joyce. You both sound like lucky ladies. Glad you put that dealer in his place, Joyce. I do believe in luck–because I don’t have it. I never win anything, not even door prizes. I have a friend who wins every drawing she enters and even won a fridge on The Price is Right.
    Vegas is a six-hour drive for me on I-15. Haven’t been in years because I’ll just throw money away. Thanks for the delightful start to my day.

  4. I’m not a gambler myself, although I am competitive when it comes to games. I do have a hero in one of my as yet unpublished novels who is a gambler. I’ve had fun with this guy who is good at heart, but fell into gambling as a way to live when he left home at a young age. Of course, since this is an inspirational book, he will be redeemed by the end. But I love the character, because you see both sides of him.

  5. Amen, Mary. Come to think of it, writing is a gamble, too. And we all love the gambler hero with a heart of gold (think Maverick). Your book sounds wonderful, Vickie.
    I have a delicious gambler hero in a book that’s never sold. Maybe I’ll dust it off…

  6. Morning, Elizabeth! What a wonderful topic. I love games. I might as well admit that I’m addicted to some games. I like trekking to casinos and plunking my rear down at the Wheel of Fortune slot machine. That’s my favorite one. But, I’m different than most casino junkies – I know when to stop. And I don’t wager away my house payment or food money. I take just what I can afford to lose and when that’s gone, I’m done.

    At home I’m addicted to a Yahtzee hand-held game. I can play that silly thing for hours. It’s great relaxation to me. But when grandchildren come, we play the real Yahtzee or Skip-Bo.

    My favorite TV gambler was Maverick, played by James Garner. Now there was an addicted gambler! Loved watching that show.

    Thanks for the enticing subject! 🙂

  7. Hi Elizabeth – I love the subject of gamblers. I liked the original version of Maverick when it was Brett’s story. Remember, he had a brother named Bart, I think. I can’t remember the actor who played him. But James Garner is unforgettable!

    We’re gamers. We play all the time. For my hubby’s birthday, we played Bingo for dollars with the family. It was fun. I love card games, like Phaze 10 and Uno and we play board games, DVD games, everything. I have a very competitive family!

  8. Was it Jack Kelly who played Bart? The name rings a bell, but it’s been a long time.
    Sounds like your family has a lot of fun, Charlene. Games are a great way to get people together. Wish my family had done more of that.

  9. I love games – any kind. If I could play games for a living I would lol. Black jack was always my favorite but unfortunately the minimums are so high I just can’t bring myself to play anymore. I do play slots but there’s not a lot of skill to that which means you really aren’t putting much into it but your money. I loved playing games with my kids and even now that they’re grown, we’ll have get togethers and play board games, cards and now the Wii 🙂 I have a group of friends that we’ve gotten addicted to a card game called Sock and Shoe – a Canasta type game. And of course now there are the games online…

  10. I’m not much of a gambler either, but I enjoy reading about them 🙂 The kids are really into playing Trouble right now. They aren’t quite old enough to learn mahjohng yet 😉

  11. Thanks for your comments, Colleen, Jeanne, Estella and Fedora. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know where some of these games came from? A lot of the card games haven’t changed in a century or more. And mahjohng, I think, has been played by the Chinese for hundreds of years.
    Does anybody know?
    The one game I really get into is Monopoly. I am a wicked player. 🙂

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