Folks 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?