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Gambling in the Old West

Published on 7 March 2017 by Adam


Gambling in the Old WestWith NetEnt’s recent new slot release – Wild Wild West: The Great Train Heist, we thought we’d linger a while longer under the high noon sun on the dusty roads of The Old West to pay homage to some of the oldest forms of gambling in America, both as represented in film and as found in reality.

Film, Gambling, and More

The Spaghetti Western movie genre has been around since soon after the birth of film. And it is a genre that refuses to let up in terms of popularity. Perhaps, this is because very few nations have pumped so much effort into weaving artistic representations of a time and place so closely tied with their own national identity’s birth; a time and place that saw the transformation from Europeans into Americans through the emphasis of values such as equality, optimism, democracy, individualism, and self-reliance, at times filtered through violence. And while film and other fiction might have contributed to a somewhat exaggerated mental image of the amount of violence at the time, there surely was no shortage of it.

Now, if you’ve had your fair share of Spaghetti Western fiction, you probably know that scenes featuring saloons with players competing at Poker or other games of skill and luck are a staple to the genre. It’s hard to recollect images from movies such as Calamity Jane or Tombstone, TV series such as Deadwood, or even top-grossing videogames like Red Dead Redemption, and fail to mention the vignettes charged with electric anticipation and dread during which a quiet game of Poker marks the calm before it breaks out into a lawless shootout storm or a hand of outlaw justice is dealt cold. And again, while fictional representations may tend to stretch our interpretation of reality a tad too far, there is ample fact at its root. One instance of this is what is known as “Dead Man’s Hand”. This is a Poker hand that is made up of 2 aces and 2 eights, all black. This card combination inherited its name when scout, shrewd lawman, and adept pistolero Wild Bill Hickock was shot dead during a game of poker. He was found holding that exact combination of cards at his time of death.

So, whether as filtered through fiction or as found in fact, we can safely say that saloons in The Old West offered fur-trappers, cowboys, soldiers, miners, gold-prospectors, and gamblers a thin veil of entertainment and respite that could instantly reveal a chaotic fray. There, patrons could enjoy a spectacle of dancing girls and tunes by the resident pianist while playing a few hands of Poker, Brag, Three Card Monte, Faro or tacking their luck onto the dice. Later on, real-time action games like shooting pool and darts were also brought onto the scene. Let’s take a closer look at some of the games that date back to these tumultuous yet exciting times.

Poker, the Old Western Style

Poker back then was a simpler variant than the ones played nowadays with a different pack of cards and rules. This could be considered a stud variation. The deck was made up of 20 cards divided into 4 suites – ace, king, queen, jack, and ten. A total of 4 players was allowed at any one time. Each player was dealt 5 cards, meaning that the entire deck would be used from the get-go and no further drawing was possible.

What are nowadays known as “full house” and “three of a kind” were called “full” and “triplets” respectively. There was no such thing as a “flush” since the reduced amount of cards and the suites available automatically resulted in a “straight “flush”.

Another prominent game at the time was known as Jackpots, the modern-day rendition of which is Five-Card Draw Poker. Doc Holliday was known to play this one often. Also, it’s the game Wild Bill Hickok was playing when he was shot dead and inadvertently patented the “Dead Man’s Hand”.

Other Saloon Favourite Card Games

The other three card games on offer at most saloons back in the day were Brag, Faro, and Three Card Monte.

Brag was simply a poker variation with only three cards.

Faro, a house-banked game, utilised only 2 cards – the ace and the king. As the dealer drew two cards, the player’s and the dealer’s, players would bet on the ranking of the card. You’d win by betting on the player’s card and lose by betting on the other. Otherwise, you could bet on the “high-card”, resulting in your win if your card, the player’s, would have a higher rank than the dealer’s.

Three Card Monte has survived as a street game in some regions. Probably, the reason why it never retained its level of popularity with the passing of time is due to the realisation that it is, by and large, a con game. The dealer places three cards facing down, and you, the player, must follow your card as he mixes them up in plain sight. While it’s possible to play it as a fair game, shrewd dealers tend to be card sharps and use dexterity and sleight of hand to make it impossible for you to win.

Rolling Dice in the Old West

Betting money on games of skills and luck went beyond simply card games. You could test your luck on a few games of dice rolling. And this usually happened in one of three interpretations – Chuck a Luck, Grand Hazard, or High-Low.

Chuck a Luck made use of three large 6-sided dice. Players would bet on the turnout of the roll. Your betting options included wagering on single numbers, the total number of the three dice combined, and on a triple of the same. The pay-out depended largely the odds of winning.

Grand Hazard was a similar yet slightly different version of Chuck a Luck. Players would wager on the dice’s total (between 4 and 17). Otherwise, they could place their bets on odd or even, high or low, triples (aka raffles), and single numbers respective to each die.

High-Low’s rules were quite simple: you’d bet on the total of a die roll as being higher or lower than a certain number.

Wrapping It Up

The sun has set on the gone days of saloons, steers and showdowns a long time ago, leaving images of heroism and notoriety cached in our minds thanks to instances of fiction and history books. And even though most games of skills and luck have transformed over time, we can still get a taste of the good old times with a few hands of poker while sipping on a shot of aged bourbon or scotch, while listening to Johnny Cash in the background.


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