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History of Gambling in the Old West

By Randy Ray in General
| March 31, 2017 12:00 am PDT
Old West Gambling Feature Image

People in the old west were known to bet on anything they could. This ranged from card games to boxing matches.

This post about old west gambling history will tell you about famous gamblers in history and many gambling events players bet on that are still popular today. You’ll also read about some betting that has been outlawed in the United States and elsewhere around the world.



Faro was the most popular game found in old west gambling establishments. It involved one person being the dealer which they would call a banker and several players that were called punters. It typically took 10 to 15 minutes to play and it was a fast game that gave you better odds than most other games at the time.

Dealer cheating was a common problem in this game, dealers would cheat in various ways such as rigging the deck or altering the dealing box they use to draw the cards.

Faro would be played by lying a board down that had one suit of cards attached to it in numerical order; you could stake your bets on one or several cards at a time.

Then the dealer would draw out two cards from the dealing box. One of the cards was a dealer’s card which was the losing card and the other was the player’s card which was the winning card. Winning didn’t count on suit, only the numerical value of the card.

Any bets that were placed on card numbers that weren’t drawn would be left there for the next round. Bets placed on cards with the numerical value of the dealers went to him. Bets placed on the numerical value of the players got paid 1 to 1.

Faro was popular because it was a short game that was fast paced and easy to learn.

Three card Monte

Three card Monte is also known as find the lady and the three card trick. It involves 3 cards from any deck and takes 5 to 10 minutes to play.

Three card Monte is an easy game to play; a dealer takes three cards and put them face down on a table or flat surface such as a cardboard box.

The dealer picks up one card and shows it to you, this is the target card, then they put it back face down and they quickly shuffle and rearrange the three cards. You pick which card you believe is the target card. If you pick correctly you win the amount you bet, doubled. If you lose the dealer keeps what you bet.

Common cards that dealer chose to be the target cards are:

  • Jack of spades
  • Jack of clubs
  • Queen of hearts
  • And Ace of spades

Three card Monte was often found being played on the street and is known for being a scheme. The dealer sets up and his partner that’s disguised as an everyday player starts the game. They make it appear as though the dealer is terrible at the game and the player is winning it every time. The dealer also shuffles the cards slowly, this causes the audience to follow along and gain the confidence that they could find the target card.

The partner soon takes his fake winnings and allows other real paying players to try their luck. The dealer often lets them win the first few round in order to get them to bet even more, then when the bet it high enough they will speed up their shuffling and make it difficult for you to find the target.

This shady scheme often caused fights and law enforcement to break out which is why dealers play on cardboard tables, to allow for quick pack up so they can run off with their winnings.

Many other tactics of dealer cheating can be found in playing this game including sleight of hand and a bent corner variation.

Vingt et Un

Vint et Un is the French name for Blackjack or twenty one. Blackjack is a popular game that’s found in many gambling establishments throughout the world. The game is usually played with 2 to 6 players and 52 to 416 cards.

The point of this game is for you to get 21 points without going over 21 or to beat the dealers score. If you goes over 21 points this is known as busting.

Here are some common blackjack terms:

  • Hit– this means to have the dealer deal you another card
  • Stand– This means to refuse any further cards. It’s also been called “stand pat”, “stick”, and “stay”. This can be signaled by either waving your hand horizontally or by sliding your cards under the chips.
  • Double down– You commit to receiving only one more card and this increases your initial bet by 100%, making it double what you bet. You can signal this by placing the extra chips beside the original chips you bet but outside the betting box, then pointing to the new chips to show the dealer.
  • Split– If you’re dealt your first two cards and those cards have the same value you can opt to making these two cards into two different hands. To do this you have to put an equal bet to your initial one with the new hand. To signal this, you set extra chips of equal value to your original bet outside the betting box and point two fingers in a V formation.
  • Surrender– Surrender is only available as your first decision of the hand. When you surrender the house gets to take half of your bet and you get the remaining half. To signal this you must do so verbally, there’s no hand signal for this.

You can hit as many times as you want until your hand has reached a score of a hard 20 or above.

House advantage in blackjack rises with the number of decks played. A single deck has a house advantage of 0.17% where as eight decks has a house advantage of 0.65%.

Many rule variations can be found based on where you play; here are some examples of ones you might see:

  • Dealer hits soft 17
  • Number of decks
  • Late or early surrender
  • Hit or resplit split aces
  • Resplitting
  • No double after split
  • No hole card and OBO
  • Double on 9 / 10 / 11 or 10 / 11 only
  • Dealer wins ties
  • And altered payout


Roulette is a table game that’s popular in casinos today. It’s French in decent and the name means little wheel.

Roulette has many betting options that allow you to bet on high, which is numbers 19 to 36, or low, which is numbers 1 to 18, the color of black or red, whether it will be an odd or even number, and on a single number or several different numbers at a time.

A croupier spins the roulette wheel in one direction and in the opposite direction they spin the ball in a circular track that runs around the inside of the roulette wheel. The ball will eventually slow down and drop into a number on the wheel.

In French or European roulette wheels have 37 slots for the ball to fall into one of which is a green colored 0. In American roulette the wheel has 38 slots one of which is a green colored 0 and the other is a green color 00.

Roulette tables have a wheel at the top of the table and under the wheel is the layout of the options for you to place your bet on.

There’re many different types of bets including inside and outside bets.

Inside bets:

  • Straight / Singe
  • Street
  • Corner / Square
  • Split
  • Six Line / Double Street
  • Top Line
  • Basket / First Four
  • Trio

Outside bets:

  • 1 to 18
  • 19 to 36
  • Red or Black
  • Even or Odd
  • Dozen bet
  • Snake bet
  • Column bet

Chuck a luck

Chuck a luck is a game played with 3 dice and has also been called birdcage. It’s sometimes referred to as birdcage because the dice are in a wire cage that’s in the shape of an hourglass and resembles what you would keep a bird in. The cage spins and mixes the dice up, then they land on the bottom.

You make bets before the cage spins based on what you think the combination of dice is going to be.

These are the common bets you can make:

  • Single Die Bet– you bet that at least one of the die shows a specific number
  • Any Triple– you bet that all three dice show the exact same number
  • Big– yet bet that the dice total 11 or higher
  • Small– you bet that the dice total 10 or lower
  • Field– you bet that the dice total anywhere outside of the range 8 12

This is a fun game that’s rarely found in casinos now, but can be found at carnivals or fundraisers.


Poker is a popular bluffing card game found in casinos across the world and often played at home among a group of friends. Poker wasn’t popular when it first showed up in the west because it was a slower paced game but it eventually picked up and could be found in most gambling halls.

Many different variants of poker can be found today such as the three most popular groups: draw poker, stud poker, and community card poker.

But the poker they played in the old west looks different than how we usually play now.

Old west poker decks had twenty cards in them which were the ace, king, queen, jack, and ten in the four traditional suits of hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. All twenty of these cards get dealt out to the players. Draw poker was not originally in the old west so you would have to play with the cards you’ve been dealt.

Old west combinations included:

  • Full– modern day full house
  • Triplets– modern day three of a kind
  • Royal Flush– royal flush was the only flush because there were no cards under ten to allow for a straight flush.


The popular game played today called craps developed from the old west game of hazard. Hazard has more complicated rules than craps but was popular all through the 17th and 18th century. Two die are the only thing needed to play hazard.

Any numbers of players can play at a time but only one person can have dice at a time, this person is called the caster. Before rolling the dice the caster has to say a number between 5 and 9, this number is known as the main.

The caster then rolls the dice. If they land on a 2 or 3, the caster automatically loses. If they land on their predetermined main number, they win.

Winning rolls in hazard are called “nick” or “throw in” while a losing roll is called “throw out”.

This is where the rules get a little tricky, if the caster lands on an 11 or 12 there can be several different outcomes.

The first is if they chose the number 5 or 9 as their main, they throw out.

The second is if they chose the number of 6 or 8, if they landed on an 11 it’s a throw out, but if they landed on a 12 it’s a nick.

The third is if they chose the main number of 7, if they landed on an 11 they throw in, but if they landed on a 12 they throw out.

If the caster rolls neither a nick nor a throw out then it’s called a chance. The caster rolls the dice again. If they roll their main number, they lose. If they roll what the chance was, they win. If they roll neither of these, they keep rolling until they do.

The caster gets to keep being the caster until they lose three times in a row, then the person to the left on them becomes the new caster.

Picking the number 7 as your main number gives you the highest probability of winning at 0.492 and the lowest disadvantage of losing at 1.41%.

The worse number to pick as your main would be 6 or 8 at 0.488 probability of winning and a 2.34% disadvantage.


Old west gamblers placed their bets on anything that could run, human or animal. The most popular races in the old west were foot races and horse races.

Races could include any number of racers and are similar to what we bet on today at race tracks but they wouldn’t run around a ring. Racers would most likely run from one end of town to another or from one landmark to another either on foot or on their horse.

Various forms of gambling on racing can still be found today including horse racing and dog racing.

Boxing matches

Boxing in the old west is nothing like what we bet on today. Today you can find large boxing shows with the best gloves money can buy in huge arenas that are often televised.

Boxing in the old west was known as bare knuckle boxing for the obvious reason that there were no gloves. This method of boxing varies from regular street fights because there are set rules the boxers must follow.

Techniques included throws, chokes, kicks, punching, and arm locks. Many of these techniques have been banned in modern day boxing.

Animal Fighting

People in the old west would bet on anything, that includes animal fighting. Popular animal fights included cockfighting, dogfights, and panther vs. bear fights.

Animal fighting has sense been outlawed in the United States and many other places in the world.


Three card brag, also known as brag, first came about in the 16th century as a British card game that included 4 7 players. A deck of 52 cards is used and it generally takes 5 10 minutes to play.

There are several different variations of brag including:

  • Four card brag
  • Seven card brag
  • Thirteen card brag
  • Fifteen card brag
  • And Bastard brag

To start the game of brag ever player antes, after this they are each dealt three cards that are face down on the table. Starting to the left of the dealer, players begin to either bet or fold. Betting continues around the table until only two players are left in play. At this time either of the two players may double the last bet that was made, this is called “seeing”.

The two players then reveal their hands. The player with the better hand takes the pot unless there’s a tie. If there’s a tie, the player that was “seeing” loses.

Here are the hand ranks from the best to worst:

  • Three of a kind, known as prial (the very best variation of this is having 3 3 3 and then the usual ace, then kings, etc. This is the same with four of a kind where the best variation is 4 4 4)
  • Straight flush, known as running flush (the best variation of this is A 2 3, then A K Q, then the usual K Q J, etc.)
  • Straight, known as run
  • Flush
  • Pair
  • High card

Famous Old West Gamblers

Alice Ivers (Poker Alice)

Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert was born in 1851 in Devonshire, England. She’s better known as Poker Alice Tubbs, Poker Alice, or Poker Alive Ivers.

Alice’s family immigrated to Virginia when she was 12 years old. She met and married her first husband Fran Duffield who got her interested in poker. Shortly after their marriage he was killed in an accident involving dynamite.

The death of her husband left Alice in a bad financial position. Unable to find a job teaching, she turned to poker to earn her living. Alice worked as a dealer and played as a gambler. She would draw large crowds to watch her play and often had men challenge her to games.

Alice kept her values in place and refused to play on Sundays.

On Alice’s best nights she would take home $6,000. Alice has said she won a total of $250,000, which by today standards would be worth more than $3 million.

Alice carried a gun, smoked cigars, and always wore the newest dresses available. She was known as an attractive woman and in conjunction with her good looks to distract the men playing, she also used card counting and figuring odds to win big.

Alice died in 1930 during a gallbladder operation.

John Henry Holliday (Doc)

John Henry Holliday was born in 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. He was known as a gunfighter, gambler, and dentist.

John became a dentist at the age of 21, but shortly after he developed the same disease that killed his mother when he was 15 years old, tuberculosis. He moved to the west because he believed the warmer climate would ease his suffering. This is where he began his gambling career.

John was known as a very skilled gambler and marksman. He was also ambidextrous. His violent reputation was mostly rumors and false tales he told himself.

Throughout the rest of John’s life he relied on laudanum and alcohol to help deal with his tuberculosis, but this caused his gambling skills to deteriorate. He sold all his jewelry and borrowed money to keep up with his gambling.

John died at the young age of 36 in the year of 1887. His last words were “This is funny” he said this because he died without his boots on.

He has been portrayed in a large handful of movies and books including one of my favorites, Tombstone.

Eleanor Dumont (Madame Moustache)

Elanor Dumont was born in 1834 in France. She went by the name of Madame Moustache because of her small line of dark hair on her upper lip. Eleanor moved to America as a young woman and worked as a card dealer and gambler in many states including California, South Dakota, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, and more.

She moved to Nevada City, California to open a gambling establishment called Vingt et un. No women were allowed in her establishment and only men who were well kept would be allowed in. She was known as a private lady of beauty and charm. Men would be drawn to her gambling parlor because she was a women dealer which was very rare in their time.

She also opened another gambling establishment and purchased a ranch with animals. This is when she met a man named Jack McKnight who she fell in love with, but he ran off with all her money.

She decided to travel and build her money up again by gambling on her way. Her age and stress increased and this is when her mustache began to grow.

She earned the title of Madame when we ran a brothel in the 1860s.

One night while staying in Bodie, California she lost a hand and owed all her money plus more. At the realization of this, she committed suicide with an overdose of morphine.

Jefferson Randolph Smith II (Soapy Smith)

Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born in 1860 in Georgia. He was known as a gangster, crime boss, con artist, and saloon and gambling house proprietor.  He was originally born into a well educated and wealthy family but after the American Civil War his family was broke. They moved to Texas to start a new life and this is where Jefferson started being a confidence man or trickster.

Jefferson left his home in 1877 after his mother died and formed a gang known as the Soap Gang. For the next 22 years Jefferson managed his gang and traveled with them to perform scams like the shell game, rigged poker games, and the three card Monte game.

Jefferson got the name of Soapy Smith from a scam he would pull on street corners. He would put out a display and in front of the crowd he would take bars of soap and wrap them in money, anywhere from one dollar to a hundred dollars. After this he would wrap plane paper around the soap bars and stack them in the display. He would sell each bar of soap to the customers for one dollar each which gave them the chance to unwrap the soap and find up to a hundred dollars in there, or nothing but plain soap.

This was not as it seemed though, all the soap in the pile was plain soap with no money. He would use sleight of hand to trick the customers and would employ shills in the crown to unwrap soap and claim they had won a large amount of money. During this time he would action off the last few pieces of soap to the highest bidder claiming the hundred dollar bill was still among them.

Jefferson died in a shootout over gold he had scammed three miners out of in a game of three card Monte.

Kitty LeRoy

Kitty Leroy was born in 1850 in Michigan. She was known as a saloon owner, trick shooter, gambler, and prostitute. She began dancing when she was young and started professionally at the age of 10. By her 14th birthday she was dancing in saloons and dance halls.

During her childhood she learned amazing shoot skills that could top almost anyone, one of these was shooting apples off the top of people’s heads. At the age of 15 she married for the first time. Having a wild and untamable spirit, her marriage was short lived so she heeded west to find a lifestyle that could keep up to her.

She worked as a professional dancer up till she was 20, and then gave it up to become a faro dealer and skilled gambler. She began dressing like a gypsy and in men’s clothing.

Kitty worked as a prostitute, a Madame, and married four other men, killing the second one. In 1877 her fifth husband flew into a jealous rage from her having so many affairs and shot her to death, and then killed himself.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in 1848 in Illinois. As a child he tried several times to run away and join the army but was never old enough when he tried. As an adult he was a deputy sheriff and then marshal in Arizona Territory, and also a gambler.

In the old west, gambling was considered a good profession that was just as high standard as a member of clergy or a doctor. After Wyatt lost his sheriff position he started a job as a manager and enforcer for the Oriental Saloon and in exchange he got a one quarter interest in concessions from faro. He and a friend would run the faro tables at the saloon and keep gamblers out of fights and gun fire.

Wyatt lived a classic old west life of lots of shoot outs, women, gambling, drinking, and mining.

Wyatt said he had no regrets for how he handled his situations. He died of chronic cystitis in 1929 at the age of 80 with no children.

A character representing Wyatt can be found in a large number of books and movies.

Lottie Deno

Carlotta J. Thompkins, or Lottie Deno, was born in 1844 in Kentucky. She was a famous gambler who was known for her courage and poker skills. Her father was a prominent gambler and race horse breeder who was very successful and wealthy. He traveled with Lottie to teach her every card trick he knew to win.

After her father died, Lottie traveled and gambled with the protection of her seven foot tall slave she had brought from home with her. While gambling in Texas she met a man named Frank Thurmond, who also gambled, and fell in love. After Frank was accused of murder they fled and continued to travel until they settled in New Mexico.

In New Mexico they opened a hotel and gambling room, and later Lottie owned a restaurant in silver city where in 1880 Frank and her married.

In 1934 Lottie died and was buried under the name of Charlotte Thurmond.


The old west was both a dangerous and exciting time to live in. Gambling was a popular pass time and many of the games you’ve read about here you can still find in casinos today.

Try your luck at some of these games and maybe your name will go down in history with these other gambling celebrities of the old west.



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