You Must Risque to Win: America at Odds with Fortune

New Orleans was already the Las Vegas of the nineteenth century when John Davis opened the doors of the first full-dress American gambling casino there in 1827. His patrons played games like poker, vingt-et-un (twenty-one), and craps, which most Americans still recognize, and others like brag, Boston, and monte, now so changed and foreign not even their friends know them. Though undeniably the beginning of a significant trend in American culture, the introduction of casino gambling in a luxurious setting also represented the last trick in a long, unruly contest among Americans for wealth, status, and self-respect.

Europeans did not introduce gambling to North America; it began here with the Indians and is as old as the cultivation of sunflowers, corn, and beans. Tribes throughout the continent, observing the rhythms and irregularities of daylight and darkness and weather, believed that gods played games using men as stakes; in imitation of forces beyond their control, native people practiced gambling as a religious rite and means of divination. Finding it exciting and to their taste, most aboriginal societies indulged in gambling whenever they had the time and something of value to wager; very few tribes persistently confined it to sacred contexts.

Indians played complicated games with two-sided dice; held arrow shooting contests with prizes for the one with the most arrows in the air at once; threw lances at a rolling target; played a sleight-of-hand game similar to button-button-who's-got-the-button; held horse and foot races, betting on everything, and most heavily on early versions of team sports like lacrosse, soccer, and polo. It was common practice to play for the highest stakes possible; men risked all their belongings, their wives, their hunting grounds, even themselves as slaves, on the outcome of a game. Sometimes women were in charge of the betting on spectator sports, wagering on their own, or on their husband's behalf, sitting on the sidelines surrounded by everything they had to lose.

Of course, the Indians had little to teach Europeans about gambling. The English, French, and Spanish needed no instruction about that, as they occasionally did about fundamental food production. For them, North America itself and the whole colonial experiment was a gamble for stakes the aboriginal lifestyle could not match or immediately measure. The gambling culture of our experience--Megabucks lotto, the MGM Grand, the Triple Crown, the Belle of Baton Rouge, even Cherokee Nation bingo--traces its most tenacious roots not to the longhouses of the Iroquois or the lodges of the Hidatsa but to the salons of Paris and the private clubs and coffeehouses of London.

In time, the public patience with these incessant schemes petered out, and King James, who had sanctioned them in 1612, banned them in 1621, declaring them an "inconvenience, to the hinderance of multitudes of Our Subjects." The ban led to a collapse of the Virginia Company, which surprised no one less than the Spanish, who claimed the Virginia territory and predicted that the plantation there was doomed if it had to be supported by such "a generall kynde of begging" as a lottery.

In Jamestown itself, settlers without the skill to feed themselves from the land gambled their lives in a useless search for gold. The atmosphere of fantasy was almost as thick as the swampy air and was only encouraged by the goings-on in London. The lotteries were a relatively late expression of the nervous energy that characterized the activities of the Virginia Company; a double-or-nothing dream operated first and last, from the bizarre inclusion of goldsmiths, refiners, a jeweler, and a perfumer on the first supply expedition to the outpost, to the wagering of indentured servants in games of chance thirty years later.

The Puritans, next in order of settlement, disapproved of gambling in both the old world and the new. One reason they were so opposed to Christmas was its association with gambling; in England it was the only time of year common folk were legally permitted to wager. Though the Pilgrims, like the fortune hunters at Jamestown, risked their own, and furthermore their children's, lives in immigrating, it should be remembered that they were being persecuted at home and the fortune they sought was believed to be eternal. According to Puritan doctrine, gambling was a vice of idleness and a "misspence of pretious time." On the Massachusetts frontier wasting time was dangerous because physical and moral maintenance demanded constant vigilance. Early Massa-chusetts Bay laws prohibited the possession of cards and dice, banned gambling in public and in private homes, and outlawed horse racing on the main roads.

These two poles, Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay, represent absolute ideas about gambling. The settlement of America required some risk-taking: not enough meant no new beginnings, too much meant sudden death. Gambling for stakes, as a pastime, seems to have been a predictable manifestation of the state of mind natural to life on the frontier. Throughout our history we have disagreed about whether that state of mind is compatible with civilized virtues and to what extent the original absolutes can be reconciled.

The earliest form of gambling to receive general sanction in the North was the familiar lottery. In a cash-poor economy it was a convenient way to raise large sums. Early Americans constantly complained of excessive taxation; part of the problem was that taxes had to be paid in currency and it was difficult to get a fair cash price for valuable property. Straitened municipalities turned to lotteries to fund public works. Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia paved their streets and built schools, churches, bridges, and wharves with raffle proceeds. In 1747 Benjamin Franklin organized a scheme to pay for the construction of a battery for his city's defense during King George's War (War of the Austrian Succession). Private individuals sold houses and land, liquidated inventory, and sometimes, like Rhode Island scrivener Joseph Fox, got out of debtors' prison by lottery.

Despite the potential for fraud and some ethical misgivings, most colonists looked at lotteries as an acceptable form of voluntary taxation where even losers got some benefit by contributing to public improvements. Periodically, though, there were reactions against excesses. In 1762 a group of Pennsylvania Protestant ministers, outraged by a private lottery for the construction of "public Gardens, with Baths and Bagnios [brothels]," succeeded in winning passage of a law declaring lotteries public nuisances and banning gambling paraphernalia under penalty of a five-hundred-pound fine. By the time of the Revolution, enthusiasm for lotteries, even for good causes, was much diminished. The Continental Congress floated one to support the army in 1777, but ticket sales were disappointing and winners only received promissory notes at four or six percent interest. The effort eventually evaporated despite its strong patriotic appeal.

A city now famous for horse racing, Saratoga, New York, got its start in gambling hind-end foremost, so to speak. The site of a famous Revolutionary battle, Saratoga was a summer resort popular for its mineral springs. Its settlers were mostly New Englanders, pious, temperate, and tightfisted; their guests made demands they were not comfortable accommodating: wine with dinner, dancing afterwards, and amusements. Business declined, neighboring villages took up the slack, and the little town decided to act in its economic self-defense. It declared a part of itself to be a special township, Saratoga Springs, and gave it legal autonomy. This left hand quickly did what the right was not willing to do--it opened rooms in Congress Hall, a local hotel, to billiards, hired an orchestra, cleared space for dancing, and permitted gambling on private card games. Within a generation, houses devoted exclusively to gambling opened and a few years later horse racing began.

With one palm outstretched and the other hiding its eyes, Saratoga accepted what had become common currency elsewhere. The running of thoroughbred horses by first-class jockey clubs on the colonial circuit of Leeds Town, Annapolis, West Jersey, and New York was simply the most sophisticated and expensive example of a type of gambling adored by a large slice of the American population. Most stakes races started on the quarter-mile stretch of road that ran beside the local tavern. Horses bred for this purpose were called quarter horses, after the distance, and were the offspring of English saddle horses and Indian ponies descended of Spanish stock. Two mounts were matched against each other before a usually drunken crowd that bet heavily and was not punctilious about rules. Since the races themselves were speedily finished, more or less organized fights and shooting matches, also for stakes, followed. If things really got out of hand, a sore loser might take up a whip and beat the Black spectators who cheered the winners too heartily.

The willingness to risk and the hope of quick riches were hallmarks of each of our successive western frontiers. In some regions the charm wore off fast, but wherever Americans wanted to distinguish themselves for daring or wherever they patterned themselves on the society of the English gentry, gambling became a fixture. Cockfighting and bear-baiting for stakes were carried on by Carolinians throughout the eighteenth century. Money was won and lost on bowls, shuffleboards, skittles, and a type of tennis. Billiards were popular with men, and both sexes gambled freely on cards. It was said to their credit that Carolinians paid their debts punctually, kept their word, and did not grieve publicly about their losses. But it was said further that they spent so much time drinking and gambling that they neglected the business, education, and administration of their state. Especially in the back country, gambling was among the most visible features of everyday life. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister traveling in the region in the 1760's, complained that rival "New Light" evangelists encouraged the people in gaming during his sermons, a type of potluck understandably annoying to a preacher.

As the frontier pushed across the Appalachians, gambling went with it. Indeed, it appeared so promptly it gave the impression of having been there first. Part of this impression is attributable to the influence of the city of New Orleans. According to a popular history, The Gamblers, edited by Jim Hicks:

Monte was played with a special deck of forty cards; the players bet against the house on the color of the cards to be turned up from the deck. Three-card monte was an altogether different matter; it was a scam, like a shell game, and was met most often on riverboats. Typically, a gambler and an assistant, or "thrower" and "capper," worked as a team to win a big payoff. The ace, or card you were supposed to keep your eye on, was called the "baby." The thrower gave an honest-sounding spiel to collect a crowd, allowing that the game was a test of eye and hand and that he had two chances to his opponent's one. The capper, pretending not to know the gambler, began play and won, of course, driving up the stakes. Soon the apparent losing streak seemed to make the thrower nervous, and while he looked to heaven or covered his face in despair, the assistant bent or marked the baby. Incredibly, everyone except the thrower noticed this; on the next try he lost again. Then the rattled thrower offered to bet all he had, more than a thousand dollars perhaps, on the next try, to recoup his losses. The capper dropped out and a rich onlooker stepped up, he thought, to a sure thing; the baby was marked, he was bound to win. This time, though, the thrower palmed the marked ace and substituted a dud marked in precisely the same way. When the player indicated the marked card as his choice he lost big. But he dared not complain because he had been trying to cheat the gambler, so he had to take his hefty loss and, maybe, learned his lesson.

It is no wonder, in such surroundings, that some riverboat gamblers cultivated an image of glossy refinement, prosperity, and good fellowship. The uniform of the gentleman sharper included a black, knee-length, broadcloth coat, ruffled white shirt, black vest with hand-painted hunting scenes or flowers, fine leather boots, and French underwear. Accessories to this outfit usually took the shape of a large diamond stud called a "headlight," a heavy gold watch, preferably an expensive Jurenson, and a watch chain. One gambler named Jimmy Fitzgerald was reported to have sported a watch chain twenty feet long, which he wore "looped several times around his neck."

This opulence was not exclusively for show; the gold and diamonds were ready assets in emergencies, and smaller personal luxuries served as advertisement. A silver match safe with a relief of a hand holding four aces and a king, a hinged gold box framing a pair of dice used as a watch fob, a silver watch with playing cards in the suit of clubs marking the hours with the queen at noon, all gave notice that diversion and perhaps trouble were available on demand. Very few gamblers got rich enough to maintain themselves lavishly by honest play. All were expert cheaters and nearly all did cheat part of the time. One contemporary estimated that of some two thousand gamblers on the Western rivers in his day, only four were honest.

The unscrupulousness and professionalism of most gamblers was so perfect that many "games" were nothing but robbery. Another eyewitness remembered, "I've seen them shuffle [cards] one for one from top to bottom, so that they were in the same position after a dozen shuffles that they were in at first. They'd just flutter them up like a flock of quail and get aces, kings, queens, jacks and tens all together as easy as pie. A sucker had no more chance with those fellows than a snow-ball in a red-hot oven."

Like the three-card monte specialists, sharpers worked in pairs or teams. A couple of them, playing poker with strangers, would deal winning hands to one another, or team members standing by would signal what cards other players held. This spying was called "iteming" and involved smoke cues, facial manipulations, and scratching, or the adjustment of clothing or belongings. One team sent a man, pretending to be an unobjectionable dimwit, around the riverboat saloon with a fiddle, playing coded musical phrases to help them cheat.

Naturally, as the wild land was tamed and towns settled down, people got sick of such shenanigans. Before the middle of the nineteenth century communities like Lexington and Danville, Kentucky; Vicksburg and Memphis, Tennessee; Mobile, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; and Cincinnati, Ohio, determined to drive out their infestations of gamblers and make their hometowns respectable by Eastern standards. Usually this was accomplished in a burst of very Western fury, vigilante style, with tarring and feathering and, more rarely, hanging. Though thick-skinned, gamblers got the message and left for the new West.


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