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Queens Can Beat KingsBROAD-MINDED POKER FOR WINNING WOMEN
By Susie Isaacs
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2007 Susie Isaacs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Poker History Lesson In the Beginning ...
I personally find the history of poker almost beyond belief because of the recent metamorphosis it's undergone from a game carrying a huge negative public opinion to a game with a gigantic positive attitude attached to it. Poker was once a game filled with cheaters, scoundrels, and scallywags, but today it's a favorite and acceptable national pastime and a big-money profession.
Although poker has always been considered a man's game, a blood sport so to speak, that takes great doses of testosterone in order to participate in, women have always played a role in the history and evolution of poker just as they have played a role in the history and evolution of humankind. Currently, the numbers of women playing poker socially in their homes or in public cardrooms and women playing in multimillion-dollar-money poker tournaments are growing faster than some men can count. To find out how that happened, we have to look at the game from its historical perspective.
History suggests that card sharks developed the game in France. New Orleans, once under the control of the French, was a gateway to America and it wasthere that poker first appeared in the United States. It's believed that Americans derived the actual name "poker" from the French "poque", which may have come from "hocus-pocus," a term widely used in reference to magic. No wonder so few women played poker back then; you pay money to play a game of chance and see that money "magically" disappear. In the early days, cheating was rampant, but like being the victim of a talented pickpocket or a good magician today, the suckers back then didn't know they had been suckered, so they came back for more. I believe women were too smart to participate in the days of hocus-pocus poker.
The Old West was a gambler's circuit. Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok were the first known professional poker players. Still, the reputation of poker was not lily white. As a matter of fact, it was rather the opposite in those days-Hickok, for example, was shot in the back and died in a poker game in 1876 holding what became known as the Dead Man's Hand, aces and eights. Even so, there seems to be something romantically rugged and interestingly mysterious about the cowboys in all their cowboy gear, drinking and playing poker in the saloons with sexy saloon girls in frills and ruffles with their big breasts and tiny waists in the background or foreground.
The history books shed little if any light on ladies playing poker during this era. I remember as a child watching Gunsmoke on TV. The ladies were plentiful and always looked lovely when the men were playing poker in the saloon, but the girls were either barmaids or "entertainers." However, if we want to be more accurate than the TV script, these ladies were prostitutes. This was, you see, the family hour and everything on TV was rated G in the fifties. I do recall that sexual tension filled the air. I remember Miss Kitty, who was portrayed as being a fine upstanding and beautiful female American citizen. She was best friends with the sheriff and just happened to own the saloon (I wonder, where do you think she got all that money?). She did join in on a poker game or two.
Fast forward from the Old West to the nineteenth century when riverboats and paddle wheelers were prominent along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers. By 1850, steamboats had gambling and commerce on the move. This is when and where poker took a historical turn from bad to good-not church good, but acceptable good. With the offerings of luxurious passenger cabins and elaborate décor with grand staircases and carpeted lounges, the fancy parlors drew the rich and famous to play poker. This was a time in history when the women took notice of this game of cards. The atmosphere, the higher-class environment as it were, was much more conducive for a lady-and not "ladies of the evening," but regular rich ladies who liked to have a little bit of gambling fun.
Playing poker on riverboats was actually considered a fashion statement, and the participants dressed accordingly. Antique photos show ladies all gussied up, playing games of chance side by side with the fellows who were also dressed to the hilt. The female participants were outnumbered of course, but they were playing and probably winning. I drew this conclusion from the photos I saw because the ladies were either smiling or sporting sly grins while the men look aggravated.
Today things have changed in many ways in the poker arena. For starters, I know of no poker emporium or competition where the men wear tuxedos and the women wear evening attire, although I believe it to be a fine idea.
This acceptability phase did not last long. I guess we could call the riverboat dress-up period, a "passing fancy." Steamboats quickly became relics with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Suddenly, it was no longer fashionable to play poker.
The "Women's War" broke out across the nation in 1873. Thousands of women marched from church meetings to saloons, where with prayer and song they demanded that saloonkeepers give up their businesses. The saloons' offering of whiskey, prostitution, and gambling was considered the most dangerous social institution threatening the family. At the turn of the century, poker was considered an illegal activity by the majority of Americans. This was not a good time for the folks who enjoyed a cocktail and a game of cards, but it was a time when women stood their ground and showed their strength in numbers against such immoral activities. Once socially acceptable, gambling and drinking had become not only unacceptable but also illegal! Men still played poker and drank whiskey, but they did so secretly. Those who did so publicly were considered a lower class in society-or even a criminal element. If women played, they were considered rebels.
One such early rebel, the most famous female poker player of the time, was Poker Alice, born Alice Ivers on February 17, 1853, in Devonshire, England. Poker Alice was the first known female professional poker player, and she became one in order to take care of her family, which included seven children. She found a way to make big money doing something that was unorthodox for a woman, but she did it anyway. Just one hundred years later in history, she would have been labeled a big-time feminist, but I believe that like today's full-blown feminists, she would not have given a rat's ass. Rather, she would play the man's game in a man's world and take the ridicule in addition to his money.
As a girl Alice moved with her family from England to Colorado. She married a gambler named Frank Duffield, who taught her how to play poker. After being widowed as a young woman, she spent time in gambling halls and became a professional poker dealer. Her second marriage was to a gambler named Warren G. Tubbs. History reports that Tubbs usually lost at poker and annoyed Alice with his lack of luck and ability at the poker table. Alice was the winning player, she depended more on her skill of the game and manipulating the men (the psychological aspect of the game) than on the luck factor. If Tubbs did what he should have done, he would have accepted the role of househusband and helped out with cooking, chores, and duties of raising a passel of children; but I doubt that is the way it was.
Alice supported their family of four boys and three girls with poker winnings, which could total as much as $6,000 on a good night. (Making that kind of money, she could afford to hire a cook and housekeeper, even a nanny!) That was a huge sum of money in the late 1800s. A good comparison today is professional poker player Annie Duke. She would be considered rebellious in the fifties and sixties if she had played poker then to support her four children. In today's world, although her chosen profession is rare for a woman, she is not scorned (except by some of the men she bestows large doses of whoop ass on). On a good night, Annie will win $100,000, give or take a few tens of thousands.
Alice always carried a .38 revolver and used it when necessary. Annie doesn't carry a weapon, except for a sharp tongue that she uses only when necessary. Alice's second husband died in __ ___ and Alice opened her own place. She had a third, albeit brief, marriage to George Huckert, another gambler.
Alice passed away on February 27, 1930, but her legend-including her cigar smoking-lives on. Annie no longer has to tolerate secondhand smoke since most poker rooms are now smoke free and her legend continues to grow.
By the 1920s only five games were legal in Las Vegas, and three of those games were poker-stud, draw poker, and lowball-the other two games were a game called 500 and bridge. Legalization of gambling began in 1931, and the first lawful casino license was issued to a woman named Mayme Stocker. The Stocker family moved to Las Vegas because the menfolk-her husband and two sons-worked for the railroad. When she first arrived in Las Vegas in 1911, she referred to her new environment as the "doorstop to hell." The railroad had made it clear that any railroad employee entering into the business of gambling in Las Vegas would be fired. To keep her husband and sons respectable, she agreed to take the heat and have the license put in her name. She saw an opportunity, stepped up to the plate, and hit one out of the park. It was such a good gamble that Stocker eventually became one of the community's leading pioneers. Although her legacy began as a ruse to protect her husband and sons, she eventually took the reins and led the effort that made her family very wealthy.
Prohibition did not hinder freethinking adults from consuming alcohol, nor did it stop gambling, which seemed to go hand in hand with drinking. By the midthirties prohibition ended, but drinking and playing poker did not become acceptable overnight. By the midfifties men-usually rapscallion-type characters-played illegal poker in basements, backrooms, barns, and other nonmainstream locations. That is not to say that all who played poker were the underbelly of society. "Gentlemen" who got together for a private social game of poker were not looked down on. Unlike robbing banks or stealing jewelry, playing poker, though illegal, was acceptable under the right circumstances. Why, it is a known fact that Richard Nixon financed his first congressional campaign with poker winnings.
Because they enjoyed the game, many men began to have regular "private" poker games in their homes. These games were considered acceptable and respectable. Women were still the hostesses with the serving trays, but on occasion if liberal-thinking gentlemen played, women would be "allowed" to join the game. My grandmother remembers such situations.
"Oh we played plenty of poker," she once told me. "We learned from our husbands, and then we had our own games when they were at work."
In the summer of 1949 in Las Vegas, the famous gambler Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Dandolos approached Benny Binion, poker player and owner of the famous Binion's Horseshoe Casino, with an unusual request. He wanted to challenge the best poker players in the world to a poker marathon. Binion agreed to host the match with one stipulation: the poker match had to be played in public view. The game ultimately lasted five months with the players taking only bathroom and sleep breaks. Nick's opponent was Johnny Moss who went on to win the "biggest game in town" and an estimated two million dollars. Binion later noted that the public had gathered each day to watch the poker match with the "fervor of dedicated sports fans." Although the women's role was still to serve food and drink to the players, they also made up a part of the audience. Women weren't allowed to play in the poker rooms in Las Vegas until the late 1950s.
During the 1940s Bill Boyd and Johnny Moss arrived in Las Vegas, leased space at the Golden Nugget Casino and the Dunes, and opened poker rooms. Unfortunately, the game developed a bad reputation for fleecing the tourists. In the seventies Moss decided to hire ten girls, not as pretty cocktail waitresses, but as poker dealers. His idea was that the girls would put a better light on poker. In those days, poker was not regulated, and the house could take as much rake (the house take) as it pleased. An average rake would be 10 percent with no limit (today it is 10 percent with a $3-$5 maximum).
In some poker rooms, one low-limit, high-volume table would be designated as a "snatch" table. Specially trained dealers would visibly take four or five dollars from the pot as the legitimate rake, and then discretely take another six, eight, ten, even twelve dollars or more by "palming" the chips. These dealers were called "snatch dealers." They actually were discretely snatching chips from the pot. One such snatch dealer was Linda Davis who was, as a young woman, one of Johnny Moss's first female poker dealers and one of the first female snatch dealers in Las Vegas.
She reminisced, "We were taught to snatch when we were taught to deal. The dealers who had the talent to be good snatch dealers (sleight-of-hand talent) were the chosen few, and we made more money than any of the regular dealers. The snatch dealer who snatched the most during a week would receive a bonus envelope. I loved to play poker and was pretty good, but dealing was so lucrative, I dealt as much as I could. Snatch games began to die out in the late seventies when the big boys (the mob) were on their way out and the Feds were coming in. By the early eighties, the poker games were fully regulated and there were no more snatch games."
I had heard snatch-game stories for many years and always considered them folklore. I realized how true the snatch games were only after meeting Linda and several male dealers who as snatch dealers made a lot of money during those days. In fact, as I look back on it, I'm pretty sure I was a snatch-game victim.
I asked Linda if any of the players ever caught her.
"Oh sure," she answered, "now and then there would be an alert man in the game and he'd study what I was doing. But keep in mind, I was young, cute, sexy, and gutsy. If he said anything to me, I'd just lean over, show as much cleavage as I could, pat him on the hand seductively, and whisper, 'Honey, if you're going to be a sucker, please be a quiet one. Now, can I buy you a drink?' And I never had any trouble, and most of them would just stay in the game because snatch or not, everyone was having a good time."
I interviewed Bruce Osmond, affectionately known in Las Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe poker circles as Oz, for an article in Card Player magazine in the spring of 2000. He began his poker career in 1971 at a club in Lake Tahoe. I asked him if snatch games existed in those days. He rolled his eyes and looked a bit shocked that I'd ask the question. He decided to answer honestly, letting me know that I probably wouldn't want to print it.
"Oh-Snatch?" he laughed. "Well, shovel would be more like it." From what Oz shared with me, it was apparent that snatch games were prevalent all over the state of Nevada, and the management condoned them. The more a dealer could snatch, the more he could make for the house and for his own pocket.
"I remember one time, a guy sat down and bought in for twenty dollars," Oz continued. "The game was six-card stud. He got involved in the first hand he played. It was a four-way pot. He got all in and I pushed him a pot with $38 in it! He asked me what the rake was and I answered honestly, 'As much as I can get!'
"I knew it had to end, it just didn't seem right. We dealt players broke no matter how much they should have been winning. If we wanted to go out and party after work, we dealt 'em broke faster! Sure enough, three months later, the gaming commission came in and busted my bosses, and then things slowly began to change. Even without the snatching, it was still a hell of a business to be in."
Lamar Vosburg is another poker dealer from the sixties. He worked for the man he says brought poker to Las Vegas and who he refers to as "Mr. Poker," Bill Boyd (not connected to the casino-business Boyd family).
I asked Lamar if he was involved in any of the snatch games. He answered, "I have the utmost respect for Mr. Boyd who gave me my first job in Las Vegas. He let me work as a shill (a house player who doesn't really play; he just fills a seat and folds his cards in order to get games started) because I was broke and hungry. He also knew that I could play poker. We'd start a game with five shills. This was called our 'live' game. When a 'live one' sat down, a shill would get up until the table was full of live players. This was the snatch game.
Excerpted from Queens Can Beat Kings by Susie Isaacs Copyright © 2007 by Susie Isaacs. Excerpted by permission.
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