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Gambling is a prominent feature in a number of old western movies. You’ve probably seen these scenes yourself, where a bunch old cowboys are sitting around a table playing cards, and then they have a disagreement, and go outside for a duel. Of course, this is done in a very dramatic manner and excites the audience to cheer for their favorite character. But how realistic is this? Did men really duel over the results of card games? Well a lot of this depends on the time and location you are thinking about.
First of all, it’s necessary to realize why people suddenly moved west and the type of people who made this move. The main reason the west became populated in the mid-19th century was mainly due to the large number of gold rushes in California and Colorado. And you better believe that the type of person to leave their entire life as they know it and take their chances on mining for gold in a new state is someone who likes a little risk in their life.
California in the mid 1800’s was widely unregulated, which meant that gaming houses popped up everywhere, and some bars were truly rustic—with a gambling table just being a board laid on top of two barrels. Because most of the prospectors who traveled out west were male, these establishments tended to have a lot of drinking as well as prostitution to keep the men happy.
Now here’s where actual history starts to split from the movies. Although in most wild west movies they are playing some version of poker, this just simply isn’t true. Poker didn’t make its way out west until years later after the Civil War. Rather, the most popular card games in these primitive casinos were 21 (early Blackjack), Faro, and Monty. And these old casinos didn’t just have card games, they also had several primitive dice games. They later evolved to also feature other table games such as roulette, keno, and a game called Hazard, which is very close to the modern game known as Craps.
More surprising however, is that sports betting actually took prominence. You’re probably wondering just what sports there were to bet on in the Wild West. And that’s the hilarious part, most of the sports back then were animal fights or human races which were made up on the spot. Rooster and dog fights were quite common, as were bull and bear fights. As far as the human races go, you could challenge anyone in the saloon to a footrace or race on horseback and if they accepted, others in the saloon would place bets on the outcome. Another sport that was widely popular and bet on frequently was boxing.
Of course, New Orleans isn’t really considered the Wild West in most people’s minds, but much of what you see in the original Wild West movies was based more on what you would have observed in New Orleans rather than out west. This is because the Wild West was truly, well, wild, and as mentioned above, there were very primitive gambling facilities out there. New Orleans had something these places did not, and that was casinos.
New Orleans opened it’s very first casino in 1827, which means gambling in the city had been going on long before this date. And it was here that the popular game 21 (originally called vingt-et-un) and roulette originated before making their way west. These casinos tended to be less lawless than their western counterparts, although they did still have some of the crazy “sports” bets happening between gamblers. One crazy event they had in New Orleans that wasn’t found out west is that slave owners would have their slaves’ box each other and then bet on the outcome.
It was here in New Orleans that poker originated, a close relative of the French card game Poque. Although the exact history of poker is a little murky, it is believed the first game was played sometime in 1829. But this first game would today be nearly unrecognizable as poker. The game as people currently recognize it wasn’t solidified until sometime around 1850. And it was after this time that poker finally began to make it’s slow spread out west where it is believed to have been widely played in saloons by 1875.
So, all this is interesting right? But you’re probably wondering about dueling and how realistic it was in settling gambling disagreements. Unfortunately, although duels were a thing during the time period, they weren’t occurring in the Wild West. Duels were more of a British tradition which was later romanticized into American pop culture in the 1900’s.
The real gun battles of the Wild West were nowhere near this civil. In fact, there is almost no record of people making agreements to go outside and fight civilly. Rather, if you had a disagreement with someone at a card table, you would pull out your gun right there, aim, and then shoot. And because of how widely inaccurate old guns were (and how drunk their handlers were) this usually resulted in lots of people getting hurt, most of them bystanders. And once someone pulled out a gun in a saloon, usually more were pulled out, causing a crazy gun battle which would quickly get out of control. And typically, there was no clear “winner” of these battles.
The only gun battle recorded in history that mimics a modern-day duel is that of Bill Hickok and David Tutt, who shot at each other in the street simply because one saw the other and was insulted.
This is another part which Hollywood doesn’t quite have right. These old saloons and casinos were so dangerous in the Wild West that gambling was quickly outlawed. By 1896, gambling was illegal in most western cities, although a number of reports from the time indicated that gamblers simply went underground. At least this probably put a stop to saloon owners constantly having to repair bullet-ridden walls.
While Hollywood doesn’t quite get it right, the truth of the matter is, that the real story is probably a bit too gruesome for most viewers. And it’s easier for Hollywood to write scripts of games the audience will recognize, such as poker, rather than Monte or Faro. Either way, enjoying an old western movie can be fun, just keep in mind that it isn’t quite the honest representation of gambling in western history as one would expect.