If you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show set in America’s “wild west”, you probably also saw a gambling scene. Whether the hero is a rugged desperado, handsome sheriff, or honest cow-poke, at some point he finds himself either sitting down to a game of cards, or in the vicinity of a card game when a fight breaks out. But do the movies show the truth, or is it all a Hollywood illusion? Let’s take a quick look at some American gambling history.
From Casinos to Riverboats to Frontier Camps and Back to Casinos
Gambling first arose to popularity in America in New Orleans. Sailors coming to the port from all parts of the world brought their favorite games with them. A casino in New Orleans might feature faro, poker, a roulette wheel, and two-card monte. Casinos operated 24 hours and served food and drink, all of which might feel familiar if you’ve ever traveled to Las Vegas.
From New Orleans, gambling spread to the riverboats which traveled up and down the Mississippi. In fact, wherever people went, they took their games of chance with them. When America pushed further into the Western frontier after the Civil War, railroad camps and towns often featured gambling as their chief entertainment.
The California Gold Rush saw the establishment of luxurious casinos in San Francisco, which offered similar amenities to their New Orleans counterparts. One can only imagine a prospector, flush with the gold he’d panned, deciding to treat himself to a game or three in a glittering casino.
Faro was King
While we often think of poker when we think of those saloon card games, faro was actually the most popular game in the frontier, and was in fact called the “King of Games”. At the time, players considered poker to be too slow-paced.
While card games were common, perhaps because of how portable they are, dice games were also played on the frontier. Roulette could be found in established casinos as well. Gamblers could also wager on horse races, boxing matches, and a variety of different types of animal fighting that would quite rightly be frowned upon by today’s society.
A Way to Make a Living
While gambling was a pastime for most people, others found a calling to be a professional gambler. Some were honest people who played well and found luck on their side. Others, however, were cheaters, and gave the entire profession a bad name. Whether honest or crooked, a professional gambler had to be charming enough to convince others to play with them. It helped to be good in a fight as well, in case a game went poorly and tempers flared among the players.
Between the cheating, the fighting, and some peoples’ moral aversion to the very concept of gambling, many Western towns would eventually ban gambling all together. Sometimes these bans were strictly enforced; in other towns, they were primarily intended to keep away trouble-making professional gamblers, and private citizens could still enjoy a friendly game of faro as long as no one came to blows.
The Romance Continues
Our romantic view of gambling in the Wild West continues to this day. Here on Health Games we have several games with fun Western themes, to evoke the feeling of sitting down in a smoky saloon, a whisky at hand, while you place your wager and hope Lady Luck smiles down on you. And while you hopefully don’t have to worry about a barroom brawl breaking out in your living room, do be sure to play safe and responsibly!