Picture an Old West town in your mind. What do you see? Surely there are horses, cowboys, guns and cattle. If you keep rattling off images, it shouldn’t be too long before you hit upon saloons. That’s because saloons were about as commonplace in the Old West as performance fleece is in an Old Navy store. While I’ve never been able to figure out what separates performance fleece from say, oh, spectator fleece, I have a pretty firm grasp on the role of saloons in mining towns.
Saloons provided liquid refreshment, a place to socialize, women who weren’t known for playing hard to get, and gambling. Yes, there was a lot of gambling. That meant there was no shortage of gamblers. One of the most famous Old West gamblers stood out from the crowd. Why? Because one of the most famous gamblers wasn’t a gun toting, cigar smoking man. No, one of the most famous gamblers was a gun toting, cigar smoking woman, who made a name for herself. That name was “Poker Alice.”
There was nothing about Alice Ivers’ childhood that might have indicated she would become a notorious professional gambler. I mean, as far as I can tell, she wasn’t taking bets on the playground or anything. Alice was born in 1851 in Devonshire, England and when her family moved to Virginia, she was still a sweet, young thing. She was the daughter of a proper schoolmaster and was expected to learn how to walk and talk like a lady, so her parents sent her off to a boarding school for young women. She stayed there until her family relocated once more to Leadville, Colorado.
Alice married Frank Duffield, a mining engineer, when she was twenty. Common interests are important in a marriage, and, as it turned out, Frank was interested in gambling. Alice used to accompany him to gambling halls, where she would stand by and watch him play cards. It wasn’t long before the young bride thought she would rather be a player than a good luck charm. She was a natural. She knew when hold them. She knew when fold them. She knew when to walk away. She knew when to run. And playing poker was certainly more exciting than sitting home alone while her husband had all the fun.
Cards Stacked Against Her
When Frank Duffield was killed in a dynamite explosion, Alice found herself a very young widow with the need to support herself. With her fancy education and fine elocution skills, she could have become a schoolteacher. Surely, that would have made her parents happy. But, Alice had other ideas. She wanted to do what she loved. And, what she loved was playing poker and Faro.
Poker Alice stood out among the gambling hall crowd simply because she wasn’t a man and she wasn’t a prostitute. Yes, she was easy to spot. She was the petite, young woman wearing Parisian gowns and smoking cigars.
Sweeten the Pot
Alice wasn’t only known as a player. Her skills as a dealer were in high demand. Like other professional gamblers, Alice moved from town to town. Owners of gambling halls were happy whenever her travels took her to their establishments. A woman gambler was a novelty. The men lined up for a chance to play against her. No doubt, she left quite a few bruised egos in her wake when she picked up to move to the next mining town.
When her travels took her Deadwood, South Dakota, Poker Alice met Warren G. Tubbs. Tubbs was a housepainter, whose hobbies included dealing and gambling. He appreciated Alice’s ability at the poker table. He also appreciated her ability with a .38. When a drunk threatened Tubbs with a knife, Alice shot the man in the arm. People have married with lesser shows of affection. Poker Alice became Mrs. Tubbs and the couple went on to have seven children.
Dealt a Bad Hand
The gambler and the housepainter moved off the beaten path, near Sturgis, South Dakota, and homesteaded a ranch. They raised their passel of young ’uns and were quite happy. Then fate dealt Poker Alice another bad hand when Tubbs was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He died in 1910, and the grieving widow, once again, had a need to support herself.
She hired a man named George Huckert to manage things on the ranch, while she moved into town to be closer to the gambling halls. The chips were down, but she still had a card up her sleeve. Huckert repeatedly proposed to Alice. Eventually, she said, “Yes.” She said the reason she married him was that she owed him over $1000 in back wages and it was cheaper to marry him than to ante up. He died in 1913.
As time passed, Poker Alice lost her fresh-faced good looks. She traded in her Parisian gowns for men’s clothing (but she kept the cigars). She didn’t look the same, but she still knew an opportunity when she saw one. Prior to becoming a widow for the third time, Alice had branched out and gone into business for herself. She bought a house and set it up with drinking and gambling downstairs and girls upstairs. She named the house, “Poker’s Palace,” and, just like that, Poker Alice became an entrepreneur! What better time to open a saloon that during Prohibition!
When a group of drunken soldiers got too unruly, Alice fired off a warning shot. Unfortunately, it turned into a mourning shot when the bullet killed one of the soldiers. Alice and her girls were arrested and hauled off to jail. It was ruled an accidental shooting and Poker Alice was back in business.
All Bets are Off
In her later years, Poker Alice was frequently arrested for public drunkenness and for her choice of careers. There might as well have been a revolving door on the jailhouse. Alice always had the money to pay her jail fines and as soon as she was released, she would go right back to business. At the age of 75, she was sentenced to jail time, due to her numerous convictions as a madam. Her advanced age gained her a pardon by the governor.
Through it all, Alice was never known as a cheater. She never lost her love of poker. She never worked on Sundays because of her religious convictions. When you stop and think about it, Alice had a lot in common with the saloons she loved. After years of offering liquid refreshment, a place to socialize, women who weren’t known for playing hard to get, and gambling, Poker Alice cashed in her final chips in 1930, when she died following gall bladder surgery.