• Cheryl Anne Stapp

Poker Faces in Gold Country


The gold-fevered young men who swarmed into California expecting to get rich quick, soon discovered that finding their fortune wasn’t so easy, after all: panning for gold was hard, gritty work, and isolated mining camps were lonely places far from the comforts of home and traditional community entertainments. On the plus side, the adventurers were also far, far away from the social constraints of those very same homes. Hungry for entertainment, news, and the company of others, hundreds indulged in the principal forms of entertainment available in a raw country— drinking and gambling.

In the back-country mining camps and the mushrooming gold towns alike, both entertainments were available night and day. Wherever men gathered, whiskey flowed and someone always wanted to deal a card game. The best players, of course, were the well-dressed, often charming “gentlemen” who made their living playing cards. Greenhorn miners who drank and gambled often lost a whole week’s profit in a game of chance, only to do it again the next week.

Worldly or not, skilled or not, gamblers tended to prefer fast-paced games, the better to (hopefully) win big. Therefore Faro, a fast-paced game, was the most popular, but Monte, a Spanish card game, and Vingt-et-Un (twenty-one) were all played with enthusiasm. The slower-paced game of Poker was not a big interest initially, but became the game of choice as time went on. Phrases such as up the ante, in the cards, sweeten the pot, poker face and having an ace up one’s sleeve entered the lexicon, and are still in common use today as aphorisms.. Professional gamblers were always armed, in case a loser’s anger resulted in drawn pistols; but then, nearly everyone else was armed, too. Actually, there was less violence than one might think. When enraged or liquored-up players drew their guns or knives, they were usually overpowered before they could do any real harm...win, lose, or draw.

© 2019 by Cheryl Anne Stapp. 

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