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Published on: 19 May 2017 by annarich
Despite a popular misconception, men did not win the West alone. Women were there too.
Almost exclusively a male activity, gambling thrived among the miners, loggers and cowboys of the American frontier. "Gamblin'," as one boomtown bartender remembered it, "was a man's job, like fightin' or steer ropin'."
Yet, there were a few women whose circumstances and inclination led them to become professional gamblers. These ladies were not only a very small minority, but they were often colorful, independent, exceptional women. They met the West on its own terms, competing and gambling, winning and losing with the courage, tenacity and foolishness equal to any man.
Among the most famous women gamblers of the frontier was Poker Alice. Nicknamed for her game of choice, she is estimated to have won over $225,000 during her 60- year career as a professional poker player in the latter half of the 1800s.
Alice Ivers was born in England in 1851 and immigrated to America with her parents when she was three years old. The only daughter of a schoolmaster, she was educated at a fashionable women's seminary in the South and brought up to be a respected lady of society.
Alice was in her teens when she moved West with her family to Colorado. At the age of 20, she married a man of means and education, mining engineer Frank Duffield.
Gambling was a principal leisure activity in mining camps and Frank was an enthusiastic player. Rather than sit home alone in the evenings, Alice often accompanied her husband to the betting tables. Among the games, Alice found Poker to be most interesting.
Eventually she learned to play and would occasionally sit in a game.
Leadville was the center of action when Alice and Frank moved there. With 35,000 inhabitants, it was the largest mining town in Colorado and, according to historian Herbert Asbury, "the most lawless". It was here that Frank was killed in a mine explosion. A petite 5'4" beauty with blue eyes and long, lush brown hair, lovely young Alice suddenly found herself all alone in one of the most harsh, raw hell-holes on the western frontier. The few jobs available to women did not appeal to her. She was not accustomed to hard labor and prostitution was unacceptable to a woman of her breeding and education. Unable to get a job teaching in the small town, Alice decided to bank her survival on gambling. She preferred to deal and play Poker but became skilled at Faro as well. The talented young beauty soon acquired the nickname "Poker Alice" and eventually became the most famous woman gambler of the American West.
Poker Alice, one biographer tells us, "was not a prostitute... but a professional woman... engaged in what was considered man's work." She wore the latest fashions, had a peculiar like for cigars, and never gambled on Sundays.
So rare was a female professional gambler, particularly one of such feminine beauty, Alice received many offers from gambling halls throughout the West. During the 1880s and '90s, she traveled by stagecoach dealing Faro and Poker in the most notorious frontier towns.
In Silver City, New Mexico, Alice broke the bank at the Gold Dust Gambling House winning $6,000 in one evening. Consequently, they hired her to deal. In Creede, Colorado, she dealt to miners in Bob Ford's tent saloon. Ford was the killer of Jesse James.
On the frontier, there were few honest games. Professional gamblers took every advantage. Alice's motto was, "Praise the Lord and place your bets. I'll take your money with no regrets."
Alice fell in love with a dealer, W.G. Tubbs, and he became her second husband. Eventually they settled near Deadwood, SD, and Alice gave up her profession. During the winter of 1910, her husband caught pneumonia and died. She loaded his frozen body onto a wagon and drove the team almost 50 miles in blizzard conditions to Deadwood where she pawned her wedding ring for $25 to pay for his burial and get enough for a stake.