The image of the Wild West gambler is a very romantic one that has been inculcated into the collective consciousness through multiple portrayals in movies and television shows, most notably Maverick. The image is typically one of a charming Clark Gable type, well dressed, great with cards and guns and the object of both the affection of the womenfolk and the outrage of the menfolk. Hollywood has missed out a golden opportunity thus far, however, because at least two of the most infamous gamblers of the wild west were women.
The most famous female gambler of the wild west was Alice Ivers Duffield, fortunately better known simply as Poker Alice. In the wonderland that was the untamed American west, Poker Alice was a queen among characters. Her career spanned two centuries as she didn’t head off to that great big casino in the sky until well into the 20th century. But it was as a key figure of the 1880s and 1890s that Poker Alice really stood out. And stand out she did: a female gambler with a British accent and a cigar protruding between her lips. Although she could hold her own in a saloon with any man, Poker Alice was smart enough to never touch the stuff while gambling. She was a woman of deliriously American contradictions; devoutly observing Sunday as a day on which gambling shouldn’t be practiced, but willing to shoot anyone (at least once fatally) who violated this sacred observance.
Poker Alice wasn’t merely affecting her British accent; born in England never saw the shores of American until she was almost a teenager. And even then she really didn’t see America since she was raised in the deep south to become a belle. It was only after immigrating past the mighty Mississippi River and marrying a Colorado mining engineer that little refined little Alice transformed into one of the most fearsome gamblers in the wild west. Her talent lay in a truly astounding dexterity, she could control and manipulate cards as well as any magician. As she perfected her technique and moved further west, she lost all her old world gentility and adopted the persona of the tough-talking broad with the cigar always between her lips. It wasn’t long before Poker Alice was hitting the big time, she even broke the bank at one casino, allowing her to go on a spending spree in New York City that would make Paris Hilton proud.
After all those dollars were spent, Poker Alice set her sights on the gold rush in the Black Hills. A true capitalist genius, Alice realized the great opportunity there wasn’t in mining for gold, but in taking the money of all the poor saps who were mining for gold. When that well dried, she headed back to Colorado and took a job dealing cards for the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard, Bob Ford, known to history as the man who shot Jesse James in the back. Following that gig, Poker Alice headed to one of the centerpieces of wild west lore, Deadwood, South Dakota, the same town where another great gambler was shot by another little coward. However, Poker Alice was not to meet the same fate as Wild Bill Hickok. Instead, she met a man and settle down to raise chickens.
Poker Alice was almost 60 years old when her second farmer died, leaving her with a nothing but a chicken farm. So she picked up stakes once again and headed for Fort Meade. Just like she saw an opportunity to make money off poor saps hoping to strike it rich in a gold rush, Alice saw the potential of opening a saloon/whorehouse next to an Army fort. For a while Poker Alice did just fine selling booze, cards and women to the soldiers. Unfortunately, the soldiers weren’t quite as reverent toward the day of rest as Alice and one Sunday tried to force their way in for some aces and asses. It was at this point that the only known shooting death at the hands of Poker Alice occurred. She was arrested, put on trial and found guilty. They say good gamblers don’t rely on luck, but how else to explain the fact that the judge took sympathy and Poker Alice, resulting in her avoiding imprisonment. Of course, luck comes in two varieties and it wasn’t of the good kind when Alice met up with religious reformists who only took exception to her lifestyle, but especially to the fact that she had the gall to actually recognize Sunday as a day of rest. Alice was eventually forced out of work by these men and women before finally heading off to that big casino in the sky in 1930.