An Ace up the Sleeve

The mostly greenhorn gold rushers who invaded northern California in 1849 were quickly followed by those who came to “fleece” the miners of their hard-gotten gold: saloon owners, professional gamblers from Mississippi riverboats, and free-booting conmen who preyed on the lonely who were far from home. Alcohol consumption escalated to astonishing levels, and gambling was ubiquitous. Although faro and Monte were the big draws early on, the game of poker eventually swept through California’s frontier towns and mining camps like a religion. Phrases like put up or shut up, I’ll call your bluff, having an ace up one’s sleeve, having the cards stacked against you, and poker face all entered the American lexicon. Of course, the best players were the often charming “gentlemen” who made their living playing cards.  For the greenhorns, taking chances with cards was one thing; taking chances with their lives was another. Professional gamblers were always armed, in case a loser’s anger resulted in drawn pistols.


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