Card Sharps

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 freebooting con men who preyed on the lonely who were far from home. Alcohol consumption escalated to astonishing levels, and gambling was ubiquitous. Although faro and monte drew their share of players, the game was poker, which 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. The best poker-faced players were the professional gamblers, who generally were well-dressed, smooth-talking “gentlemen” who hoped to deflect angry loser’s animosity with sonorous phrases. Taking chances with cards was one thing; taking chances with their lives was another. Professional gamblers were always armed, in case their winnings resulted in drawn pistols.

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