Poker Alice

Blazing a trail long before Annie Duke became our poker sweetheart, was Poker Alice. Alice Ivers is most likely the most famous female poker player of the Old West. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are more renown than Alice, but Alice is a legend in her own right and worthy of her spot in American folklore.

The first story I ever heard about Alice is legendary and considered a little bit salty for mixed company. Yet it serves to define her well. Alice was a good storyteller and I will give the story in her words as I understand it.
“I went to the bank for a $2,000 loan to build on an addition and go to Kansas City to recruit some fresh girls. When I told the banker I’d repay the loan in two years, he scratched his head for a minute then let me have the money. In less than a year I was back in his office paying off the loan. He asked how I was able to come up with the money so fast. I took a couple chaws on the end of my cigar and told him, `Well it’s this way. I knew the Grand Army of the Republic was having an encampment here in Sturgis. And I knew that the state Elks convention would be here too. But I plumb forgot about all those Methodist preachers coming to town for a conference’.”

Poker Alice passed away in 1930 and like many early American characters the legend of Poker Alice has grown over time. At the time of her death she was an infamous speakeasy and brothel owner with a colorful past. Since her death she has grown in stature and her story has reached near mythical proportions. Wild Bill Hickhock has a place in the poker hall of fame and I would submit to you that Poker Alice deserves a spot right along side.
Her credits are numerous and her life was full of character and color:
• She was a professional gambler
• She owned a brothel
• She was a bootlegger.
• She had killed a man
• She was a convicted felon
• She smoked cigars
• She had been married and widowed three times
• And, she carried a gun
She was an Old West character every bit as colorful as legendary Deadwood figures Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Unlike those earlier Western figures, Alice lived to the fairly old age of 75 and details of Poker Alice’s life are fairly well documented, at least the later years.
Although she is known for being a madam, she did not operate a brothel until 1910, very late in her life. Prior to that, she made a good living as a faro dealer and poker player. After 1919, her main line of business was as a speakeasy operator during prohibition. These late in life occupations have probably made her tougher to embrace as a key part of poker history.
In the 1870’s Alice married Frank Duffield, a mining engineer who was a skilled poker player and taught Alice how to play. In the beginning, Alice would stand behind him and watch. After a while, she started sitting in on games while Frank was working and she quickly demonstrated an affinity for poker. She had a good head for cards and figuring the odds. She was also good at using her looks to distract male players.
Alice often told a story about breaking the bank at a faro table then using the cash to go to New York City. Undoubtedly, it was her faro winnings that bankrolled the trip. But, most likely, she just saved up enough cash to go. Never one to miss an opportunity to embellish a story, Alice liked to tell how she broke the bank.
Throughout the 1880s, Alice played in saloons across the West. She moved from boom town to boom town like any other professional gambler. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, Alice liked fashionable clothes. Her skill and beauty provided her with plenty of money to buy the finest clothes. She also enjoyed her small black stogies. Because of her religious upbringing, she never played (worked) on Sunday. During this time Alice was reputed to have been able to make as much as $6,000 gambling on a good night.
Alice arrived in Deadwood around 1890. In Deadwood she met Warren G. Tubbs, a fellow card dealer. Alice shot a man in the arm who had been threatening Tubbs with a knife and a romance was born. She and Tubbs married and had seven children. They moved away from deadwood and Alice left the gambling lifestyle behind to raise her children.
Warren Tubbs died in 1910. The story is that Alice pawned her wedding ring to pay for Tubbs’ funeral, then went into a saloon and won enough money at poker to get her ring back that very day. Later in 1910 Alice bought an old house and opened the brothel.
In her many years as a professional gambler, Alice would have been well aware of the prostitution in the upstairs rooms of saloons. Alice, herself, was never a prostitute; as a professional gambler, she had much higher status. In 1910, when she returned to the workforce, she found the demand for her skills as a gambler were no longer as lucrative.
She believed, in 1910, that the brothel was her only economic option. Alice would have rather remained strictly a gambler. She was a well-known card player in Deadwood, which openly tolerated gambling and prostitution until 1987. It would seem that in 1910, Alice was caught up by the Americas changing moral views. The business she had been around all her life, and which had been perfectly legal, was now under attack. She just failed to change with the times.
In 1913 there was an unfortunate incident at the bordello when a number of soldiers became unruly. Poker Alice fired a single rifle shot to quiet the troops hitting two of them, killing one. Alice was acquitted and the shooting was ruled accidental.
Poker Alice died on February 27, 1930 in a Rapid City hospital and is buried in Sturgis. Her bordello stood vacant for many years until it was moved to its present location on Junction Avenue where it is now a bed and breakfast.
Alice claimed that she had won more than $250,000 gambling and never once cheated. Both of these claims are probably true. Poker Alice didn’t have to cheat. She knew how to play poker and was always skillful at reading other players while remaining stone-faced herself.

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