George Devol

Among the greatest riverboat gamblers was George H. Devol. He played on the mighty Mississippi River, epitomizing the motto of “fake it until you make it.” He was a cheating poker player, who detailed his career swindling players on Mississippi riverboats in his book Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi.

“I don’t know just how thick my old skull is, but I do know that it is pretty thick, or it would have been cracked many years ago, for I have been struck some terrible blows on my head with iron dray-pins, pokers, clubs, stone-coal, and boulders, which would have split any man’s skull wide open unless it was pretty thick. Doctors have often told me that my skull was nearly an inch in thickness over my forehead.”
– George Devol, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi

Born on August 1, 1829 in Marietta, Ohio, at the age of ten Devol ran away, serving as a cabin boy on a river boat steamer called the Wacousta. After that, it was the Cicero, where Devol learned to play cards and the fine art of bluffing. Envious of the high lifestyle of professional gamblers, Devol was determined to follow in their footsteps, and soon he could deal seconds, palm cards and recover the cut.

When the Mexican War broke out, Devol decided to go to war and got a job as a bartender on the Corvette. While aboard the Corvette he met a man who taught him how to stack a deck. Once he joined the forces, he quickly set about utilizing his new skills to swindle the other soldiers. Soon, he grew bored with his life of soldiering and swindling and returned home.

At the tender age of 17, Devol had almost three thousand dollars and he headed back home to Ohio. While back in Ohio he mastered the games of Faro and Rondo.

When Devol returned to the steamboats, it was to play cards with the wealthy travelers. The image of a wealthy plantation owner with slaves and servants of the highest caliber was his goal. To pass himself off as a wealthy traveler, he invested much of his winnings from the saloons of Ohio and his days as a soldier to recreate himself in the image of a proper southern gentleman. He spared no expense in building his façade even going so far as to hire two black men to carry his bags for him. He even went so far as to feign reluctance to gamble and was always showed extreme concern that the game was on the square and there were no card sharps allowed into the games.

Working the steamboats of the South, he soon joined into a loose coalition with other card sharps including Canada Bill Jones, Bill Rollins, Big Alexander, and many others over the years.

After the Civil War, the railroads began to head west with settlements sprouting up all along the way. Devol followed the railroad expansion between Kansas City and Cheyenne.

According to his own account, Devol was working the Gold Room Saloon in Cheyenne when he encountered Wild Bill Hickok. Devol tells the story that when Hickok placed a $50 bet, he lost. He then placed another $50 bet, winning the hand that time; however, the dealer handed him back only $25. When Wild Bill protested, the dealer stated that the house limit was $25. “But you took $50 when I lost,” said Hickok, to which the dealer responded “Fifty goes when you lose.” The quick tempered Hickok wasn’t about to accept those terms sitting down and whacked the dealer over the head, turned over the table, and stuffed his pockets with the till!

In 1892, Devol published his autobiography, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, detailing his life and exaggerating much of it. At the insistence of his new wife, he retired from gambling for good in 1896 and spent the last years of his life selling his book. It is estimated that Devol won over two million dollars in his forty years of gambling. To hear him tell it the amount may have been 10 million. However, when he died in 1903, he was nearly penniless.

George H. Devol is a colorful figure from pokers past. He was the greatest of the Mississippi riverboat gamblers and much like Wild Bill Hickhock deserves his place in poker history.



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