The images created of gamblers and gambling during the days of the Wild West by Hollywood and the silver screen is a very romantic one and many gun smoking, gamblers and cowboy legends have been immortalised on screen. One of the most famous gamblers of its time just happened to be a woman … Poker Alice!
The most famous female gambler of the Wild West was Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert known simply as Poker Alice. In the untamed days of the American west, Poker Alice was the queen amongst gamblers. Her gambling career spanned two centuries. She was a key figure of the 1880s and 1890s in which Poker Alice forged both her name and reputation.
Poker Alice, female, a gambler with a British accent and more often than not having a cigar protruding from between her lips. Poker Alice could hold her own in poker against any male opponent and was astute enough never to drink while playing.
Poker Alice had principles and religiously observed the practise of not gambling on a Sunday, she vehemently protected this belief and even went as far as to shoot anyone who violated this religious law.
Poker Alice The Early years
Poker Alice was born on the 17th February 1851, in Devonshire, England and spent her early youth there until her parents immigrated to the USA when she was 12 years old. She was sent to a boarding school in Virginia and was educated and raised to be a genteel young lady. While in her late teens, her family moved to Leadville, a city in the Colorado Territory.
It was in Leadville that Alice transformed herself into the fearless, gun wielding, cigar smoking, professional gambler she became.
It is here she met her first husband Frank Duffield. Frank Duffield was a mining engineer who played poker in his spare time. After just a few years of marriage, Duffield was killed in an accident while resetting a dynamite charge in a Leadville mine. Alice was left in a tough financial position after Frank’s death and after failing in a few different jobs including teaching, she turned to poker to support herself financially.
Alice would make money by gambling and working as a dealer. Alice made a name for herself by winning money from poker games. By the time she was given the name “Poker Alice,” she was drawing
in large crowds to watch her play poker and men were constantly challenging her to play. During this time Alice is reputed to have been able to make as much as $6,000 gambling on a good night — a huge amount of money back then.
Alice used her good looks to distract men at the poker table. Winning large sums of money she would spend most of it on the latest fashions. She always had the newest dresses, and even into her 50’s was considered a very attractive woman. She was also very good at counting cards and figuring odds, which helped her at the table when playing poker.
Alice was known to always carry a gun with her, preferably her .38.
Alice met her next husband around 1890 when she was a dealer in Bedrock Tom’s saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. When a drunken miner tried to attack her fellow dealer Warren G. Tubbs with a knife, Alice threatened him with her .38. A romance blossomed and they married soon afterwards. They had 4 sons and 3 daughters.
While her children were growing up, Alice tried to keep them away from the gambling houses and at one point she and Tubbs decided to buy a homestead a ranch northeast of Sturgis on the Moreau River. When Tubbs passed away in 1910 from pneumonia, it is reputed that Alice was forced to pawn her wedding ring to pay for his funeral. This led her straight back to the gaming tables.
After Tubbs died, Alice hired George Huckert to take care of the homestead while she went back to Sturgis to earn some money. Huckert proposed to her several times until she famously said: “I owed him so much in back wages; I figured it would be cheaper to marry him than pay him off, so I did.” His back wages were about $1,008. The marriage was short. Huckert died in 1913.
It was around 1910 that Alice bought an old house on Bear Butte Creek near the Fort Meade Army Post, South Dakota and opened the Saloon. Apparently the house was small and needed extra rooms and “fresh girls” to perk up the business, so Alice went to a bank for a $2,000 loan.
This is how the story is reported, in words spoken by Alice herself: “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 chews on the end of my cigar and told him, `Well it’s this way. I knew the Grand Army of the Republic had 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’s Palace,” as she named it, offered gambling and liquor downstairs, and prostitution upstairs. The saloon was always closed on Sundays because of her religious beliefs.
However, in 1913, some drunken soldiers disobeyed Poker Alice’s “no work on Sunday” policy and started to get unruly and destructive. Poker Alice used her gun to try and gain order. The shots ended up killing one of the soldiers and injuring another, resulting in Alice’s arrest, along with six of her prostitutes. At the trial, she claimed self-defence and was acquitted. Her Saloon, however, was shut down.
While in her sixties, Alice was arrested several times after the
“Poker’s Palace” incident for being a madam, a gambler, a bootlegger, as well as for drunkenness. She would comply with the law and pay her fines but kept her business.
In 1928, she was again arrested and sentenced for bootlegging and her repeated offenses of conducting a brothel. Despite this sentence to prison, Alice now 75 years old escaped incarceration as she was pardoned by then Governor William J. Bulow of South Dakota because of her old age.
Poker Alice’s fame, or notoriety, followed her beyond her waning years. She died on February 27, 1930 in a Rapid City hospital after a gall bladder operation and is buried at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Her “house” stood vacant for many years and it was scheduled for demolition until a Sturgis businessman bought it and had it moved to its present location on Junction Avenue in Sturgis where it is now a bed and breakfast inn and a popular tourist destination for poker enthusiasts worldwide.