The faces around the poker table in “Poker Alice’s” gambling house in Deadwood, South Dakota, were nonchalant but their nonchalance only veiled excitement. Only the face of “Poker Alice” showed absolutely no flicker of tautness. She shifted her cigar to the other corner of her mouth and narrowly watched the face of the man holding the only hand, besides hers. All the others had tossed their cards in the center of the table. At last: “Well, I’ll see yah,” the man breathed and added another bag of gold dust to the small mountain of bags already in the center of the table. “What yah got, Alice?” “Then you ain’t going to raise me again?” Alice asked and lifted an eyebrow, shifting the cigar once more. “No? Well, it’s pretty full,” she said with a sweeping gesture displaying her cards. “Three aces and a pair of ladies. Beat that and the dust is yours.” “Take the pot,” her opponent ordered, and rose. He stomped disgustedly to the exit of the business and disappeared into the night.
Alice removed a gun from the folds of her skirt and placed it on the table in front of her. She considered the fact that the disgruntled gambler might walk back into the gaming hall and accuse her of cheating, and she wanted to be ready. It wouldn’t have been the first time Alice Ivers, more famously known as “Poker Alice,” shot a combative card sharp. While working at a gambling parlor in Deadwood in 1890, she successfully fended off a drunken miner who had pulled a knife on a fellow dealer.
A steady stream of prospectors, ranchers, and cowhands filtered in and out of a Deadwood saloon owned by a man named Bedrock Tom where Alice worked then. An inexperienced musician playing an out of tune accordion squeezed out a familiar melody ushering the pleasure seekers walking by the establishment inside. Burlap curtains were pulled over the dusty windows, and fans hung down from the ceiling and turned lazily. A distressed mahogany bar stood along one wall of the business, and behind it was a bartender splashing amber liquid into glasses as fast as he could. A row of table and chairs occupied the area opposite the bar. Every seat was filled with a card player. Poker Alice sat among a sea of male gamblers. She was alarmingly beautiful, fair-skinned, well-dressed, and slim. She had one eye on the cards she was dealing and another on the men at the game two tables down.
Warren G. Tubbs was studying the cards in his hands so intently he didn’t notice the hulk of a man next to him get up and walk around behind him. The huge man with massive shoulders and ham-like hands that hung low at his side peered over Warren’s shoulder and eyeballed the mountain of chips before him. Alice’s intensely blue eyes carefully watched the brute’s actions. She watched as he casually reached for his belt and produced a sharp knife from a leather sheath hanging off his waist. Just as he was about to plunge the weapon into Warren’s back, a gunshot rang out.
The frivolity in the saloon came to a sudden halt. A sick look filled the man’s face, and he slowly dropped the knife. Before dropping to his knees, he turned to see from which direction the bullet came. Alice stared back at him, her .38 pistol pointed at his head. The man collapsed face first onto the floor. His dead body was quickly removed to make way for another player. In a matter of minutes, the action inside the tavern returned to normal. Warren caught Alice’s gaze and grinned. He nodded to her and waggled his fingers in a kind of salute. She smiled slightly and turned her attention back to the poker game in front of her.
“Poker Alice” was born Alice Ivers in Sudbury, Devonshire England on February 17, 1853. She came to America when she was three years old. The family settled in the south where she was graduated from a women’s college. Her father was a colonel with the Confederate army during the Civil War, commanding the Nineteenth Louisiana infantry. Two of her brothers were killed in the battle of Malvern Hill. Sometime after the close of the war, she married and moved to Leadville, Colorado, with her husband, Frank F. Duffield, and there Duffield was killed in a mine explosion.
After her husband’s death Alice turned to gambling as her means of livelihood. She married Warren Tubbs who she thought was a professional gambler, though he soon saw the wisdom of leaving that work to her. She had a reputation for always dealing a fair deck. She won the sobriquet she carried because of her “poker” face. She gambled for high stakes without a quiver of the hand as she dealt, without the twitch of a face muscle. While playing cards she was a cold as the steel of the .38 revolver she carried with her.
Alice and her husband wandered around the West for more than a year after they were married: Colorado, Nevada, Montana – wherever there was money to be made and men with nerve enough to take “Poker Alice” on in a game. She broke the bank at faro in Silver City, New Mexico, winning a total of $6,000. She and her husband continued to travel after that big win. Alice turned banker and began dealing her own faro game wherever the pair went. The couple eventually made their way to New York. The purpose for the trip was so that Alice could purchase a wardrobe befitting a high-stakes poker player. She bought beautiful gowns, hats, expensive jewelry – all the finery needed to help her gain entrance into the most elite gambling houses west of Independence, Missouri.
Any house would pay $25 a week to a woman handler of cards, of which there were few and of whom “Poker Alice” was the first, but the $25 a week was only a proverbial drop compared to the thousands she made in winnings. According to various newspaper accounts of her life, Alice’s exceptional card playing ability was due in large part to the fact that she was a mathematical genius. Somewhere during her travels, she acquired a taste for alcohol and cigars. When people learned “Poker Alice” was in town they would flock to see the highly skilled card player in her extraordinary dresses, puffing on a cigar.
In the winter of 1874, “Poker Alice” went afoot over the Colorado Rockies from Del Norte to the King Solomon’s mines. There was no trail, and the drifts were high. Her husband had decided not to make the trip with her. He was a regular at the saloons in Denver and didn’t want to be far from a drink at his favorite watering hole. Three eager miners accompanied Alice on the journey. There were only seven people in the mining town on the other end of the trail. By the time Alice’s cabin was built with her own hands, there were enough miners there for the poker playing to be lush and fat.
When Alice returned from King Solomon’s mines, she and Warren followed the Gold Rush riches to Deadwood, South Dakota. Her reputation had preceded her. Residents soon began referring to her as the “Faro Queen of Deadwood.” Whenever lawman and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was in town, he liked to play against the Queen. In fact, he had invited her to sit in on a hand with him on August 2, 1876, the day Jack McCall shot and killed the legendary western character.
Alice eventually opened her own gambling house in Deadwood where she continued to excel at the game of poker. Although she was known for the strict rule, she had against any crooked games played at her establishment, she didn’t have much regard for regulations set outside of her place. On more than one occasion she violated the Volstead Act. Named for Andrew Volstead, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the act prohibited the production, sale, and transport of intoxicating liquors. “Poker Alice” participated in all three of those during the years she operated her own business. The second time she was arrested for violating the act, she was pardoned by the Governor of the state.
In the early 1900s Warren was suffering with tuberculosis and needed peace and quiet. Alice and he purchased a homestead on the Moreau River outside the town of Sturgis where he could rest and relax. During a blizzard in 1910 Warren contracted pneumonia and died. Alice transported his frozen remains in a horse-drawn sled into Sturgis where his funeral was held, and his body was buried. Alice remarried less than a year later. Her new husband was an obnoxious drunk named George Hockert. Huckert died on their third wedding anniversary.
At this point in her long life, “Poker Alice” had rid herself of the fashionable dresses she once wore and took to wearing Khaki skirts, men’s shirts, and an old campaign hat. Her beauty had all but faded, and her hair had turned silver. The only thing that remained of the Alice of old was her cigars.
In late 1913, Alice bought a profitable “entertainment business” – one that attracted hordes of soldiers stationed at Fort Meade, South Dakota. In addition to female companionship, she also sold bootleg whisky. A friendly argument here ended in a free-for-all in which a man was killed. Alice, quick on the draw, was freed by a jury on a “justifiable homicide” plea.
Indian wars, sheep and cattle stampedes, prairie fires, blizzards, and all the peculiar phenomenon of the West go hand in hand with the lurid, oftentimes illegal, activities surrounding mining gambling tables. However, poker was Alice’s life, and she made no excuse for the line of work she was in or for the trouble she had with the law because of her profession.
She often boasted that God gave her the best poker face of any man, woman or child ever made, and seasoned old poker players say that a royal flush or a pair of deuces in her hand made no difference in the face of “Poker Alice.”
She played in thousands and not in dollars as white chip players did. Though she never had any definite idea how much money she every won, she always told her children (She had seven children with Warren. Only two survived to adulthood.) she thought her winnings came to more than a quarter of a million dollars.
According to the April 23, 1929, edition of the Florence, South Carolina newspaper the Morning News, Alice recalled that “the old-time gambling halls did not match the gowns of the women gamblers and the national splendor of the men…. Towns grew too quickly, and the demand came too soon,” she told reporters. “Sometimes a gambling table was merely set up in the street. The halls were just made of saw logs with a bar at one side, a cleared space for dancing, and the gambling tables at the other end. The setting attracted honest men and outlaws. I proudly admit that at one time or another, I was in both categories.”
“Dealers worked continually in shifts,” Alice explained. “I generally drew the 12 midnight to 6 a.m. for the miners who didn’t get into town till then. This was the hours when guns barked loudly, as frayed nerves sought the gambling dens after hours of grueling physical labor and disappointment when the yellow gold didn’t run in the pan. Running home on the streets in the early morning was dangerous, too. Many stray bullets whistled through my hair as I went to and from a shift.”
Alice’s health began deteriorating after her run-in with the law in 1913. For seventeen years she suffered with one ailment after another. In 1930, the seventy-seven-year-old gambler complained to doctors that she had pain throughout her entire body. They informed her that the problem was her gallbladder and recommended that it be removed. The doctors also told her that the surgery was risky for a woman of her age. Alice, who thrived on risk, decided to go through with the operation.
On February 27, 1930, three weeks after having surgery, Alice passed away. Her estate, which she estimated at one time to be more than a quarter of a million dollars, had been reduced to $50 and a few possessions. Alice was buried in Sturgis at the St. Aloysius Cemetery.