The Old West is filled with legends but none is more colorful than Poker Alice. Her real name was Alice Ivers and she born of privilege in 1851 in England. She attended an elite boarding school for young women until her family moved to Leadville, Colorado. There Alice met Frank Duffield, a mining engineer, and they were married.
Gambling was prevalent in the rough mining camps and Frank Duffield did his share. Alice often accompanied him to keep from staying home alone. Alice quickly learned she had an ability to read cards and took up poker and faro. When Frank died in a mining accident, Alice decided to put to use what she’d learned. Left alone with no means of support she turned to poker as a way to earn a nice living. It was certainly more respectable than prostitution.
Alice stood at 5’4” with blue eyes and lush brown hair. Decked out in her fashionable dresses, she was quite a sight for lonely miners. It was rare to find a “lady” in a saloon that wasn’t of the “soiled dove” caliber so they flocked to her. They quickly bestowed the nickname Poker Alice on her and she was in much demand. It’s rumored that she once broke the bank at the Gold Dust Gambling House in New Mexico where she won $6,000 in one night.
Sometime during this period she began smoking large black cigars. Some said it was quite a sight to see her in frilly dresses with a big cigar sticking from her mouth. Alice also took to carrying a .38 revolver and wasn’t a bit squeamish to use it. Her reputation grew and so did her pocketbook.
However, she was deeply religious and never gambled on Sundays. The lady did have her scruples it seems.
Alice traveled all over Colorado, New Mexico and South Dakota playing and sometimes dealing the game she loved. But it was in Deadwood, South Dakota that she met Warren Tubbs, a dealer. They married shortly after and homesteaded a ranch near Sturgis, South Dakota. Loving the quiet ranch life, Alice cut back on the time spent in gambling houses. She and Warren had seven children and it was one of the happiest times of her life.
But it wasn’t to last. Alice’s poker luck didn’t extend to husbands. Warren contracted tuberculosis and died of pneumonia in the winter of 1910. She drove his body 50 miles to give him a decent burial and pawned her wedding ring. Broke with children to feed, Alice again had to turn to poker to earn a living.
She hired a man by the name of George Huckert to take care of the ranch. He fell head over heels in love with Alice and asked her to marry him several times. Finally, Alice relented saying that it was cheaper to marry George than pay him all the back wages she owed him. The ink was barely dry on the marriage license before George died in 1913.
This time when Alice returned to the gambling halls she wanted to do more than be a patron. She purchased her own place and named the saloon “Poker’s Palace.” There she provided everything a lonely man required—liquor, gambling, and working girls. One night a drunken soldier went on a rampage in the saloon, breaking furniture and threatening the customers. Alice promptly took out her .38 and shot the man dead. She was arrested of course and thrown into jail, but at the trial she was acquitted on grounds of self-defense and released.
She lost her saloon though. Authorities shut her down and it seemed to take a lot of the fight out of Alice. A little while passed and Alice was now in her 70’s. Her beauty had faded and she began dressing in men’s clothing. She continued to run a house of ill-repute in Sturgis and was arrested many times for drunkenness and charged with being a madam. Finally, after repeated convictions she was sentenced to prison. Alice was 75. Taking her advanced years in account, the governor of South Dakota pardoned her. She died of complications from gall bladder surgery in 1930 and was buried in Sturgis, presumably beside Warren Tubbs.
According to the Legends of America website, Alice was said to have won more than $250,000 (3 million in today’s money) at the gaming tables during her lifetime and she never once cheated. One of her favorite sayings was: “Praise the Lord and place your bets. I’ll take your money with no regrets.”
Doesn’t this sound like a character in a romance book? Poker Alice was colorful and independent. She lived life on her own terms. When the chips were down, she didn’t ask for a handout—she went back to work. I really admire women like that.
Have you read any books or watched western movies where the heroine was unconventional, maybe working in a saloon or even owning one? Miss Kitty definitely springs to mind, but there are others. Cheryl St. John wrote The Bounty Hunter in which Lily Devine was the feisty owner of The Shady Lady. Great story.
I’m not giving away anything this week but next Monday I’ll post the release of To Marry a Texas Outlaw and will give some copies away.