A Cheating Set with a Surprise

Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio.
Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio.

The implements of a cheating gambler fit inside this box. Because he was serious about winning at any cost, he was probably a roving gambler.

The large pin with the ace is a “bug.” The ends are sharp and could spear the underside of the table and hold the card.

The other card is in a card trimmer. It looks like a miniature paper cutter.

The drills and metal guide are to load dice. Cheating gamblers drilled holes on the black dots of one side and filled them with a heavy metal such as gold. They painted a new black dot on top of each one they altered. When rolled, the dice were more likely to land with the heavy side down.

A gambler’s opponents were often armed with a derringer or dagger, so it astonishes me that the owner of this cheating set had his initials put on the box, along with the year (JMD 1867). The box does not lock.

It has a simple hook latch, and might fall open if dropped, and it could be opened by anyone, such as someone who just lost a bundle to Mr. JMD. He could have marked his box discreetly, like he did cards and dice, to tell it apart from boxes of other gamblers.

He risked getting shot by having his initials put on this. He liked taking a big risk, and he was one cocky son of a gun.

Gamblers of the Old West

There were two kinds of professionals, the gamblers who stayed in one town for months or years, and itinerant gamblers who traveled so they could play opponents they might never see again. Guess which type cheated more often.

Resident gamblers made their home in a town or city. They often worked in boomtowns, where a gold or silver strike or the coming of the railroad had caused a “boom” in population. Resident gamblers, like all good Victorian-era Americans, guarded their reputations. These men were seen as upright members of the community, men with a skilled profession, even though they may have worked in raucous saloons and gambling halls.  They were called “square dealers.” Square meant fair, honest, and straightforward. We still say “square deal.” Some resident gamblers were women.

They were skilled at the games, and they made a good living without cheating. Many of them probably cheated occasionally, for instance, they might if they realized an opponent was cheating them (The Gamblers, Time-Life Books).

Roulette Table. After 1900. Roulette Table. After 1900.
A portable roulette game from the 1860s. A portable roulette game from the 1860s.

 

The roulette table above is heavy, with the layout, the area where people placed their chips, painted on the table. By contrast, the roulette setup at right has a separate wheel and the layout is enameled canvas, which the itinerant gambler could roll up for travel, great when he needed to make a quick getaway.

Roulette wheels were sometimes rigged.

Itinerant gamblers liked playing travelers on the great Mississippi riverboats, river towns and trains. Travel was slow compared to today, so travelers had time, they carried money, and many had come west looking for fortune and adventure. Camps of miners and prospectors were prime territory for itinerant gamblers. Prospectors hoped to get lucky and strike it rich by finding silver or gold, or at a game of chance. The cheating, fly-by-night gambler was happy to play them.