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Bet and Be a Man
THE Gay Nineties was a freebootinG age in America. Gambling started at the top, and that remarkable Southern journalist and politician, Henry Watterson, has left us an engaging account of the great at play around the poker table. The characters were the writer, President Cleveland, Secretary of the Navy Whitney, Senator Don Cameron of Pennsylvania and Speaker of the House John Griffin Carlisle.
"It chanced on a deal that I picked up a pat flush, Mr. Cleveland a pat full. The Pennsylvania Senator and I went to the extreme, the President of course willing enough for us to play his hand for him. But the Speaker of the House persistently stayed with us and could not be driven out. When it came to a draw Senator Cameron drew one card. Mr. Cleveland stood pat. But Mr. Carlisle drew four cards. At leno-th, after much banter and betting, it reached a show-down and, mirabile dictu, the Speaker held four kin~s! `Take the money, Carlisle, take the money,' exclaimed the President. `If ever I am President again you shall be Secretary of the Treasury. But don't you make that four-card draw too often.' He was President again, and Mr. Carlisle was Secretary of the Treasury."
During the brief and inglorious Spanish-American war there was the usual outbreak of gambling in an army engaged in the military rhythm of "Hurry up and wait." The American male has always regarded tribute to his skill at poker as the highest compliment. When Colonel Harold Hinton, the official biographer of Cordell Hull, sent the Secretary of State the draft of an anecdote that touched on Hull's draw-poker talents, Hull corrected the manuscript. It stated that he played the game as though he had been born with a deck of cards in his hand and that during the Spanish-American War he had separated the men in his company from their money regularly every payday. When Hull returned the story to Hinton, the word "company" had been replaced by "regiment."
The gambling millionaires who straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have become a part of American folklore. None of them was the center of more stories than Bet-A-Million Gates, who not only put up that sum, but would bet on anything.
One day at a race track when August Belmont chided him for his enormous bets, Gates explained: "For me there's no fun in betting just a few thousand. . . . I want to lay down enough to hurt the other fellow if he loses, and enough to hurt me if I lose."
More than for his dollar-a-point bridge, his no-limit poker games, or his high flyers at the race track Gates is remembered for his fanciful bets.
He and John Drake, son of the millionaire governor of Iowa, F. M. Drake, would sit at a table in their favorite hotel in Chicago, each take and moisten a lump of sugar and keep score whenever a fly lighted on it. At the end of a specified time, usually an hour, each man added up the number of times a fly had settled on his piece of sugar, the winner taking $1000 for every extra touchdown on his piece.
Gates and John Lambert would wager $1000 apiece on a stormy day that a particular raindrop would be the first to reach the bottom of a window.
Even in an age of exaggerated play Gates's reputation was so flamboyant that men wanted to bet against him so they could boast about it for the rest of their lives and all the current gambling gags were credited to him. It was told how in a private car, traveling to Alabama on business with Drake and several important capitalists, Gates was in the middle of a poker deal when a total stranger barged in.
"Who's Bet-A-Million Gates?" he asked. "I want to play him."
"Sit down," said Gates.
The stranger pulled out a wad of ten- and twenty-dollar bills and flung them grandiosely on the table. "There's five hundred dollars," he declared. "Give me chips."
Gates turned to Drake and said quietly, "Give the gentleman a chip."
With his cronies, men like Elbert H. Gary, Henry Clay Frick, Joe Leiter, John Drake, John Lambert, Dan Sully, Ike Ellwood, Loyall L. Smith, "Sulphur King" Herman Frasch and "Coffee King" Herman Sielcken, Gates played poker in New York's old Waldorf-Astoria for five- and six-day stretches, with stakes too steep for ordinary millionaires. They generally started with a limit of $1000 a bet, but as they became more and more eager the limits were apt to be increased. In March 1900 the New York Herald reported one such game in which at least $1,000,000 was involved, probably the biggest poker game in American gambling annals. Joe Leiter, son of Marshall Field's partner, Levi Z. Leiter, won $80,000 in a single hand by bluffing Gates with a pair of sevens. In two years Joe, whose gambling in wheat was as spectacular as Gould's in gold - though minus the corruption - took Gates for a million dollars.
Another man who took Gates for enough to hurt was Diamond Jim Brady and the occasion was the 1896 presidential campaign between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. The lobby and bar of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the Republican Party headquarters across the street from Democratic headquarters in the Hoffman House, were full of partisans and sports ready to risk cash on the outcome. Big Billy Edwards, the famous Hoffmarr House bouncer, held stakes, almost $500,000 crammed into his pockets. In one corner of the lobby Bet-A-Million Gates, James R. Keene-the Silver Fox of Wall Street-Diamond Jim, and a group of millionaires from Pittsburgh were betting among themselves. Brady would leave the others every fifteen minutes or so, explaining that he wanted to look for bets in the crowd at the bar. Each time he got back he made a remarkably accurate bet on how many votes the Republican Party would roll up in a particular state. Before the evening was out he won close to $200,000 this way. Actually Brady went, not to the bar, but to the headquarters across the street, where an associate of his was busily engaged calculating and working out trends and results as fast as returns were telegraphed in.
The wealth of the fathers was spent with gusto by the sons in the closing days of the nineteenth century, with the Vanderbilt clan tops in this sport. "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt amassed an astronomic fortune and his second son and namesake, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, was adept at disposing of it gambling. The Commodore recognized his son's predilection and limited him to a measly $200 weekly allowance, sufficient, he felt, for simple necessities and a few luxuries if the young man were careful.
It was no more enough than $2000 would have been. Cornelius, who always gambled and almost always lost, was forever in debt for money to gamble more. He borrowed from his friends and his family and, since he was a persuasive talker, from many important men who listened attentively to his real and imaginary tales of woe. Schuyler Colfax, onetime Vice President of the United States, and Horace Greeley never could say no when Cornelius went to work on them. Young Vanderbilt had no compunctions about borrowing more than once from the same sources and he sponged on Greeley till the debt exceeded $50,000.
Cornelius was closefisted with his money and hung onto every dollar bill till he got to the tables, where a hundred dollar bill suddenly seemed to him worth about a penny. Nothing interrupted his gambling, once he sat down to a game of his favorite faro, except seizures of the epilepsy from which he suffered and that left him unconscious for a few minutes. His companions would keep on playing with Cornelius looking like a cadaver in a "sleep of death" alongside them. They knew that as soon as he regained conscious he would resume gambling.
By the time the Commodore died in January 1887, at the age of eighty-two, his son's gambling excesses had cost him the major part of his fortune. Of the remaining $75,000,000 to $90,000,000 the great bulk went to the eldest son, William Henry, and the rest was divided among other members of the family. The Commodore, having no desire to leave his money, even indirectly, to professional gamblers, allotted Cornelius the smallest share, trying to do from the grave what he never could while he lived - force Cornelius to keep away from gambling houses. The Commodore directed that $200,000 be set aside for his profligate son, the interest to be applied to his maintenance and support, with the principal tied up so that creditors could get not a cent. William, more generous than his father, allowed his brother to live on the interest of $1,000,000 which he could afford.
The tradition survived. William K., too, figured in many stories of high play during Richard Canfield's heyday at Saratoga. One fine evening he called at the Grand Union Hotel to take two ladies out for dinner. Waiting on the piazza he saw the bright lights of the Club House across the way and decided to spend ten minutes at its tables. He might even win the price of an elaborate dinner for three. Willie tarried and when he returned to the Grand Union he was out $130,000 - the price of ten thousand dinners for three.
The liberal allowances that liberal, and rich, papas doled out to their sons permitted the lads to have high old times at the leading colleges, courting show girls, dallying over wine and whisky glasses and burning more midnight oil over poker than over books. Even sedate Harvard had its fast set in the 1880s, "composed of rich men and their satellites ... say one hundred men with pocket incomes ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 a year and more if occasion warrants and their parents permit," as Aleck Quest observed in 1888. "Their expenditures are as liberal as the judgment of their fathers is limited. . . . Their pride is in their reputation as fast men."
Gambling was nothing new on campus. Colonel Jerome Napoleoh Bonaparte once reminisced that he'd been called on the carpet at Harvard "for having a private cockpit in his rooms." But fashions had changed and by the 1880s poker was the delight of the college sports. "Bet and be a man" was the guiding principle of many an undergraduate, and an instructor wrote pensively, "The bane of Harvard College is poker. One of the most surprising things is the universality of poker; like the measles, it attacks rich and poor; some rooms are regular dives, where games are always going on. I dropped into such a room the other evening where seven men were playing, and four or five more lying around reading novels and waiting for a chance to play. In college the dual life may be followed with greater success than in after years. I know a `wicked sport' who is preparing for the ministry; he is a regular poker sharp; his room is a den; and the other day, when a fellow hailed him with `Hello! Will you play tonight?' he replied with the utmost nonchalance: `No, I can't; I'm going to Phillips Brooks's prayer meeting.' His strongest claim to religion is that, as the boys say, he is a `Christian' about paying up his I.O.U.'s." And what applied to Harvard applied in general to other leading American colleges.
In East Coast colleges poker was a "gentleman's game," while in the Midwest and West academic circles preferred banking and other short-card games. Card manufacturers ran advertisements of their products in college periodicals. Such a one appeared in 1891 in The Chronicle Argonaut, published in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by members of the university's student body:
FINE PLAYING CARDS. - Send ten (10) cents in stamps or coin to John Sebastian, Gen'1 Tkt. and Pass. Ag't Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Ry., Chicago, Ill., for a pack of the latest, smoothest, slickest playing cards that ever gladdened the eyes and rippled along the fingers of the devotee to HighFive, Seven-Up, Casino, Dutch, Euchre, Whist or any other ancient or modern game, and get your money's worth five times over.
President Schurman of Cornell painted a bleak and awful picture for the class of 1906: "To get and to have is the motto not only of the market, but of the altar and of the hearth. We are coming to measure man-man with his heart and mind and soul -in terms of mere acquisition and possession. A waning Christianity and a waxing Mammonism are the twin spectres of our age. The love of money and the reckless pursuit of it are undermining the National character."
Americans who had money seemed not to know what to do with it except, as Henry Adams said, "use it to make more, or throw it away." The rich and near rich did both in the stock market and in such gambling palaces as Colonel Edward Riley Bradley's Beach Club in Palm Beach. The not so rich looked to policy, keno, and other games of chance to make them rich overnight.
The eagerness to get rich quick tended to alter established moral attitudes and it came as no surprise to even strait-laced members of the congregation when, on April 13, 1908, the New England Methodist Episcopal Conference voted to remove the church's taboo on dancing, theater attendance, and card playing.
Popular songs and plays are clues to the principles and customs of every generation, and the years between the turn of the century and World War I are rich in indications of the American frame of mind. "That Up-to-Date-Girl of Mine" in the '90s presaged the coming equality of the sexes.
She bets on the horses At all the race courses, Her equal you never could find. Each day all the papers Give space to her capers, She glories in poker At billiards she's a corker, This Up-To-Date Girl of Mine.
In 1901, "My Bunco Queen," from the musical comedy Rogers Brothers in Washington, was the rage as well as The Casino Girl. In 1902 a hit song from Sally in Our Alley was "Sport, Joke and Two Spot." One of the top songs of 1904 was "Marriage Is a Lottery," from The Tenderfoot, with Jerome Kern and Paul West's "Poker Love" from The Rich Mrs. Hoggenheimer a bright spot of 1906. "The Racing Game" was a popular number from the New York Hippodrome's 1908 production of Sporting Days, followed by "The American Monte Carlo" the next year from In Hayti. "Life Is a Game of Chance" enlivened Broadway to Paris in 1912 and "Gamble on Me" was the hit of The Passing Show of 1915.
Despite these romantic ditties gambling itself began to lose the eclat of the preceding decades. There was nothing to touch Canfield's luxuries or daring and few gambling houses any longer could be called honest.
Poker was the national indoor gambling sport and the average bet in gambling houses right across the country was from one to five dollars, with jack pot the standard draw poker game played in the big cities. The house usually took a 20 per cent cut of each pot. Since most tables were in use twelve hours a day and about twenty games played an hour, the house averaged sixty dollars a day per table.
If customers were scarce, play was kept going by introducing "players for the house" who received 10 per cent of their winnings while the house put up their money and stood their losses. Players for the house who did not win with fair regularity were soon out of a job. A single house player sitting in on a game played above-theboard in general, but when there were two of them the customer was up against organized odds. If he opened the pot - and house players rarely did - the house player stayed in only if he had a strong hand. He did not bluff. If he and a colleague had strong enough hands to stay in, they raised and reraised the customer so insistently that he was frightened into dropping out, no matter how good his hand.
The old cheating techniques continued, the dealing from the bottom, use of marked cards, and all the ancient chicaneries in lesser gambling houses and "snaps, "so-called private games rigged by the unscrupulous to fleece the unwary. Typical of the latter was the case of a rich Californian, who on a visit to St. Louis, was asked by a friend to sit in on a private, no-limit game of draw poker at the Lindell Hotel. After a quarter of an hour during which he had neither won nor lost much, the deal came around to the Californian. He was a superstitious cardplayer and when he picked up the cards was in high good humor.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I am going to kiss the queen of diamonds for luck."
He proceeded to search the deck. There was no queen of diamonds, no queen of hearts, no queen of clubs. Only the queen of spades.
A mirthless stillness settled over the poker table, then a player named Johnny made a weak attempt to humor away the silence. "The deck seems to be short."
"Strange how the queens disappeared," the Californian said to Johnny, "especially when you had three of them in the last hand we played."
He cashed in his chips, rose from the table, and bade the others good evening.
Half an hour later the Californian ran into his friend in the hotel lobby.
"I'm awfully sorry for what happened," said the friend, "and Johnny is sorrier than I. He says he was a damned fool to hold those three queens out so early in the game, that he could have trimmed you out of your bank roll anyhow, without cheating." "I accept your apology," said the Californian.
Partly in reaction to the spenders of the '90s, during the early part of the twentieth century, before World War I, there was nationwide disapproval and objection to gambling of any shape, form, or kind as being inconsistent with moral laws and a violation of man-made laws. Horse-race gambling was a prime target of the reformers - less because horse racing was popular and betting widespread than because of the unprincipled practices and dishonesty attached to the track. The drive against horse racing was also indirectly related to the great social resentment stirred up by the muckrakers against businessmen and politicians who had become wealthy by plundering the public in the past period. Many a new millionaire had bought his way in to upper-crustdom by owning horses or proprietary interests in racing tracks.
Most annoying to track officials and ammunition to reformers was the publicity given to the staggering amounts wagered and won by colorful plungers. Such sums created a strong impression in the public's mind that the races must be fixed. For example, two million or more dollars changed ownership among a few hands when John Drake's two-year-old wonder colt, Savable, ran a glorious race and won the Futurity Stakes at Sheepshead Bay in 1902. The race was apparently on the level, but people muttered that nobody in his right mind would risk hundreds of thousands of his money unless he knew the race was in the bag.
The arrogant, swaggering world of the untrammeled, piratical individualists was crumbling. Lesser men who once dreamed of betting against Bet-A-Million to make their names immortal regarded him now with sanctimonious eyes. When New York track authorities told Gates that he would be barred from betting on the bangtails unless he lowered his wagers, he was saddened and appalled. The golden age was over.