How Poker Got Its Bad Name: Sol Smith & the Steamboat Hustle

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26 September 2017, Created By: Dirk Oetzmann
How Poker Got Its Bad Name: Sol Smith & the Steamboat Hustle

You know how poker keeps trying to get rid of its reputation of being a 'shady' game played by 'shady' people in 'shady' places?

Sure you do.

But how did poker get that rep in the first place? We’re going back to the Wild West and the early days of poker to show you.

We'll take you to the times of Wild Bill and Wyatt Earp and to a place where poker was both curse and promise – decades before Las Vegas was even founded.

These are the stories of how poker got its bad name.

We fired our cannon 'til the barrel melted down
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with cannon balls, and powdered his behind
And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind

Johnny Norton, The Battle of New Orleans

Setting the Scene: The South in 1835

At the time the American flag has just 24 stars on it and Mississippi - the state that gave the Great River its name - had become #20 in 1817.

We’re headed for New Orleans, Louisiana, though. It’s June and the heat has kicked in to the harbour of the Southern pearl.

Temperatures soar over 33°C and high humidity makes your clothes stick to your skin. But the harbour buzzes with people. The air is filled with the commands of the dock hands and the rustling of cranes hoisting cargo in and out of the ships.

The port of New Orleans has already become one of the most important in the young country that has given itself the name the “United States."

mississippi steamboat illustration 1830s

Ships bring all sorts of cargo from every other continent – cotton, wood, food, spices from Asia, immigrants from Europe and slaves from Africa.

Slavery is becoming the foundation of the American economy. Just five years before, Congress also decided that Native Americans would be displaced and deported into reservations – by a majority of one single vote.

There are people who care, though. The 1834 Slavery Debates at the Lane Theological Seminary brought forth severe doubts about the justification of slavery and the future was still open.

But this is a time not only of social but religious and political conflict. Within the next few months the US will see the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in Florida, the first assassination attempt on an American president (Andrew Jackson; unsuccessful) and Texas declaring independence from Mexico.

While the people watch the ships pouring in and out the port, Charles Darwin is on his way to the Galapagos archipelago on the HMS Beagle. His findings turn our understanding of biology and nature on its head.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans and the Southern states, life is tough. Malaria is omnipresent but the term was only been coined five years ago and nobody knows what really causes the disease that is killing thousands of people every year.

It's almost as frightening as the Black Death in Medieval Europe.

Currently, there’s a new invention revolutionizing a very private part of social life on the old continent. The Scottish inventor calls it a “flush toilet," but the idea hasn’t caught on in the States yet. The city smells accordingly.

In these living conditions the average life expectancy is 35 years.

Enter Sol Smith

sol smith in later years

None of this bothers our soon-to-be-named hero, however. He’s embarking on a trip north on the great Mississippi and his mission is a cultural one. He’s on his way to St Louis to find actors for his theatrical company.

Culturally, the New World is not on the same level as the Old. While Verdi, Liszt, Bach, Rossini and Mendelssohn are creating pieces of music in Europe that will stand the test of time, the US mostly fiddles with, well, fiddles and honkytonk piano.

That doesn’t faze the European immigrants pouring into the harbour of New Orleans. Imagination is a driving force of both the immigrants and the inhabitants of the New World and literature gives us some proof.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bestseller; Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allen Poe’s works are captivating the literate. James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels will become standard chronicles of the era.

It’s also the year Mark Twain, creator of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, is born. And that brings us back to the scene in the port of New Orleans.

On the jetties, hundreds of women in sweeping dresses hold small umbrellas and men in tuxedos and top hats look on and admire what is undoubtedly the highlight of modern technology and transportation – the Mississippi steamboat.

And right there, in the middle of these boat passengers to be, is our hero. He goes by the name of Sol Smith and has no idea that his whole existence will be on the line within the next 72 hours.

The Germans Call It Pochen

In 1835, roads are but muddy paths. Land transport is still dominated by horses and carriages and the Great Railway from East to West hasn’t made it past Washington.

It’ll take another couple of decades until it reaches the Pacific so the Mississippi steamboat is the most efficient and fastest means of transport for both people and goods.

They’ve been around for a quarter of a century and their number triples every couple of years. There are now about 1,200 boats going up and down the “Great River," carrying tobacco, rice, cotton, timber, and of course, people.

European immigrants are taking the boats as their means of entry into, they hope, a better life. They come with hopes and anticipations but they’re also bringing something that will become a trademark of American Society.

The Germans call it “Pochen” while the French have a similar game called “Poquer." They’re card games, and they’re game changers for America where they soon start calling it “poker."

Sol Smith isn’t unfamiliar with poker; in fact he rather fancies it, albeit on a very friendly, low-stakes level. As we shall see, he might like it a little too much.

The Steamboat – A Coin Flip for Life

overloaded sultana before the disaster

One thing is for sure: if you stepped on a steamboat in 1835, you were already a gambler. Although steamboats were very successful, and their number tripled roughly every 10 years, in the first two decades more than half of them exploded.

Until 1850 around 4,000 fatalities were documented and the most common reason was exploding boilers. Boilers served as the engines of the ships and were fuelled by wood or coal. They were made of weak iron, usually badly maintained, and there were no inspections or tests.

As the ships were built of wood the boilers basically posed a constant threat to the passengers’ lives. About 500 vessels are known to have sunk during that period and these accidents often resulted in a terrible death toll.

In fact the worst maritime disaster in American history was not the sinking of the Titanic but the explosion of the Sultana in 1865, which killed over 1,500 people according to the US Customs Service.

Nevertheless, one of the favorite pastimes of the passengers was to bet and, as there were plenty of ships going up and down the Mississippi river, they mostly bet on the boats racing each other.

The boilers in the engine rooms were frequently pushed hard and that raised the risk of fire even more.

Introducing the Poker Predators

poker on the mississippi steamboat

Thanks to the introduction of "pochen" and "poquer," poker soon became a popular pastime on the steamboats. Within a few years the cities along the river filled up with gaming houses and these filled up with poker predators.

Because immigrants had all the money they had with them they often found their dreams shattered before they even stepped on American soil. Laws and regulations were then taken to get rid of the cheats so they moved to the ships themselves, going up and down the river.

Many of them rarely ever disembarked. They specialized in luring immigrants into the games. The immigrants were trapped by letting them win some money first and then stripping them of all the currency they had with them.

These cheating players are the origin of poker’s bad name and our hero Sol Smith was on direct route to sharing the fate of the poor immigrants. This is the story of how he narrowly escaped without even realizing what was happening to him until many months later.

[The following is an excerpt from the book Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years by Solomon Smith, 1868]

A Friendly Poker Game

On the evening of our second day out from New Orleans I found myself seated at a card-table, with three of my fellow passengers, playing at the interesting game of “poker." Card-playing was a very common amusement then, and it was not unusual to see half a dozen tables occupied at the same time in the gentlemen’s cabin of a Mississippi boat.

 

I had set down at the game for amusement, but on rising at ten o’clock I found my amusement had cost me about sixty dollars! [Editor’s note: $100 in 1835 equals $2,560 today] “This won’t do at all,“ said I, thinking aloud; “I must try it again tomorrow.”

 

“Of course you must,” replied one of the poker players, who happened to be an old acquaintance of mine from Montgomery, Alabama, where he had been a jailer for several years, and where he was considered a very respectable citizen.

 

“You must not give it up so.” He continued, following me out on the guard; “tomorrow you’ll get even.” I entered into conversation with my old acquaintance, whose name was (…) Hubbard – and he advised me by all means to try another sitting on the morrow.

 

I suggested to him that a slight suspicion had crossed my mind that some of our card party might possibly be blacklegs – in other words, gamblers.

 

He answered that the same thought had struck him at one time, but he had come to the conclusion that all had been fair. Before leaving me, my quondam friend told me that he had become a sporting man – he felt it his duty to inform me of it – but he assured me, upon his honor(!), he would not see me wronged. Of course I believed him, and it was agreed that we should try our luck again.

 

steamboat race
Steamboat races were a constant lethal threat on the Great River.

Next morning, soon as the breakfast things had been cleared away, I found Hubbard and a friend of his waiting for me at one of the card-tables, and I took my seat with the hope of getting even – a hope which has led many a man into irretrievable ruin.

 

I felt quite confident of winning back my losings overnight, and my playmates gave me every encouragement that I should be successful. At it we went, playing with varying luck for about two hours.

 

At about eleven o’clock, Hubbard’s friend left us for a few minutes to “get a drink”, and the jailer and myself were left playing single-handed. When the third man left, we were using the “small cards”, as they are called – that is, sixes and under; but Hubbard immediately proposed that we should take the “large cards” (tens and over), which I agreed to, as a matter of course.

 

One thing I here observed – my friend, the jailer, dealt the cards without shuffling. This made me resolve to watch him closely. Taking up my cards, I was agreeably surprised to find that I had an excellent hand.

 

“Now,” thinks I to myself,” now is the time, if ever, to get even; if my adversary only happens to have a decent hand, I shall do well enough.”

 

I commenced the game by bragging a dollar. My adversary went the dollar, and five better. I went that and ten. He immediately put up the ten and laid down a twenty, keeping his pocket-book, as much to say, “I am ready to go anything you choose to bet.”

 

After a moment’s reflection (all acting), I said, “I go that – and fifty.” “All right,” replied the jailer, “there it is; I go that and a hundred.”

 

“Take back your last bet,” I urged; “it is too much for either of us to lose. I begin to think I have been rash; take it back and let us show our hands for the money already down.” “No,” said Hubbard; “if you mean sporting, put up the hundred or back out and give me the money.”

 

“Can’t do that,” I replied; “I don’t come from a backing-out country; I must have a showing for the money that’s down – so there’s the hundred; and, as my pocket-books out, and my hand’s in, there’s another C.” This new bet seemed to please my friend Hubbard mightily.

 

He answered it without a moment’s pause, and went two hundred more! I now requested my opponent to permit me to show my cards to some of the by-standers, who were crowding around the table in great numbers to see the fun, all considering me most undoubtedly “picked up."

 

Hubbard would not agree that I should show my hand to, or take advice from any one. “Play your own cards,” said he, reaching over, and gently compelling me to lay my cards on the table before me. “Then,” said I, “you tell me if three aces and two other cards can be beat?”

 

“Oh, yes,” he replied, smiling with a self-satisfied air, and using the spit box, “they can be beat, certainly, but not easy.” “Not easy, I think myself,” replied I; “therefore, inasmuch as I believe you are trying to bluff me off, I go the two hundred.”

 

“You do!” “Yes, I do; there’s the money.” “Anything better?” inquired my adversary, insinuatingly, and leaning over to make use of the spit-box again, all the time keeping his gray eyes fixed upon my countenance.

 

“Why – yes,” I answered, “since you’ve got me excited, I will go something better – I go two hundred better than you.” Looking me steadily in the face, he said, “Well, you’re a bold fellow, anyhow, for a novice, it takes all I’ve got, by hokey, but I go it; and if you’ll let me bet on a credit, I should like to go back at you.” (Spit-box.)

 

Feeling confident of winning, I consented that he might go what he liked, on a credit, provided I should be allowed the same privilege. “Well, then,” said Hibbard, a little spitefully, “I go you five hundred better – on a credit.” (Spit-box again.)

 

“The devil you do!” exclaimed I, “this looks like gambling; but since we’re in for it so deeply, I go you the five hundred, and – a thousand better – on a credit.”

 

At this stage of the game the third hand returned, and seeing at a glance how matters stood, requested to look at Hubbard’s cards.

 

“No, Sir,” interposed I, “you must play your own cards,” at the same time motioning my opponent to lay down his cards as I had laid down mine. The carpet began to suffer at about this time – the spit-box was disregarded.

 

The excitement among the passengers was great, and my ears received many a whisper that I was “licked”. Hubbard took a long and earnest look into my eyes, and said slowly but confidently, “I – go it – and – call you.”

 

“I suppose I’m beat”, said I (hypocrite that I was! I didn’t suppose anything of the kind); “but turn over your papers and let us see what you’ve got.”

 

With one hand he gracefully turned over FOUR KINGS and a jack, and with the other tremblingly “raked down” the pile of bank-notes, gold and silver, while a groan burst out from the spectators, who all seemed to regret my bad luck.

 

“You are as lucky as a jailer,” I remarked, as my friend began to smooth down the V’s, X’s, L’s, and C’s. “Bye-the-by,” he inquired, again resorting to the spit-box, and looking over patronizingly at me, “I forgot to ask what you had.”

 

“Well,” I replied calmly, “I think you might as well see my cards.” “Ha! Ha! – oh, I reckon you’re beat, my friend,” he answered; “but let’s see your hand, at all events.”

 

steamboat poker from sol smiths book
Four aces!

“Here are the documents,” replied I, “there’s my hand!” and I turned over my cards one by one: “there’s an ace – and there’s another – and there’s another!”

 

“A pretty good hand, young man,” remarked Hubbard – “Three aces! What else have you?” “What else? Why, there’s a queen.” “And what else?” asked everybody. “Another ace!” FOUR ACES!!!

 

I looked over the table and discovered the face of my lately elated friend had lost all color, the tobacco juice was running out of the corners of his mouth; the bank notes were dropped, and amazement and stupefaction were strongly imprinted on his features.

 

A shout went up from the bystanders, and all hands were invited to take Champagne at my expense.

 

It is scarcely necessary to say that the money bet on a credit was never paid, nor was it ever expected to be paid. My friend Hubbard recollected he had urgent business at Vicksburg, and left the boat. It so happened that the stranger who had played with us also disembarked at the same burg, where they met with a singular accident, being promiscuously hung, a few days afterward, by a mob!

 

Hubbard died game, and spat upon the excited populace.

 

About a month after the adventure above related, I met a gentleman in Cincinnatti whom I instantly recognized as one of my fellow-passengers on the Warren. After inquiring the state of each other’s health, he asked me if I had played any at the game of poker lately.

“Not since the great game you witnessed on board the Warren,” I replied. “Do not play anymore,” said he, assuming a serious air; “you are liable to be fleeced. I saw you were in the hands of swindlers,” he continued, “and, when one of the fellows left the table, I noticed that he laid a pack of cards he had been shuffling near your adversary’s elbow.

 

As an experiment, passing by, I took the top card from the pack and shoved it under the bottom, by which means you got the four aces intended for his partner while he got the four kings intended for you; and thus the sporting gentlemen were caught in their own trap!”

 

And here, dear PokerListings readers, is where we leave our hero again. Our story of a scam that took a double twist has come to an end.

The victim-to-be who thought of himself as such a smart genius guy and poker player also had to learn that he owed all the money he had to an unknown fellow passenger who happened to step in and manipulate the deck to his favor.

But tens of thousands of times this rip-off worked on the Mississippi steamboats and the victims lost everything they had.

Epilogue

Smith went on to build a new team of actors and later taught for many years at universities.

He was a pioneer of the theater industry in the Southern US and his humorous works on society and theater are still popular.

It isn’t known whether Sol Smith ever touched a playing card again after this incident but he never even mentions the word ‘poker’ in his memoirs again – not a single time.

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