The Old West was famous for several things; gun-slinging outlaws, damsels in distress and gambling. But what is gambling in those days?  It was so much more than just placing a bet and winning or losing - it was an integral part of the culture.  It was a meeting place - a social event.  Everyone from cowboys to lawmen would play games in the gambling halls (old school casinos), regardless of class or gender. Poker is one of those games you expect to see in an old west film, and women would play it just as much as men. The Frontier Gambler is one of the most recognizable characters from Old West history (apart from outlaws, of course), so let's see how gambling in the Wild, Wild West became so popular.

cowboy neon

Entertainment or profession?

Back then, there was very little to do in your little town, and that is one of the reasons gambling became so popular. That and drinking, or committing crimes. Whenever a new town, or settlement, was constructed, one of the first-ever buildings would be a gambling hall, just to keep the citizens occupied. It wasn't just a form of entertainment though, many would see gambling as a respected profession (as long as they were making money from it). Family members would be very proud of their son, or daughter if they grew up to be a professional gambler. If only my partner would see my gambling as a respected profession...

Gold rushes and cattle ranches

There were several different historical events, which helped boost the gambling industry in the Old West. Cattle towns, such as in Texas and Kansas, were some of the most connected (moneyed) in Western America. Many of these towns had excellent railway systems, and affluent people who worked in the cattle industry. These people certainly had money to spare, and to relieve the boredom of working with cows, would spend a lot of this money in the gambling halls. Then, there was the California Gold Rush of 1849, which pulled in plenty of migrant gamblers. San Francisco soon became a huge gambling hotspot, as the gold miners would stop off to wager their fortunes.

Card games were the most popular, with blackjack taking the lead.  Slots machines - the most popular game these days at casinos - only began to appear much later.  


cowboy yehawStopping all the fun

Gambling halls were extremely popular with all of the locals, even if they weren't into casino games. They would normally be some of the most extravagant buildings in the town, and would have a bar for drinking, a stage for entertainment and hotel rooms (for when the guests passed out). Unfortunately, mixing all of these fun forms of entertainment together could cause trouble, and atmospheres within the gambling hall could be tense. It soon meant that certain towns developed poor reputations, as dangerous places to be. As the Old West became more populated, and therefore full of more families, the perception of gambling went downhill. Many states decided to ban gambling, and bring in many anti-gaming laws. The fun, and games, were over.

The Wild West may seem to have been all about cowboys catching outlaws, but it seems as though there was more entertainment than just that. I wonder how good the Frontier Gamblers would have been at online poker? Without being able to shoot at each other if they lost.