Aces and Eights: Poker in the Old West, by Ralph Estes, TwoDot, Helena, Mont., and Guilford, Conn., 2021, $18.95
The title refers to the most famous poker hand in the Old West—the one Wild Bill Hickok reportedly held when Jack McCall shot him down on Aug. 1, 1876, at Nutall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Ralph Estes, a writer of fiction and nonfiction who confesses to have won enough at poker “to salvage my pride if not pay the rent,” briefly covers Hickok’s final card game in his preface. He also devotes Chapter 5 to Hickok, perhaps the best-known gambler/gunfighter/lawmen in the Wild West, an impressive-looking man who “cleaned up” Hays City and Abilene, though not necessarily at the poker tables in those Kansas cow towns. In 1979, nearly 100 years after his death, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. It was, writes Estes, “allegedly for his legendary poker-playing abilities and his dedication to the game—although I suspect it was mostly due to his giving us the most famous poker hand in history.”
What Estes gives us is an interesting, often amusing and definitely nonacademic look at what Leonard Cohen, in his 1967 song “The Stranger,” called “the holy game of poker.” As it says in the subtitle, the focus here is (mostly) the Old West. You’ll need to go elsewhere to learn how the game originated and developed before spreading to the likes of New Orleans, San Antonio, Santa Fe and the boomtowns of the West. Estes offers depictions of legendary Westerners with emphasis on the part poker played in their lives. The cast of characters who knew their way around gaming tables is long. Besides Hickok, Estes profiles, among others, Doc Holliday (who was a dentist and a gunman but foremost a gambler), Calamity Jane (she drank too much when playing cards and “was easy pickings at poker, but it was a way to be in among ‘the boys’”), Wyatt Earp (who made some money at poker but more running gambling operations in saloons), Bat Masterson (who favored his role as professional gambler over that of frontier town lawman), Poker Alice (who in her 70s said, “At my age I suppose I should be knitting, but I would rather play poker with five or six ‘experts’ than eat”) and Belle Starr (the “Best Lady Gambler in the West,” who once supposedly said, “A pair of six-shooters beats a pair of sixes anytime”).
Estes admits his book is not a serious history of the West. “Legends,” he notes “can be a hard thing to stare down, so in this book I’m mostly taking them at face value.” Even his subtitle stretches the truth, as Chapter 14 does touch on poker in the New West, while Chapter 15 covers everything from 20th-century poker kingpin Benny Binion to the World Series of Poker, which originated in 1970 and featured Texas hold ’em instead of seven-card stud.
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