The Real Story of the Floating Casinos - Riverboat Gambling

6 June 2010 – By Jane Spiegel

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Gambling in one form or another has been around for thousands of years and has been used by many cultures in many different variations, for a multitude of reasons. Though in today’s society most people use gambling as a form of entertainment, there are some people that are professional gamblers and actually make their living off gambling. Whether its cards, dice, slot machines etc., if you have the skill and a certain amount of luck it’s possible to make a lot of money in this exciting endeavor.

It was the professional gambler that was largely responsible for the poker boom of the wild wild west in America around the 1800’s, a card game in its many variations that was then, and even more so now, one of the most popular gambling games in history. In the past the professional gambler was somewhat viewed by the public with a certain amount of disdain (although most professional gamblers had a high opinion of themselves) as they didn’t seem to contribute any useful to the towns and communities where they played. In fact, many gamblers of the west cheated in order to win, causing quite a few problems with their fellow players when they were caught, and ultimately many of these situations ended in violence. It was because of this violence that seemed to go hand in hand with casino gambling, that soon the townspeople started cracking down on the gambling parlors, and the players themselves, that these professionals took their gambling games onto the water in large riverboats designed solely for that purpose, benefiting from the transient lifestyle.

By the early 1800’s the Mississippi and Missouri rivers were the interstate highways of the time. With the cost of moving goods on land being very expensive and time consuming, the waterways provided an easy way to make shipping a profitable business. With this being said thousands of dollars traveled up and down these rivers and professional gamblers had a knack for following the money. These large riverboats cruised up and down the waterways and were basically floating hotels that offered a variety of gambling games where lots of money changed hands on a regular basis.

Riverboats also carried freight and passengers and many times the card games and other gambling opportunities were informal affairs where you could end up playing against anybody, whether it be James Bowie, Doc Holiday, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane or Wild Bill Hickok to name but a few of the more famous professional gamblers that you might sit down next to in a game of poker. Another big reason gamblers enjoyed the advantages of the riverboats were due to its anonymity. A professional gambler could board at any of the hundreds of port available on both the Missouri and Mississippi river, play their games and make their money, and get off the boat without even having to give their name. As time went on more and more towns actually outlawed gambling and the riverboats were the only legal place to gamble, making them a very busy boat.

During the time of these riverboat gambling heydays, history tells us of a particular interesting story that occurred in 1832. It was on a Mississippi steamboat that 4 men had engaged in a game of poker, where 3 of the 4 four men playing were professionals and the fourth was just an amateur from a town called Natchez, who was on a trip for business and decided to play a few hands. Needless to say the game was rigged, and soon this man from Natchez had lost all of his money and was so despondent he left the table and planned to throw himself overboard. Fortunately for him a passerby saw his plight and prevented the young man from committing suicide.

Once the man explained what had happened, this stranger joined the game of cards and quickly determined who was cheating, and at the beginning of the next deal he grabbed the mans wrist and while pulling a large knife told him to, “ Show your hand! If it contains more than five cards I shall kill you!” and when he twisted the man’s wrist, low and behold six cards fell to the table. This stranger then took the large pot of $70,000 and gave the man from Natchez back his $50,000 he lost, and kept the other $20,000 to teach the cheaters a lesson. Totally shocked the Natchez man stuttered a thank you and asked the stranger “who the devil are you” to which the stranger replied “I am James Bowie.”

Today there are still riverboats that offer a variety of gambling games although gambling has become widely accepted, far more respectable and has shown to provide excellent revenue in the places where casinos are built, the restrictions are far less than what they used t o be.

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