Overland Jack

“I don’t know how far local pride may color the judgment,” said the gray-haired young-looking man, “but I am satisfied that very few New Yorkers would be willing to admit that an all-round sport could come here from the West and clean up the town, metaphorically speaking. That is, tackle the experts of the city at their own different games and win money from one after another without losing to any of them, and finally depart after a season of riotous success with his pockets laden with spoils. Such a thing does not seem likely. Yet I remember one case in the ’70s when just that thing was done by one of the best-known152 gamblers in the United States. ‘Overland Jack’ was the name by which he was usually called, but his real name was John McCormick. He cut a very wide swath when he first came to New York, but he made a good many friends here, too, not only among the sporting fraternity, but among actors and men-about-town generally.

“The fact of his having a goodly number of friends was manifest when he came to die afterward in Chicago. He knew, toward the last, that his death was near, but instead of weakening he recalled the incidents of his career with the utmost satisfaction, and declared that he had no regrets for the way he had spent his life, but, on the contrary, considered that he had done excellently well with it. As a token of his feelings, he expressed the wish that his friends should go to his funeral, not with religious ceremonies, but with champagne153 galore, and that in place of praying for his future they should drink to his memory over his open grave.

“It was just such a crowd as he would have selected that went to his grave and carried out his wishes. Tony Pastor, Jack Studley, Pat Sheedy, Johnny Blaisdell, Mike McDonald, and many others were there. There were enough, at all events, to get away with five baskets of wine before the grave was filled in, and the empty bottles were thrown in on the coffin. It was a memorable occasion, even for Chicago, and it occurred only a few years ago. It was in ’90 or ’91, if I remember aright.

“The time I speak of, however, was before he was known on this side of the continent, excepting by reputation. Overland Jack, the sport, came from San Francisco. Where John McCormick, the man, came from originally no one seemed to know. The first that could be definitely stated was154 that he was a private in a California cavalry regiment at the time of the Civil War. He never rose from the ranks, but he was always well supplied with money, even when on duty, for he was far and away the best poker player in the regiment. After the war he never did anything but gamble for a living.

“He was a quiet man, who was so uncommunicative about himself that his best friends could not even say with certainty whether he was a well-educated man or not, but he was always smiling and extremely pleasant in his manner. It was said of him that he was never known to be angry, but I have heard this disputed. Certainly he had no reputation as a fighter, though he took his life in his hands often enough in his play, for he was, beyond question, a crook, which makes the fact of his having so many friends all the more remarkable.

“He became well known on the Pacific coast soon after the war, but it was not until155 ’73 or ’74 that he started East, and then he didn’t come straight through, but stopped at various places. The first I heard of him was at Salt Lake City, where he had a notable adventure. I heard the story from a man who stood in with him in his faro game and helped him to get away with considerable Mormon capital. He traveled with a faro outfit and dealt a brace game always. Of course he had to be skilful to do that, but he was particularly skilful. When he reached Salt Lake he put up at the Townsend House and set up his faro layout in his room, running the game quietly enough to rouse no antagonism on the part of the landlord, but managing, with the aid of my informant, who was an actor, then playing in Brigham Young’s theatre, to rope in several of the wildest sports in the city.

“Among others, Brigham Young’s son, John Young, was informed of the chance to play, and, being eager to do so, was accommodated156 to the tune of seven hundred or eight hundred dollars the first night. The actor went with him and played with him, and was a loser to a less amount. He was therefore in a proper position to urge Young to try it the second night that they might both get even. Overland Jack, however, let nobody get even when he was manipulating the box, and Young lost about three thousand dollars the second night. He was not a good loser, as was shown long afterward when he came to Chicago and killed a man there in a quarrel in a gambling-house—a matter, by the way, for which he was never tried—and he was furious at his losses this time. Overland Jack was shrewd enough to foresee trouble, and that night he packed his faro layout in the trunk of his friend the actor, and early in the morning started out for a walk. The walk was a long one, and not caring about walking back he took a way train at the next station, and after changing157 cars once or twice was well on his way to Laramie before John Young went back to the Townsend House with police force enough to take in four faro banks and all their attendants.

“The actor tarried in Salt Lake for a discreet interval and then went to Laramie himself. For some reason it was not thought wise to deal faro there, and they lay around idle till they got a chance to play together in a pretty heavy poker game that was going on. They had not spoken to each other there till they met at the table, and supposed that no one in the place knew that they were acquainted, so the chance seemed a good one to play in the way they had arranged, which was for Overland Jack to do the dealing and the other man to hold the cards. Among the other players was a rich plainsman who had come to town for a racket and was having it to his complete satisfaction. He was not a particularly158 good player, and the game looked like a good thing.

“It came Overland Jack’s deal, and his confederate looked confidently at his cards, expecting to find winners, but, instead, he found nothing at all. Overland Jack had seen what he had not, that the landlord of the hotel, who was in the room but not in the game, was watching the actor’s play, as if he had an inkling of the truth. Instantly changing his plan, he dealt himself the hand he had stacked for the actor, which was four aces, while he gave the plainsman his four kings as he had intended.

“There was the raise before the draw and after it, and the pile on the table grew rapidly, while the other players dropped out, and the two hands were being played for all they were worth. Overland Jack’s nerve was perfectly good, and he was playing for the other man’s pile, when he heard a click under the table, just as the plainsman had159 raised him five hundred dollars. Without an instant’s hesitation, and without the slightest change of expression, he exclaimed, ‘That’s good,’ and threw his four aces into the discard pile. Neither did he show any emotion of any kind as he saw the plainsman, with a look of considerable surprise, rake in the pile. He had cold feet soon after, however, as did the actor also, and they left the room and went straight to the bar.

“While they were chewing their whisky the landlord and the plainsman came in together, and Overland Jack instantly called to them both to come over and have a drink. They came, and the plainsman put out his hand, laughing.

“‘You are a good one,’ he said. ‘What did you throw down four aces for?’

“‘My friend,’ said Overland Jack, ‘when you have played cards as much as I have you will know that there are times when four160 aces are not worth four cents. And when you have been through what I have you will know that it is damned foolish to pull the second gun. When you hear a click, and your own gun is not out, it is time to quit the game.’

“‘Well, you are a good one,’ said the plainsman again, and they all drank.

“At that time the old Morton House was the center of a good deal of the excitement of various kinds that was going on in this city, and it was natural enough that Overland Jack should put up there when he arrived in New York. He did so, and looked around quietly enough for a few days without making himself known. It was not hard for him to strike up a hotel acquaintance with Jim Morton, who was then running the house alone, after Ryan’s death, and it was not long before Overland Jack managed to be in the room as a spectator when there was a tolerably stiff game of poker going161 on. He hadn’t been invited to play, and he was not making proposals. He was simply awaiting his chance, and it came suddenly.

“Morton was in the game. So was Shed Shook, and so were the late General Owens, Ed Gilmore, and a Senator from Albany who spent considerable time in the city. They were betting pretty well and playing table stakes. Morton was called away by a summons from the office, and, not caring to quit the game, he looked around for somebody to take his hand while he should go downstairs for a few minutes. It happened that he saw Overland Jack first among the lookers-on, and he asked him if he would keep the seat warm for him.

“Naturally Overland Jack didn’t refuse, but as he sat down he said: ‘If you want me to play for you, you’d better leave me some more money, for I shall play your cards for all they are worth.’162 “Morton had two or three hundred on the table at the time, but he didn’t hesitate an instant. Putting his hand in his pocket, he pulled out a roll and tossed it down in front of Overland Jack, who did not even count it, but nodded and shoved the money all together and waited for his cards. He never made any charge afterward that anybody was trying to play tricks in that game, but he did say that he was satisfied in his own mind that a certain man in that party was likely to hold four of a kind soon after he began playing, and as it happened that man did hold four deuces the next time it came Overland Jack’s deal. It was a jack-pot, and the deuce man opened it for fifty dollars. The others came in, and Overland Jack raised it fifty. The deuce man raised it fifty more, and all stayed.

“On the draw the deuce man called for one, the next man stood pat on a flush, the next drew two cards and didn’t fill, the next163 drew to two pairs and didn’t better, and the dealer took three. The opener proceeded to make merry at his expense. ‘You raised it on a pair, eh!’ he exclaimed. ‘Well, you have a nerve, to be sure. Do they play that kind of poker where you came from? If they do you have come to a good place to learn the game. Why, I have you beaten without a struggle.’ And he shoved one hundred dollars into the pot.

“‘Yes,’ said Overland Jack, coolly. ‘I raised it on a pair of queens,’ and he turned them over, while he let the three he had drawn lie where they had fallen, without looking at them himself. ‘A pair of queens is a good hand to draw to,’ he continued, speaking with calm indifference to the open amusement of all the others. ‘There are more queens in the pack, I suppose, and I may get some of them.’

“‘Yes, you may,’ said the opener, with a sneer. ‘You may get struck by lightning,164 but I’m not looking for it to happen this evening.’

“The flush man stayed, and the next two dropped out. Then Overland Jack saw the hundred and raised it a hundred, still without looking at his cards.

“The opener skinned through his hand to make sure that he still had all his deuces, and then said with paternal severity: ‘Young man, I’m sorry for you, but you certainly ought to be taught something of the rudiments of this game. If you are determined to bet, I’ll give you a chance. I’ll see your hundred and raise you two hundred and fifty.’

“It was too rich for the man with a flush, and he threw down his cards. Then it was Overland Jack’s turn. He pretended to be greatly provoked, and said hotly: ‘I may be a younger man than you are, sir, but where I came from we call two queens, with a chance for two more, good for a small165 bet, anyhow. So I’ll just cover your two-fifty and bet you the balance of the pile.’ And he shoved the whole of Morton’s money to the center of the table, still without counting it.

“The others were astounded, but he had made the play and there was only the opener to talk. He counted the money. It was eleven hundred and odd dollars. Then he counted his own. He had only five hundred with him, and he began to sputter.

“‘If you’ll take a check,’ he began, but Overland Jack stopped him.

“‘No checks,’ he said excitedly. ‘This is table stakes.’

“‘Well, if you’ll wait till I go downstairs and——’

“‘Oh, yes,’ sneered Overland Jack. ‘Go out of the room and gather up four of a kind, I suppose.’

“And there was more talk that resulted166 in the opener getting angry for fair and calling the bet for the amount of his pile. He slammed down his four deuces as he did so and exclaimed: ‘There! Is that good, or do you think you have drawn the other two queens?’

“‘Well, I don’t know,’ drawled Overland Jack. ‘Maybe I have. Let’s see,’ and he turned over two queens and an ace.

“Everybody else in the room saw the point, but the opener was furious. ‘They’re not good,’ he shouted. ‘You never got that hand honestly.’

“‘Oh, yes, they’re good,’ said Overland Jack, with still more of a drawl. ‘Four of a kind is good—when you get ’em out of the pack.’

“There was a shout of laughter as the opener grew purple with rage, and Overland Jack raked in the pot.

“That was only one of his adventures in this city. He had a number, and naturally167 made a good many enemies, but, as in this case, he made more friends than foes, so that he was really a popular man despite the fact that he was known to be a sharper.

“Crooked poker and brace faro were his favorite games, but he was also a billiard sharp, who gave pointers as well as points to the many others of that ilk who made a living around the billiard saloons in those days. One of the first places where he distinguished himself was in Chris Conner’s place in Fourteenth Street, where there were always gentlemen of leisure ready to play almost anybody for a small bet or a large one, provided they could settle the odds. Overland Jack always had confederates in the room ready to make side bets while he was playing, and he was pretty sure to get one or two himself in addition to the nominal stakes of the game. There was one young fellow who played in Conner’s place a great deal who really played a marvelous168 game, and was as steady as a rock. Conner thought he couldn’t be beaten if the odds were fixed anywhere near right, so Overland Jack studied his play for a couple of nights and then sailed in himself.

“He acted the usual part of a fairly skilful amateur excited with the game and anxious to display his skill and win or lose his money, and managed, without trouble, to get himself picked up as a sucker by this particular fellow. Conner himself settled the odds after seeing the stranger play, and bet considerable money himself on the outside, but Overland Jack won, hands down.

“In fact, he won at everything he touched while he was here, but as a matter of course he soon became known, as a first-class crook is sure to, and he was obliged after a while to seek new pastures. So it came that the man who came and had fun with the New York sports for a season drifted away again without exciting any regrets by his departure.”

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