Poker for High Stakes

“I have always found it hard to believe the stories I used to read about the luxury of travel and the magnificence of the appointments on the great Mississippi River steamboats,” said the gray-haired young-looking man in the club smoking-room. “It seems to be the generally accepted belief that forty years ago or so people went up and down on the bosom of the Father of Waters in floating palaces, enjoying something like the extreme of sumptuous luxury. Maybe that is true. I didn’t travel the river so long ago as that, and, of course, I can’t say what the condition of things may130 or may not have been when I wasn’t there to see. What I can say positively is that if it was true in those days, the war or some other disturbing cause changed things very materially before I became as familiar as I did afterward with the river boats. My notion is that the whole thing is a tradition, resting on very little foundation excepting comparison. The mere fact of having a stateroom to sleep in, with only one stranger as a room-mate, and a seat at a table with room for a waiter to pass behind you, served to make travelers at that time think they were in luxury, because they hadn’t experienced it before. And I imagine, from what I know of a later period, that that was about the extent of the luxury. Certainly none of the boats I was ever on, in the ’60s and ’70s, compared with the North River or the Sound boats of the same time. And even those would not seem very luxurious to travelers of the present day.

131 “But there were a good many stories told about the old-time Mississippi boats that I am fully prepared to believe. That the game of poker flourished on the river as it never has elsewhere, before or since, seems entirely probable. I have seen games that made me hold my breath because of the size of the stakes, and because of the fact that I knew the players were all armed, and a shot or a stab was certain to follow a hasty word or a suspicious act.

“It was on a trip from Memphis to Natchez that I first saw a woman gamble in public. The boat wasn’t crowded, but there were perhaps fifty passengers on board, and among them were six or eight ladies and this woman. That she was a social outlaw was evident enough at a glance. Not only were her clothes of a fashion too pronounced for respectability and her jewelry too ostentatious for daylight wear, but there was a frank devilry in her eye, and a defiant swing—almost132 a swagger—in her carriage that told the story all too plainly. Her behavior was correct enough. She was, or seemed to be, traveling alone, and she took the somewhat too ostentatious avoidance of the ladies in perfectly good part, pretending to be utterly unconscious of it, and ignoring them as completely as they did her. Neither did she give any overt encouragement to the efforts that some of the men made to cultivate her acquaintance. It was evident that while she took no pains to conceal her character, she did not propose to make herself obnoxious. Naturally every one was curious to know who she was, and I soon learned, as I supposed the other passengers all did, that she was a notorious character in New Orleans, where she was known as ‘Flash Kate.’ What her business had been in Memphis I did not hear, but a dozen stories were told of her recklessness and general cussedness, and among other133 things it was said that she was a confirmed gambler.

“After supper the first evening we were on board, the tables in the main saloon were cleared, and, as if it were a matter of course, two games of poker were soon in progress. It was plain enough that two of the men in the game that I watched at first were professionals, but the game was small, and I found no great excitement in it, though it was, in a way, interesting to notice how easily the others were being fleeced. Tiring, after a time, of watching so bold a fraud, I sauntered over to the other table, and found a very different game in progress.

“In the first place, it was a bigger game. They were playing table stakes, and each man had a wad of greenbacks lying alongside his chips. White chips were a dollar, and bets of ten or twenty at once were common. There were several thousand dollars in sight, and it looked as if any moment134 might bring on a struggle between hands that would draw down big money. Then it did not take long for me to determine that two of the men in this game also were professionals. The third man at the table I knew. He was a cotton-factor from New Orleans, who had been up the river on a business trip investigating some of the advances he and his partner had made to the planters. He was young—not over thirty, I should say—but I knew he had the reputation of being a bold speculator, and it did not seem surprising to see him at cards. The other two men—there were five playing—puzzled me. One was a veteran soldier. You could tell that from his military bearing without waiting to hear him addressed as ‘Major,’ but an ex-soldier of either army might be anything from a gambler to a bank president. The other was a nondescript. There didn’t seem to be any points about him to distinguish him from anybody else,135 but I afterward learned that he was a cattle-dealer.

“The game lasted far into the night, and was interesting all the way through, but, somewhat to my surprise, there was no very desperate struggle over any single pot. The hands ran fairly well, and some few big ones were held, but no two unusual ones happened to be held in the same deal. So far as I could see, the play was absolutely fair, and I wondered a little that the gamblers should attempt no tricks. Later on I understood it. They were laying the foundation for the second night’s play, and their game was to lose a little at the first sitting. Accordingly they did so, and one pulled out soon after midnight, saying with a laugh that he had lost all he wanted to. The cotton-factor was a loser, too, though not to any very serious extent. The other two were ahead. Altogether it was a pleasant sitting, and it was a foregone conclusion136 that the game would be renewed, as it was, the next evening. After supper the five seated themselves without loss of time, and the spectators stood, two deep, around the table inside of a few minutes. The clerk of the boat was banker, and furnished the cards and sold the chips, as a matter of course.

“For half an hour or so there was no special play, but the lookers-on were patient, and the excitement grew with every deal. It was the first time I ever saw ladies look on at public gambling, but there were three or four on board who walked in, holding their husbands’ arms, and watched the proceedings with keen interest. Presently, however, ‘Flash Kate’ sauntered up alone, and the ladies seeing her, quietly withdrew. She paid no attention to this, but stood apparently absorbed in the game, and edging forward from time to time till she stood directly behind the cotton-factor.

137 “The betting grew heavier. The ante was made ten dollars and the bet was often fifty, but still there was no contest between unusual hands. We all knew it was coming, though, and I noticed that three or four of the men near me were breathing hard. ‘Flash Kate’s’ eyes sparkled like a snake’s and her lips were parted, but she was as silent as we all were. Even the players said nothing outside of the few words the game called for.

“Suddenly I heard a sort of gasp from the man next me, and at the same instant I saw the fellow they called Keene hold out an ace. It was cleverly done, and yet I marveled at his nerve in trying such a trick under so many watching eyes. He relied, of course, on his skill, which was really marvelous, but I had studied such things too closely to be mistaken, and as, for an instant, I met the eye of the man who had gasped, I saw that he was equally certain.138 Neither of us was fool enough to say anything, for interference meant fight, and I wondered for a moment what would follow, or if any of the players had seen it.

“It was the deal of the cattle-dealer, whose name was Downing, next, and as he gathered up the cards he threw them, with a quick motion, on the floor, saying: ‘Bring us a fresh deck, Mr. Clerk, of another color.’ It seemed certain that he had seen Keene’s manœuvre, but if he had he gave no other indication of it, but shuffled and dealt the cards as coolly as if nothing out of the way had happened. Neither could I see any trace of chagrin or disappointment on Keene’s face as he was thus cleverly checkmated. He looked sharply at Downing for an instant, as if to see whether he had really been discovered or not, but that worthy did not return the glance, and the game went on.

“Soon after there was a jack-pot that went139 around several times before it was opened, and of course there was considerable money up. Presently, on the cotton-factor’s deal, Alcott, the other professional gambler, opened it for a hundred dollars, and all the players came in. That made big money before the draw, and no one was likely to get away with it without a struggle. The Major drew one card, and without waiting for further developments, threw his hand into the discard pile. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to bluff that crowd. Alcott drew three, and threw another hundred into the pot. Downing drew two, and left them lying face down, while he threw in his hundred. Keene also drew two, and studied them carefully before seeing the bet. The cotton-factor drew three, and raised it a hundred. I could not see his cards, but I learned afterward that he had a queen full.

“Alcott had three of a kind and raised back. Downing carefully lifted one corner140 of one of the cards he had drawn and lifted the pot two hundred. Keene studied a while longer and finally threw down his cards. The cotton-factor was game and raised it five hundred, but Alcott, without a quiver, came back at him with a thousand more. The battle was on, and I looked curiously at Downing. I was more interested in his play than in that of either of the others, and it was a real disappointment to see him pick up his whole hand, give it a quick glance, and throw it down. The cotton-factor studied his hand again, more, it seemed to me, to gain time than to make certain, and then began fingering his roll. At length he spoke a little hesitatingly:

“‘I haven’t as much money here as I’d like to have, but I’ll see your thousand and——’

“‘If Monsieur cares to back his hand and will allow me, I will put up any amount he likes.’

141 “It was ‘Flash Kate’ who interrupted him—no man would have ventured to do it—and there was a general start of surprise. I was looking at Alcott, and I was sure I saw a gleam of satisfaction, totally unmixed with surprise, on his face. The situation was getting complicated. The cotton-factor flushed.

“‘Thank you,’ he said, coldly, without even looking around, ‘but I never play with borrowed money, and I never borrow from a woman.’

“‘Pardon me,’ said ‘Flash Kate,’ as coolly as he, ‘I hope there is no offense, Monsieur. None was intended.’ She spoke with a villainous affectation of a French accent.

“‘None whatever,’ said the cotton-factor, and he looked at his cards again. He told me afterward that when the woman spoke it flashed upon him that there was a conspiracy somewhere, and that he didn’t142 care to play against it. Accordingly, he pretended to study a moment longer, and then threw down his cards.

“Alcott raked in the money without a word, and the cotton-factor, putting the remains of his roll in his pocket, picked up his chips and left the table, saying politely as he arose: ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, I think I have had enough.’

“There was a moment’s hush. The four players looked around the spectators, as if to see if any one cared to take the vacated seat, but no one gave a sign, and presently Keene said:

“‘Madame is interested in the game. Perhaps she plays, and would like to take a hand.’

“‘Yes, if there is no objection,’ she said readily, and looked from one to another of the four at the table. Downing said nothing, but there was a grim smile on his face. The Major looked uncomfortable, but he143 said nothing, either, and as Alcott said, ‘Certainly there can be no objection,’ the woman took the seat and laid a handful of money on the table in front of her.

“From the moment she sat down I felt morally certain that it was a case of three against one, for the Major was not much in evidence. And I was pretty confident that the man from Texas was going to hold his own, as indeed he did triumphantly. For nearly twenty minutes his play was a perfect puzzle, and the trio got actually nervous as he threw down hand after hand that ordinarily he would have betted heavily on. They stacked the cards, not once, but half a dozen times, giving him excellent cards, but he pretended to have lost his nerve, and played now with seeming rashness, and now with cowardice, but never risking any considerable amount, until he had them rattled.

“Then he played a trick that was worthy of the great Herrmann himself. It was at144 once the boldest and the neatest thing I ever saw at a card table, and although I thought I saw it done, I was not certain about it till he told me of it after we had become well acquainted. It was Keene’s deal and Downing’s cut, and the latter, watching, as he did, every motion around the table, knew that Keene’s nerve had failed him, and that he had not this time undertaken to set up the cards. His time had come, and as he leaned over to cut he substituted another pack for the one Keene had shuffled. It sounds like an impossibility, but wonderful things are possible to a sleight-of-hand performer, and he was the best I ever saw at a card table. Not one of the other players saw it, but he knew that deal every card that every player would hold.

“And they held wonderful cards—all but the Major. It was his first say, and he dropped out. Alcott came in and discarded145 two cards. Downing was next. He raised it twenty and threw down three cards. Keene raised it fifty, and threw down one. ‘Flash Kate’ came in with threes, but did not raise. Alcott saw the raise, and Downing raised it a hundred. The others all came in, and the draw was dealt.

“They all filled, of course, and it being Keene’s deal, they suspected nothing, but, each being confident of his own strength, they betted wildly. It was almost too quick work to follow, but in a few minutes Keene said: ‘I claim a show for my pile,’ and pushed the money already in the pot a little to one side. The others nodded, and went on betting.

“Presently Alcott also claimed his show, and Downing and ‘Flash Kate’ went on. She must have had five or six thousand with her, for there was over twenty thousand on the table when she called, with what appeared to be the last of her money, and it146 came to a showdown. Keene had four jacks, Alcott four queens, ‘Flash Kate’ four kings, and Downing four aces.

“For an instant there was perfect silence. Then Alcott and Keene made a movement simultaneously, as if to seize the money; but Downing was quicker than they. It was impossible to say where he drew his revolver from, but it was there in his right hand, while he coolly pulled in the money with his left.

“‘That was no square deal,’ shouted Alcott, though neither he nor Keene made any fight.

“‘Think not?’ drawled Downing. ‘Well, you ought to know. Your pal dealt the cards. But I think you are right. There’s been some queer play here to-night. But there’s one honest player in the party, and he isn’t hurt much. As for me, I reckon this’ll do me, unless some of you want to play any more.’ And he grinned at the147 discomfited gamblers, who, seeing that they had the worst of it, said no more.

“‘Flash Kate’ took it the best. She looked on with a smile while this was going on, and when it was over, she smiled some more, and rising from her chair, said sarcastically: ‘Monsieur is a most excellent player.’ And she went to her stateroom without another word. I noticed when we reached Vicksburg that she and Alcott left the boat together.

“‘Those three were pretty slick players,’ said Downing to the crowd, as he ordered champagne for everybody who would take it, ‘but they ought to travel in Texas for a time if they want to get on to the safest kind of play.’

“It was only an episode in the old river life, and as nobody was much hurt excepting professionals, nobody thought much about it.”

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