“Poker Alice” Ivers

A steady stream of miners, ranchers, and cowhands filtered in and out of the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota.  An inexperienced musician playing an out of tune accordion squeezed out a familiar melody ushering the pleasure seekers inside.  Burlap curtains were pulled over the dusty windows, and fans that hung down from the ceiling turned lazily.

A distressed mahogany bar stood alongside one wall of the business, and behind it was a surly looking bartender.  He was splashing amber liquid into glasses as fast as he could.  A row of tables and chairs occupied the area opposite the bar.  Every seat was filled with a card player.  Among the seat of male gamblers was one woman; everyone called her Poker Alice.  She was an alarming beauty, fair-skinned and slim.  She had one eye on the cards she was dealing and another on the men at the game two tables down.

Warren G. Tubbs was studying the cards in his hand so intently he didn’t notice the hulk of a man next to him get up and walk around behind him.  The huge man with massive shoulders and ham-like hands that hung low to his sides peered over Tubbs’ shoulder and scowled down at the mountain of chips before him.  Alice’s intensely blue eyes carefully watched the brute’s actions.  He casually reached back at his belt and produced a sharp knife from the leather sheath hanging off his waist.  Just as he was about to plunge the weapon into Tubbs’s back, a gunshot rang out.

A sick look filled the man’s face, and the frivolity in the saloon came to a halt.  He slowly dropped the knife.  Before dropping to his knees, he turned in the direction the bullet came.  Alice stared back at him, her .38 pistol pointed at his head.  The man fell face first onto the floor.  His dead body was quickly removed to make way for another player.  In a matter of minutes the action inside the tavern returned to normal.  Tubbs caught Alice’s gaze and grinned.  He nodded to her and waggled his fingers in a kind of salute.  She smiled slightly and turned her attention wholly back to the poker game in front of her.

Alice Ivers never sat down to play poker without holding at least one gun.  She generally carried a pistol in her dress pocket, and often she also had a backup weapon in her purse.  The frontier was rough and wild, and wearing a gun, particularly while playing cards, was a matter of survival.  It was a habit for Poker Alice.

She was born on February 17, 1851, in Sudbury, Devonshire, England.  Alice’s father, whom some historians indicate was a teacher while others maintain he was a lawyer, brought his wife and family to the United States in 1863.  They settled first in Virginia and later moved to Fort Meade, Colorado.

Like most people at the time, the Ivers were lured west by gold.  No matter what Gold Rush town she was living in, Alice always attended school.  She was a bright, young girl who excelled in math.  The yellow-haired, precocious child quickly grew into a handsome woman, attracting the attention of every eligible bachelor in the area.  Frank Duffield, a mining engineer, won her heart and hand.  After the two married, he escorted his bride to Lake City where he employed.  The Southwestern Colorado silver camp was an unrefined, isolated location with very little to offer in terms of entertainment.  With the exception of watching the card sharps and high-hatted gamblers make a fortune off the luckless miners, there was nothing but work to occupy time.

Bored with life as a simple homemaker and undaunted by convention, Alice visited the gambling parlors.  Her husband and his friends taught her how to play a variety of poker games, and in no time she became an exceptional player.  The fact that she was a mathematical genius added tremendously to her talent.               

Most every night Alice was seated at the faro table of the Gold Dust Gambling House, dealing cards and challenging fast-talking thrill seekers to “put their money into circulation.”  She won the majority of the hands she played, whether it was five-card-draw, faro, or blackjack.  Her days of gambling for pleasure alone came to an end when Frank was killed in a mining accident.  Left with no viable means of support, Alice decided to turn her hobby into a profession.

Some well-known gamblers like Jack “Lucky” Hardesty were not as accepting of a woman card sharp as others.  He made his thoughts on the subject plainly known one evening when he sat down at a faro table and glanced across the green felt at Alice.  He refused to play against her, insisting that faro was a man’s game.  Alice didn’t shy away from the verbal assault.  She calmly conveyed her intention to remain at the table until he dealt her a hand.  Hardesty eventually gave in, but, before he let her have any cards, he warned her not to cry when she lost to him.  Poker Alice simply grinned.

At the end of the night, Hardesty was out everything.  Alice had won more than $1,500 off him and the other men who wagered on the game.  Curious on lookers were reported to have remarked that he had “lost his money like he had a hole in his pocket as big as a stove pipe.”  Hardesty attributed Alice’s numerous wins to luck alone.

Alice took that so called luck from Colorado to other gambling spots in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and South Dakota.  Along the way, the fashionable beauty developed a habit of smoking cigars and a taste for alcohol.  Wherever the stakes were high, the whiskey smooth, and the smokes free, that’s where Alice would be.  She generally said nothing if she won, but, if she lost a hand, she’d blurt out, “G-damn it!”    

The name Poker Alice meant increased business for gaming houses.  People flocked to see the highly skilled poker player “packing a heavy load of luck” and puffing on a thin, black stogie.  Warren G. Tubbs was one of the many who came to see Alice play cards.  Warren was a house painter and part-time gambler.  He was captivated by her; so much so he didn’t mind losing a hand or two to her.  She found him equally charming, and after a brief courtship the pair married.

Alice was the better card player of the two and was the primary financial supporter for the family.  Tubbs continued with his painting business but would not give up the game entirely.  The couple spent many evenings playing poker at the same parlor.  Whatever Warren lost, Alice made up for in substantial winnings.  The average night’s win for her was more than $200.   

Alice’s reputation preceded her.  To every town the pair traveled, she was offered $25 a night, plus a portion of her winnings to act as dealer for the gaming parlor.  Alice and Warren were bringing in large amounts of money and spending just as much.  Alice made frequent visits to New York where she would purchase the finest clothes and jewels, attend several theatrical performances and musicals, and lavish her friends with expensive gifts.  When the cash ran out, she would return to her husband and her cards and begin rebuilding her bank.

Poker Alice was very protective of her husband and got him out of trouble many times.  Warren drank to excess and frequently started fights.  Alice would end any squabble that threatened his life.

Sober, Warren might have been faster on the draw against an offended cowhand.  Alice was the better shot most of the time.  Her father taught her how to shoot using his Starr Army .44 revolver.  By the age of twelve, she was as fast and accurate with the weapon as any boy her age.  When she got older and there were lulls between poker games, Alice would practice her marksmanship by shooting knobs off the frames of pictures hanging on the walls.  Her proficiency with a gun was proof to anyone who thought of crossing her or Warren that she could handle herself.

In 1874, Warren and Alice made their way to New Mexico.  They had heard that the money to be made at the poker tables in Silver City were some of the richest in the country.  Within hours after their arrival, Alice joined in a faro game.  Hand after hand, she raked in piles of chips.  Saloon patrons pressed in around the game to watch the brilliant blonde win again and again.  Before the sun rose the following morning, Alice had broken the bank and added to her holdings an estimated $150,000.

Alice and Warren followed the Gold Rush riches to the town of Deadwood, South Dakota.  There they hoped to continue increasing their winnings.  Her expert card playing and beautiful East Coast gowns brought gamblers to her table.  Residents referred to her as the Faro Queen of Deadwood.

Whenever Wild Bill Hickok was around, he liked to play against the Queen.  In fact, he had invited her to sit in on a hand with him on August 2, 1876, the day Jack McCall shot and killed the legendary western character.  Alice had declined, stating that she had been already committed to another game.  When she heard he’d been killed, she raced to the scene.  Hickok was sprawled out on the floor, and McCall was running for his life.  Looking down at her friend’s body, she sadly said, “Poor Wild Bill.  He was sitting where I would have been if I’d played with him.”

In 1910, Alice and Warren celebrated thirty-four years of marriage.  Together they had won and lost a fortune, bought and sold several ranches in Colorado and South Dakota, and raised seven children.  In the winter of that year, Warren contracted pneumonia and died.  Alice remarried less than a year later.  Her new husband was an obnoxious drunk named George Huckert.  Huckert died on their third wedding anniversary.

At this point in her long life, Poker Alice had rid herself of the fashionable dress she once subscribed to and took to wearing khaki skirts, men’s shirts, and an old campaign hat.  Her beauty had all but faded, and her hair had turned silver.

The only thing that remained of the Alice of old was her cigars.

After moving back and forth from Deadwood to Rapid City and back again, Poker Alice left Deadwood for good in 1913.  She relocated to Sturgis, South Dakota, and bought a home a few miles from Fort Meade.  She also purchased a profitable “entertainment” business, one that attracted hordes of soldiers stationed at the post.  In addition to female companionship, she also sold bootleg whiskey.

At the age of sixty-two, Poker Alice found her talent with a gun to still be useful.  When a pair of soldiers started fighting and breaking up her house, she stepped in with her .38 pistol to stop the ruckus.  The chaos ended in the death of one of the men and the arrest of Alice Tubbs.  She was charged with murder but was later acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide.

Alice’s health began deteriorating after the arrest.  She was wracked with pain throughout her body.  Physicians informed her that the problem was her gall bladder and that it had to be removed.  She was told that the surgery was risky for a woman of her age.  Alice, who thrived on risk, decided to go through with the operation.

On February 27, 1930, three weeks after having surgery, Alice passed away.  Her estate, which was at one time estimated to be in the millions, had been reduced to $50 and a few possessions.  Poker Alice was buried in the Sturgis Catholic Cemetery.  She was seventy-seven when she died.          

Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.