Poker Alice

Alice Tubbs (1851–1930) was a popular fixture in the gambling parlors of America's Wild West. Best known as “Poker Alice,” the English-born and American-raised gambler traveled through the frontier boom towns of Colorado and the Dakotas, hitting the saloons and playing any miner, rancher, or cowhand who dared to take a seat at the table.

An independent-minded woman who, as “Poker Alice,” became something of a legend in the proverbial “Wild West,” Alice Tubbs ran with the heavy-holstered men of her era and was said to have won more than a quarter of a million dollars during her lifetime. Recalling her unusual (for a woman) profession, Tubbs was quoted by Nolie Mumey in Poker Alice: History of a Woman Gambler in the West as remarking: “We were all gamblers in those days; some staked theirs in mines, some in goods, some in cattle, and some with a pan on the streams. Well, I took mine at a table with a deck of cards. You see, a true gambler played because he loved the thrill he had on the turn of a card, because it tested his ability to out-wit and out-guess the other person.”

Followed Family to Frontier

Poker Alice was born Alice Ivers, and details of her first years are sketchy. Most historians agree that she was born to Irish immigrants in Devonshire, England, on February 17, 1851, although some have posited that she was born in Virginia to immigrant parents, perhaps in 1853. Whatever the case, Poker Alice resided for a time in Virginia and traveled west with her family around 1870. Joining the wave that became known as the “Gold Rush,” the Ivers family pulled up stakes and headed to the Black Hills region of South Dakota after prospectors there discovered silver and gold. Some accounts report that the family lived near Fort Meade, South Dakota; others indicate that Ivers's father worked as a schoolmaster in Leadville, Colorado.

Around age 20, Poker Alice married a mining engineer named Frank Duffield and the couple moved to an isolated silver camp in Lake City, Colorado. Eager for entertainment, she followed her husband and his friends to the gaming parlors where she learned to play faro, five-card draw, and blackjack. The marriage did not last long; within a few years, Duffield died in a tunnel mine accident after a mischarge of dynamite. As a widow in a frontier town, Poker Alice had few options for earning a living. Her choices included running a boardinghouse, becoming a prostitute, or working as a maid for a wealthy mine owner. Rather than following one of these paths, the recently widowed Alice Duffield bucked the conventions of the day and became a gambler.

Worked the Gambling Circuit

As a gambler, Poker Alice now circulated among Colorado's mining camps, spending time in Alamosa, Leadville, Georgetown, and Central City. Smart enough to count cards, keep track of what had been played, and calculate odds, she was a natural gambler. One of her favorite games was faro, a quick-action card game that accommodated any number of players, making it popular in the frontier towns. In faro, players bet against the house. The dealer— or “banker”—dealt two cards at a time (a winner and a loser) while the players tried to predict which cards would appear next.

To adapt to the hard life in mining towns, men flocked to the gambling parlors each night to drink, play cards, and fight, all which eased the stress of a long day's work. A huge attraction for gambling houses, which often paid her to deal cards, Poker Alice soon drew crowds wherever she went. She received $25 a night, plus a portion of the house winnings, and everyone wanted to play against her. An anomaly, Alice dressed in the high fashions of the day but chewed on cigars while gambling, carried a pistol, and acted cold and callous. She refused to work on Sundays, though, much to the irritation of her employers. After her shift ended with one gambling house, Poker Alice would often visit another, playing on her own rather than for the house. Whenever she amassed a quantity of money, she traveled east to New York City, treating herself to new clothes and a trip to the theater.

Settled down after Second Marriage

Around 1890, Poker Alice worked at a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota, where she developed a deep-seated rival in Warren G. Tubbs. A house painter, Tubbs supplemented his income by dealing and gambling part-time. So intense was the rivalry that the two did not speak even when they were working together. One night at the saloon, Poker Alice had her eye on Tubbs, who was dealing across the way. When a drunken, irate gambler pulled a knife on Tubbs, Alice drew her pistol and shot him in the arm. Afterward, the two started dating and eventually married.

The Tubbs remained in Deadwood for several years, with Poker Alice gambling and Tubbs painting to support the family. They also had seven children. To make money, they also traveled the mining-town circuit and gambled together. At some point, the Tubbs left Deadwood and settled on a ranch located 48 miles west of Sturgis, South Dakota, viewing it as a better environment in which to raise their children. They lived there for only a few years, however; during the great blizzard of 1910, Tubbs, who suffered from tuberculosis, contracted pneumonia and died.

After the winter storm subsided, Poker Alice loaded her husband's frozen body into a wagon, hitched up the horses, and drove into Sturgis where she pawned her wedding ring to pay for the burial. Afterward, she went to the local gambling hall and asked if she could work a shift. Poker Alice took the money she earned, bought back her wedding ring, and returned to the family ranch. She would fondly recall Tubbs as the love of her life.

Hedged Bets on Poker Palace

After Tubbs's death, Poker Alice returned to gambling full time. Hiring a man named George Huckert to care for her ranch and livestock, she dealt faro in Sturgis and traveled to Deadwood to play on her own. Soon, Poker Alice and Huckert tied the knot. Legend has it that she married him because she owed him more than $1,000 in back wages and decided it was easier to marry him than pay up. They were married only a few years; Huckert died in 1913.

Around this time, Poker Alice opened her own “petite poker palace” in a building located between Ford Meade and Sturgis. Although she called it a boardinghouse for single women, the place was actually a brothel: for entertainment, the palace offered gambling, liquor, and women. Business boomed, attracting miners from Sturgis as well as soldiers passing through Fort Meade for training. Just as she had refused to deal poker on the Sabbath, she did not open the palace on Sunday. Instead, Poker Alice hosted a Bible study for the women she employed.

Poker Alice ran into trouble during the summer of 1913, as the result of a feud with Troop K cavalry soldiers from Fort Meade. Some reports indicate that she refused to let the soldiers in because they mistreated the women; others indicate that the men wanted in, even though it was a Sunday and the establishment was closed. Whatever the case, on the night of July 16 some Fort Meade soldiers cut the electricity to Poker Alice's palace and threw rocks through several windows. Alice got her gun and aimed several shots at these delinquents, severely injuring one soldier and killing another. The sheriff arrested Poker Alice and seven of the women living at the palace, and Alice stood trial but was acquitted on the grounds that she had acted in self-defense.

After the ruckus of the trial subsided, Poker Alice reopened her establishment and continued to offer gambling and entertainment. After Prohibition hit the United States in 1920, she added bootleg whiskey to the mix. She was still working in her 70s, taking the name Alice Tubbs in honor of her favorite husband. By this point in her life, she had traded fancy dresses for a costume incorporating a khaki skirt, a man-styled shirt, and a broad-brimmed felt hat resembling those worn by the cavalry. She was arrested from time to time, whenever the “reformers” came to clean up the town. Charged with running a house of ill repute and/or selling liquor (which was against the law during Prohibition), Alice paid the required fines and soon reopened for business.

Arrested, Jailed, and Pardoned

Poker Alice was 75 when the law finally caught up with her. Arrested and convicted of running a brothel and selling liquor, she now faced a six-month prison term. Because of her age and gender, South Dakota Governor W.J. Bulow, granted her a pardon, stating, “I can't send a white haired old woman to jail on a liquor charge,” according to the Bismarck Tribune.

After her conviction, Poker Alice retired from business and moved to Sturgis, where she lived modestly and raised flowers, chickens, and angora cats. At the end of her life, she was reportedly depressed and thought to be suicidal. According to Mumey's biography, Poker Alice summed up her life this way: “I've had nearly a quarter of a million dollars pass through my hands during my gambling career. A little of it stuck; most of it went.”

Suffering from gallstones at age 79, Poker Alice gambled on surgery but died. Following her death on February 27, 1930, in Rapid City, South Dakota, she was buried in Sturgis. As for those who hoped to claim a portion of her assets after her death, Poker Alice addressed them in her will, dated September 1927. As Mumey wrote in her biography, Alice's will read: “I hereby specifically disinherit each and every one of my relatives and kin, for the reason that they have not contributed to my welfare and happiness during the declining years of my life, nor have they made any effort to inquire as to my welfare for a great number of years.” In settling her estate, Poker Alice gave her chickens to one neighbor friend and her crops to another.

Those interested in seeing Poker Alice's pistol can visit the Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, with her .44-caliber Colt Frontier (serial number 126200) on display. Allegedly, it is the same gun she used to save her future husband and the same gun she used against the Fort Meade soldiers. For those seeking a more intimate understanding of her life, Poker Alice's clapboard-sided Sturgis home was still open as a bed and breakfast in 2017.

Books

Mumey, Nolie, Poker Alice: History of a Woman Gambler in the West, Artcraft Press, 1951.

Periodicals

Bismarck Tribune, February 28, 1930, “‘Poker Alice’ Tubbs Draws Death in Big Gamble with Her Surgeon.”

Huron Weekly State Spirit (Huron, SD), July 17, 1913, “Killed from Resort at Fort Meade.”

Wild West, April 2008, Charles Zehnder, “College of the Ozarks Has Legendary Guns,” pp. 66–67.□

(MLA 8th Edition)