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Published on Thursday, April 3 2014

Top 10 Books on Old West Gambling

By G.R. Williamson


Fans of the Old West know that the gambling played in today's casinos is a far cry from what was seen in the "gambling resorts" of the 19th Century. With that in mind, what were the gambling games? How were they played and how did you cheat at them? Who were the major players and where did they ply their skills throughout the West? For those wanting specific details and first-hand accounts of Old West gambling, the following list of books is indispensable. Some are out-of-print and rare but still available in some libraries.

    Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers by Robert K. DeArment, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Without a doubt, one of the best books ever written on gamblers of the American West. DeArment uses a distinctive narrative to tell the story of the frontier gamblers—from the well-known and the obscure. Along the way, he weaves the gamblers' stories into the fabric of their nomadic life on the gypsy circuit that followed the flow of money, be it the wild cattle towns of Kansas or the mining boomtowns.

    Sucker's Progress: An Informal History of Gambling in America by Herbert Asbury, Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1938. A complete look at the development of gambling in America; from the Mississippi riverboats to gold-rich Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Asbury explores the legal, and illegal, history of gambling in abundant detail. This is classic Asbury, very comprehensive but just a little stodgy.

    Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi by George H. Devol, (Facsimile) Applewood Books, 1966. A hoot to read, Devol's tribute to himself, tells his version of his life - with a large amount of self-aggrandizement. Originally published in 1887, Devol was a master riverboat gambler and con man. At the time the book appeared, he had gone through the millions he had raked in on the riverboats and boomtowns—and was reduced to peddling the book for a meager income. Though much of the book is circumspect, it makes for fun reading.

    Sharps And Flats: The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill by John Nevil Maskelyne. Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1894. When the book was first published, it was a roaring success requiring a second edition. It covers all the areas of the cheating methods and paraphernalia used to fleece the suckers at the gambling tables. Maskelyne included a multitude of illustrations to show how the "tricks" worked. A basic fundamental look at the old gambling games and how to "bend" them for profit.

    Gambling and Gambling Devices by John Philip Quinn. Patterson Smith (Facsimile)1969. Originally self-published in 1912, the book was written by a self-proclaimed "reformed gambler." The book was meant to be exposé on gambling frauds, designed to discourage young men from the gambling tables. It uses numerous in-text illustrations of wheels, dice games and one-armed bandits used in bilking suckers who were totally unaware they are being trimmed by professional scammers. It quotes Quinn as declaring, "Of all the vices which have enslaved mankind, none can reckon among its victims so many as gambling." He makes a "frank confession of his own follies and his revelation of the secrets of the gambler's devil-born arts."

    Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling by David Schwartz. Gotham Books, New York, 2007. Thoroughly researched, "Roll The Bones" documents the history, tools and machinations of gambling from the earliest discovery of primitive dice to the grand opening of the most advanced and expensive casino in the world. A very well done reference book with some really great gambling stories—the General U.S. Grant poker story was my favorite.

    History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming by Catherine Perry Hargrave. Dover Publications, New York, 1966. This book provides a great resource to reference most of the games of the Old West. It provides a thorough history of the games and explains exactly how they were played.

    The Expert at the Card Table: The Classic Treatise on Card Manipulation by S. W. Erdnase. Dover Publications, New York, 1995. Want to know how to deal from the bottom, double-deal, or stack a deck of cards? This book has it all—it is a complete and thorough description of card handling by a master card mechanic. The book was originally written in 1901 by S. W. Erdnase, which was a nom de plume. The author's true identity has remained a mystery for over a century. As a detailed manual for cardsharps, the book is considered to be one of the most influential works on the art of manipulating cards at gaming tables.

    Gamblers' Crooked Tricks: A complete exposure of their methods by Hereward Carrington. Haldeman-Julius Co., 1928. Published as Little Blue Book, No. 1285, this little known 32 page book gives a colorful insight to gambling, cardsharping, tin-horn swindlers.

    Pistols, Petticoats & Poker: The Real Lottie Deno: No Lies or Alibis by Jan Devereaux, High Lonesome Books, 2009. Much has been written about the mysterious Lottie Deno who roamed the West under assortment of names—some of which does not stand up to historical research. Devereaux did a superb job of digging out the truth, exposing a number of myths attributed to the femme fatale. One in particular was the often-published pictures of Lottie Deno as a young woman. A great, well researched look at one of the true gambling hellcats of the West, Lottie Deno.


G.R. (Ron) Williamson is a historian, a western writer and a born storyteller. He has published three non-fiction books on the West, many magazine and newspaper articles, and several Western movie screenplays. His home is in Kerrville, Texas where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua, "Shooter."

His books include Frontier Gambling, The Texas Pistoleers, and Willis Newton: The Last Texas Outlaw.

His books on Kindle include John King Fisher: King of the Nueces Strip and Notorious Gamblers of the Old West. For more information visit his website.


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