Women In Poker Pioneers: Old West Gambler ‘Poker Alice’
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I was a brand new, wide-eyed, blond female attorney in the ‘80s when men saturated the field of law. Before going to court, I practiced how I would address the court.
“Good morning your Honor.” “Hello, Judge.” “Morning.” I would gesticulate, nod my head, and try to look the part. The first time I actually appeared in court, I was so nervous, I blurted out that on behalf of my client, I was making a motion to exclude my client’s psychological evaluation as I had certainly not authorized it!
The judge smiled, peered over his reading glasses, and holding a stack of cases said, “Appearances for the record, counsel?”
I had forgotten to say my name and whom I represented. And everyone in the courtroom knew it. Well, that was a humiliating first day.
I learned the ropes quickly. I also came to observe there was a club that I couldn’t be a member of. It was the good ‘ole boys club. The group consisting of the judges, bailiffs, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even the custodians, all of whom were men. They spoke about sports, told jokes with lowered voices when a woman entered the room and engaged in man-speak. It was a tight-knit club from which women were excluded.
Since my brother and I were raised by my dad, I was used to being the only female in the room, so I wasn’t too bothered by the dynamic. I must admit though, being in my twenties, it was intimidating when a judge was demeaning, or a male opponent was patronizing. However, it was a challenge I embraced.
An older female attorney whom I greatly admired, took me under her wing. At a petite 5’1’’, with long stringy hair and a fierce look on her face, she was dynamite on wheels. “We just gotta work harder and be more prepared than the boys, so go kick some ass and don’t be bothered by their shenanigans,” she would sarcastically say with a raspy voice that bespoke a chain-smoker.
It would be about 10 years as an aggressive young attorney, scratching and clawing my way up, when I realized one day that I had somehow become part of that elite club. Crass jokes were told in my presence. I had the kind of respect from judges that they would sometimes quietly ask my personal opinion on a legal matter in which I was not involved. Essentially, I had arrived.
Moving from law to poker was an easy transition. Where many women might feel intimidated, I had already went through that uncomfortable pressure in the 80s, so I had plenty of experience to wrangle through it.
In my twenties, my blood would boil when a judge was patronizing in a way he would never speak to a male counterpart. I wanted to scream. I wanted to give that idiot a piece of my mind. Instead, I bided my time and just worked harder. I would give my oral arguments many times in my car on the way to trial, repeating myself over and over until the words came easily. The more you work at anything, the better you become.
Now, almost 40 years later, that adage is still true. Work hard and continue to learn. That is what Barry and I still do. And if someone is nasty at the table, let it roll off your shoulders. Someone’s ill behavior at the table is their problem. It reflects something about them and has nothing to do with me.
So, when I move in on a hand and a male opponent asks me if that’s the only play I know, I just smile, shrug or make a joke of it.
What I also do is support anyone at a poker table who is being bullied, especially if it is a woman being bullied by a man. When this inappropriate behavior happens, it’s important that strong personalities, men or women, should step in. I think it will still take time before most women feel comfortable at a poker table, and the job for those who care, is to get involved when something wrong occurs.
The ladies in poker who came before us must have been major ball-busters. Take Alice Ivers Tubbs, from the Old West.
Born in Devonshire, England in the mid-1800s, her schoolmaster father wanted a better life and brought her to the United States when she was still a very young girl. The family settled in Virginia, and Alice was sent to an elite boarding school for young women where she learned social graces and upper-class cultural rites as a preparation for entry into society.
Then in her teenage years, the family again moved, this time to the silver rush in Leadville, Colorado, (hence the town’s name.) Alice soon met a mining engineer by the name of Frank Duffield and when she turned 20, they married.
Gambling was a way of life in the mining camps of the Old West and Frank would not be left out. He regularly visited the many gambling halls in Leadville, and his beautiful young wife came along and watched. Well, watch she did. The young lady didn’t miss a thing and soon thereafter, she took her seat at the table. She was very good at both poker and faro, another popular game at the time.
A few years into their marriage, Alice’s mining engineer husband Frank was killed in an explosion. Alice was widowed with no means of support. It didn’t take long before Alice began traveling to play poker and was given her nickname, “Poker Alice.”
She has been described as a beautiful woman with lush brown hair, blue eyes with a petite 5’4 frame. When such a fine lady entered a gambling hall, all decked out in the finest current fashion, she was welcomed. As a matter of fact, she attracted men who were looking for a challenge. Poker Alice was good for business.
Sometimes she would make so much money, she would have to take a trip to New York to splurge on the fashions there and would come back showing off her new digs. This reminds me of something I did many years ago, for which I am now utterly ashamed.
When I began playing poker about 35 years ago, I flew to Las Vegas and played at the Bellagio. I went on a mad rush in a relatively small game and was quickly up about $3,000. I picked up my winnings, smiled and said goodbye, left the table and proceeded to spend the money on a beautiful black leather jacket.
Nothing wrong with the story so far, right? Well, I don’t know what possessed me, but I went back to the table to show off my new jacket and then I thanked all the men at the table for the beautiful present. I thought I was hysterical. Cringe! Back to Poker Alice.
As the years passed, she is said to have started smoking a thin black cigar, all the while sporting her frilly dresses and high fashion with a killer smile. And underneath that frilly dress? Yup, a .38 revolver. And it wasn’t just for show.
She moved to Deadwood, South Dakota and played poker with a painter named Warren G. Tubbs, whom she beat regularly. He didn’t mind as he was smitten with her. (As an aside, Barry and I visited Deadwood a few years ago and I’m annoyed I didn’t know about Poker Alice at the time!)
One evening, Tubbs was engrossed in a hand when a drunken miner eyed Tubbs’ pile of chips, walked up behind him and quickly pulled out a knife. Before anyone had time to react, Poker Alice pulled out her .38 and shot the assailant. As he lay bleeding on the floor, Alice was arrested for murder. Ultimately, however, she was acquitted.
Poker Alice went on to marry Tubbs and they had seven children. She was the happiest she had ever been and for 34 years, with her gambling profits and his painting, they supported the family. In 1900, only six percent of married women worked outside the home, usually when their blue-collar husbands were unemployed. Among wives with children at home, very few worked at all. Poker Alice was the exception.
In 1910, Tubbs was diagnosed with tuberculosis and ultimately died of pneumonia. Once again, brokenhearted Alice was required to make a living on her own. She hired a man to take care of her homestead and began traveling to gambling halls.
The man she hired took a liking to her and asked for her hand in marriage again and again. Finally she succumbed to his advances and they married. He died three years later, leaving her alone once more. (So many bad beats!)
Poker Alice lived out the rest of her life as the trailblazer she always was, but the legend, fascination and inspiration of Poker Alice lives on. In 1987, the story of Poker Alice was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, George Hamilton, and Tom Skerritt.
There are so many women in poker who have come after Poker Alice to make their mark and pave the way for others. I celebrate every one of these important women from the past, present and also the upcoming stars.
In future articles, I will continue to commend and disseminate information about the successes of women in our field. I invite you to share your own stories with me at [email protected]
Allyn Jaffrey Shulman is a 40-year veteran criminal defense attorney. As a constitutional law expert, she testified before the North Dakota Senate regarding online gaming. The Card Player Poker Tour Venetian main event champion has more than $1.6 million in career tournament earnings, including a World Series of Poker bracelet after topping a massive field of 4,128 in the senior’s championship. The former Poker Player Alliance board member was inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame in 2014. Shulman is currently writing a book about her experience as woman in a man’s world. You can find her on Twitter @ajaffrey.