Monday, August 13, 2007

Low Life, the Rat Pit, and George Washington's Poker Blog

By Pauly

I have been on a reading kick since the WSOP ended. I'm finally finishing off a few books that I started, yet never finished. That's been my goal for the rest of 2007... to read more and alternate between new books and older books (that I once picked up to read but for some reason never finished). I highly recommend Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer, where he explores the violent history behind the Mormon religion. I finished it on Zuma Beach in Malibu. I started it in 2003 and failed to complete it.

When I returned to NYC last weekend, I picked up Low Life by Luc Sante. I read excerpts and chapters over a decade ago. I always wanted to finish it and finally started from the beginning and read all the way to the end. Sante wrote an exceptional book about the seedy underbelly of New York City from the 1840s to the 1919. It's broken up into four sections and Part Two is devoted to "vice and entertainment - theatres and saloons, opium and cocaine dens, gambling and prostitution."

For many decades in the early 19th Century, New Orleans was the gambling Mecca in North America, with Mobile, Alabama a close second. Attention eventually shifted to New York City shortly before the Civil War and eventually out west to Las Vegas in the middle part of the 20th Century.

All the derelicts and sketchy characters of the day ran rampant down the filthy streets of the Lower East Side in New York City. They had a particular fondness for the Bowery... the epicenter of the underbelly. At that time, the Bowery made modern-day Las Vegas seem as squeaky clean as Salt Lake City. Lawlessness ruled as a dark blanket of vice blanketed that section of New York. It was not uncommon to find a bar, a brothel, and a backroom casino all in one building. Debauchery flourished at a time when the politicians and cops were as crooked as the criminal enterprises that set up shop. Heck, most of the men in power frequented those seedy establishments, which is why so many of them were able to continue to operate.

In his chapter titled Saloon Culture, Sante wrote about the insane spectacles that occurred at Kit Burn's Sportsmen Hall also known as the Rat Pit, a three-story building which doubled as both a bar and a whorehouse, where vices were pursued on every floor...
"But none so famously as its matches to the death between terriers and rats, held in a pit in the first-floor amphitheater, hence the resort's more common name, the Rat Pit. Rat-baiting was the premier betting sport of the 19th century. Its prestige can be gauged in economic terms, circa 1875: admission to a then illegal prize fight between humans cost fifty cents, to dogfights and cockfights $2, while a fight pitting a dog against rats ran anywhere from $1.50 if the dog faced five rats or fewer, up to $5, in proportion to the number of rats.

For a while, dog-vs.-racoon contests were popular, but rats were so readily available that they came to dominate the scene; boys were paid to catch them, at a rate of five to twelve cents a head. The dogs were always fox terriers, and they trained for six months before being sent out.

Matches drew no fewer than a hundred betting spectators, from all walks of life, with purses starting at $125. A good rat dog could kill a hundred rats in a half an hour to forty-five minutes."
Just think that 130 years earlier, on the same block in New York City where I spend too much money on imported beer in dive bar overrun by hipsters, there were daily dog-rat fights to the death in the same building as the local hooker bar.

Before the inception of off-track horse betting and before organized team sports, the gambling vices of the day involved wagering on animals trying to kill other animals. The ASPCA eventually banned rat-baiting in NYC by the turn of the century, and the degenerate gamblers had to get their fix wagering on other things like bear fights.

New York City was a dark and evil place filled with hustler, hookers, pimps, and street thugs that didn't think twice about slashing your throat to rob you out of your last nickel.
"The golden age of gambling in New York lasted from shortly after the Civil War until just after the turn of the century. During that time, there were untold hundreds of gambling house of all sorts for all classes and for every specialty.

This period also saw cheating and fakery achieve new heights. Three-card Monte and its cousin the shell game clew in from the West and flourished; they are believed to be the only major gambling games invented in the United States."
(Luc Sante, Low Life)
One of the scam games introduced was banco, which was also known as bunco, hence the term bunco-artist. It's a game played with eight cards or eight dice. It's a game where you're not supposed to win and even the author Oscar Wilde got caught up in one bunco scheme where he donked off $5,000. The thieves running the ring foolishly accepted a personal check. After Wilde figured out what went down, he was able to get his bank to cancel the check. But the majority of the bunco victims were not so lucky.

Swindled like a fool. Ship it.

This is probably my favorite passage from Sante's chapter titled Chance...
"Tammany Mayor Robert Van Wyck (1898-1901) let gambling house run wide open all over town. Broadway and the Bowery were both chockablock with joints offering 'high play at cards,' roulette, dice, off-track-betting, and wagering on prizefights, dogfights, and cockfights, while in Chinatown there were scores of places specializing in fan-tan and pi-gow."
Pi-gow? That's what they used to call Pai-Gow. Yeah, if you wanted a Pai Gow fix at the turn of the century, you ended up in Chinatown.

* * * * *

Gambling has always played a part in America, even before this land was called America. Native Americans tribes engaged in gambling events and rituals way before they had their first encounters with European colonists. According to David Schwartz's epic book Roll the Bones, gambling in the American Southwest was a serious and sacred pursuit among the Native Americans.

The Navajos played a game where two different sides took turns hiding a ball (or usually a small rock or pebble) in one of eight moccasins that were buried in the sand. Each side took turns guessing where the ball was and depending how far off you were, each team lost points. The origins of the game were rooted in a disagreement between the animals of the day and the animals of the night. Each group of animals wanted either perpetual darkness or never ending sunlight. The animals met at twilight and played hide the pebble game. They could not determine a winner, so their match was a push... and the cycle of night and day continued.

By the early 18th century, the wealthy colonists in Virginia had been engaging in a deeply rooted gambling culture which included cards, dice, backgammon, and billiards. They also had an intense passion for horse racing and held informal races in the fields on their plantations or engaged in formal races at tracks. When the British took control of New Amsterdam in the late 17th century, they renamed it New York, they also set up a racetrack.

During the Revolutionary war, widespread gambling was common in base camps on both sides of the line. Even though George Washington dabbled in gambling from time to time, he had a famous quote stating that, "Gambling is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief." He frowned upon gambling among his soldiers. According to Schwartz's chapter titled Star-Spangled Gamblers...
"Despite George Washington's mild fondness for gambling, he demanded that his troops put down their cards for the good of the nation."
Washington might be the first ever poker blogger. He kept detailed accounts of his gambling ventures in a journal. Between 1772 and 1775, he played cards about twice a week. Although he had more losing sessions than winning ones, he never had a losing session where he lost more than six pounds and his winning sessions were usually big ones. Washington's strategy was to limit his losses, while waiting for the big score. His card playing philosophy carried over to the battlefield during the Revolutionary War. Washington might have lost more battles than he won, but in the end, he prevailed.

George Washington... not only did he grow marijuana, but he also played poker and wrote about it. God Bless him.

During the war with the British, many of the colonies started up lotteries to help pay for the escalating costs of war. Freedom had a price and the best way to raise money quick was to have a drawing amongst the populace, where the proceeds went to a worthy cause. In one instance, a citizen could win a few bucks gambling and help expel the British at the same time. Gambling for freedom. Only in America.

* * * * *

Here is some more information about the books that I mentioned in this post:
Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling by David Schwartz
Low Life by Luc Sante
Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
And just in case you were wondering, not one rat or dog was harmed during the writing of this post.

Original content written and provided by Pauly from Tao of Poker at All rights reserved. RSS feeds are for non-commercial use only.

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