Women’s Poker Pioneers: Old West Player ‘Poker Alice’
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In the 1980s, when men saturated the legal field, I was a brand new, blonde, wide-eyed lawyer. Before going to court, I practiced how I would address the court.
“Good morning, Your Honor.” “Hello, Judge.” “Morning.” I was gesturing, nodding my head, and trying to look the part. The first time I actually appeared in court, I was so nervous that I blurted out that, on behalf of my client, I was making a motion to exclude my client’s psych evaluation because I certainly hadn’t authorized it!
The judge smiled, peered over his reading glasses, and, holding up a stack of cases, said, “Appearances for the record, counsel?”
I forgot to mention my name and who I represented. And everyone in the courtroom knew it. Well, that was a humbling first day.
I learned the basics quickly. I also came to see that there was a club I couldn’t be a member of. It was the good old boys’ club. The group consisted of judges, bailiffs, prosecutors, defense attorneys and even custodians, all men. They talked about sports, told jokes in low tones when a woman walked into the room and spoke like a man. It was a close-knit club from which women were excluded.
Since my brother and I were raised by my father, I was used to being the only woman in the room, so I wasn’t too bothered by the dynamic. I have to admit though, being in my twenties, it was intimidating when a judge was demeaning or a male opponent was condescending. However, it was a challenge that I accepted.
An older lawyer whom I greatly admired took me under her wing. She at a petite 5’1”, with long stringy hair and a fierce look on her face, she was dynamite on wheels. “We just have to work harder and be more prepared than the guys, so go kick some ass and don’t let them bother you,” she said sarcastically in a hoarse voice denoting a chain smoker.
It would be about 10 years as an aggressive young lawyer, scratching and clawing my way, when one day I realized that I had somehow become a part of that elite club. Gross jokes were told in my presence. I got the kind of respect from judges who sometimes quietly asked for my personal opinion on a legal matter I wasn’t involved in. In short, I had arrived.
Going from law to poker was an easy transition. Where many women might feel intimidated, I had already experienced that uncomfortable pressure in the 80s, so I had plenty of experience dealing with it.
In my 20s, my blood boiled when a judge patronized in a way she 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 worked harder. I would give my oral argument many times in my car on my way to trial, repeating myself over and over until the words came easily. The more you work at anything, the better you become.
Now, nearly 40 years later, that adage still holds true. She works hard and keeps learning. This is what Barry and I still do. And if someone is mean at the table, let them roll off your shoulders. Someone’s bad behavior at the table is his problem. He reflects something on them and it has nothing to do with me.
So when I get into a hand and a male opponent asks me if it’s the only play I know, I smile, shrug, or joke.
What I also do is support anyone at a poker table who is being bullied, especially if it’s a woman being bullied by a man. When this inappropriate behavior occurs, it is important that strong personalities, men or women, intervene. I think it will still be some time before most women feel comfortable at a poker table, and the job for those who care is to be involved when something goes wrong.
The poker girls who came before us must have been great ball players. Take Alice Ivers Tubbs, from the Old West.
Born in Devonshire, England in the mid-1800s, her schoolteacher father wanted a better life and brought her to the United States when she was still a young girl. The family settled in Virginia and she Alice was sent to an elite boarding school for young women where she learned upper-class social graces and cultural rites as preparation for entry into society.
Then, in his teens, the family moved again, this time in the silver rush to Leadville, Colorado (hence the town’s name). She Alice soon met a mining engineer named 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 have been left out. He regularly visited Leadville’s many gambling halls, and his beautiful young wife came to watch. Well, look what he did. The young lady didn’t miss anything and shortly after she sat down 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 left a widow with no means of support. It didn’t take long before she Alice started traveling to play poker and was given the nickname “Poker Alice”.
She has been described as a beautiful woman with lush brown hair, blue eyes and a small frame of 5’4. When such a fine lady walked into a gambling hall, all dressed up in the best present fashion, she was welcomed. Indeed, she attracted men who were looking for a challenge. Poker Alice was good for business.
At times she made so much money that she had to take a trip to New York to splurge on fashion there and return to show off her new digs. This reminds me of something I did many years ago that I am now completely ashamed of.
When I first started playing poker about 35 years ago, I flew to Vegas and played at the Bellagio. I had a crazy run in a relatively small game and quickly went up about $3,000. I collected my winnings, smiled and said hello, 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 came over me, but I went back to the table to show off my new jacket and then thanked all the men at the table for the beautiful present. I thought I was hysterical. Servility! Back to poker Alice.
As the years passed, he is said to have taken to smoking a thin black cigar, all the while sporting his frilled suits and high fashion with a killer smile. And under that flounced dress? Yes, 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 on a regular basis. He didn’t care because he was in love with her. (Incidentally, 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 one hand when a drunk miner looked at Tubbs’ pile of potato chips, came up behind him, and quickly pulled out a knife. Before anyone had time to react, Poker Alice pulled out her .38 and shot the attacker. As she 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 earnings and her painting, they supported her family. In 1900, only six percent of married women worked outside the home, usually when their blue-collar husbands were unemployed. Of the wives with children at home, very few worked. Poker Alice was the exception.
In 1910, Tubbs was diagnosed with tuberculosis and eventually died of pneumonia. Once again, the heartbroken Alice had to make a living on her own. She hired a man to take care of her farm and started traveling to gambling halls.
The man who hired took a liking to her and asked for her hand in marriage again and again. Eventually she succumbed to her advances and they got married. She died three years later, leaving her alone once again. (So many bad beats!)
Poker Alice lived out the rest of her life as the pioneer she always was, but the legend, fascination and inspiration of Poker Alice live on. In 1987, the story of Poker Alice was made into a film 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 each of these notable women from the past, the present, and upcoming stars as well.
In future articles, I will continue to praise and spread information about the achievements of women in our field. I invite you to share your stories with me at email@example.com.
Allyn Jaffrey Shulman has been a criminal defense attorney for 40 years. As a constitutional law expert, she has testified before the North Dakota Senate regarding online gaming. The Card Player Poker Tour Venice Main Event champion has more than $1.6 million in career tournament earnings, including a World Series of Poker bracelet after outlasting a massive field of 4,128 in the senior 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 a woman in a man’s world. You can find her on Twitter @ajaffrey.