“I would rather play poker with five or six ‘experts’ than eat.”

Somehow it’s hard to see Alice as being happy with a pair of knitting needles

“At my age I suppose I should be knitting,” Alice Ivers once said, “but I would rather play poker with five or six ‘experts’ than eat”. Fighting talk from a woman in a man’s world. And Alice knew just how to play that male-dominated game.

Not just a pretty face

Her world was the nineteenth century mining camps of the American West: male outposts such as Leadville, Colorado – unforgiving environments where the work was back-breaking and relief came through drink and gambling. It was a world where women, at least initially, were rare. Alice was one of the first, when she joined her mining engineer husband Frank, in Leadville. A diminutive 5′ 4″, with sparkling blue eyes, long lustrous brown hair, and a clear English complexion, Alice could not fail to attract attention.

How to get ahead in a man’s world

Especially so when the men discovered she could play poker. This card game, that has become synonymous with the American West, was embraced by uneducated miner and mine boss alike because there was little else to entertain body and soul in those early years. Alice faced a simple choice of taking up knitting, a dispiriting prospect, or joining her keen gambler husband at the gaming table. She chose the latter, and discovered that she was good at it.

What it takes to earn a man’s respect at Poker

Very good, or so Casino operators in mining towns such as Silver City, New Mexico, discovered. They quickly realised they had a ‘natural’ Poker player at their tables. Someone with a good head for figures, an innate ability to assess the odds and, the poker player’s ‘ace,’ the poker face – in other words the ability to hide emotions behind an inscrutable façade. ‘Poker Alice,’ as she became known, soon had the respect of her fellow, all-male players. Here was a woman quite capable of making $6,000 in an evening, a cool $166m in today’s terms. Someone, as the Gold Dust Gambling House discovered one night, with the ability to break the bank. Better, these gaming establishments realised, to have her on your side, as a dealer, than cleaning you out at the table.

How to spend your winnings

Crowds of burly miners, accustomed to dirt, noise and sweat, were soon charmed by her beauty and mesmerised by her elegant attire. Alice always kept up with the latest fashions, bought with the proceeds of her winnings, from the New York fashion houses. The clientele soon became accustomed to her taste for cigars. Many, keen to test her card skills, went away chastened by her gambling acumen.

When principles deserve respect

Only a fool picked a fight with Alice. All knew she packed a.38 revolver somewhere amongst those elegant folds, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. Her father, she explained “had been an expert marksman. He taught me to shoot, and shoot well. I was never afraid”. Players and Casino owners knew they could trust Alice. Originally from Devon in the South West of England, she had been raised in a comfortable middle-class home with strong moral and religious values. Bosses knew better than to insist she work on a Sunday.

These principles guided her throughout her life, even in later years when her looks faded and she ‘diversified’ into prostitution and bootlegging during the prohibition years.

‘Poker Alice’s’ challenge to Nineteenth Century America was clear: I have a skill and I intend to make money from it; I just happen to be a woman. Hers is a message that is timeless.

6 thoughts on “Alice Ivers

  1. Interesting that you mention Leadville. Many Tiroleans from the Val di Non, Italy settled there and in Rock Springs, Wyoming to assume lives as miners (gold, silver and coal). My grandfather was among those who went to Rock Springs. He later owned a saloon but never saw the likes of Alice.

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    1. Probably just as well, Allen (re: Alice).
      Mining was (and still is) a tough way of earning a living. I don’t envy them one little bit.
      Given that these settlers were from the Tirol, is there now a major German or Italian influence in the area?

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      1. Absolutely! Rock Springs is still super heavily populated with families who have their roots in the Val di Non – probably upward of 60% of the population.

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