Signed by Kaplan: GREATEST FEMALE GAMBLERS
One of Las Vegas’s finest dining experiences is to be had at a restaurant called NoMad. Situated inside the freshly renovated Park MGM, this spot spins off from the New York City original, named for the lower Manhattan neighborhood where it resides.
One thing you get in Vegas that you don’t get in the New York iteration – where square-footage feels precious – is a sprawling library, floor to ceiling with vintage books and spotted with tributes to the 19th century’s greatest female gamblers – gamblers who was far away from today’s new online casinos. They come in the form of small busts and brief bios that clue us in on these card-savvy femme fatales.
After enjoying the fabulous OraKing salmon and fantastic roasted chicken studded with foie gras and black truffles, we can’t help but pay tribute to the sharp ladies of NoMad – and to think about their modern-day descendents who include the likes of Kelly “Baccarat Machine” Sun, Annie Duke and Vanessa Selbst.
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ALICE “POKER ALICE” IVERS – Poker Alice was a treasure trove of contradictions. She dressed in impressive finery and puffed on big black cigars; she was a hardened gambler turned brothel-owner who rarely practiced her trade on Sundays due to religious beliefs; she claimed to have never cheated but she did carry a .38 caliber pistol – and, as legend has it, was not afraid to use it.
Poker Alice married at the tender age of 20 and learned to play cards while standing behind her husband, watching him in action at mining-town poker and faro tables (not dissimilar to baccarat, faro was a luck-based game in which gamblers bet on or against one of two cards dealt out for each hand). After her husband died in a mining accident, Ivers supported herself as a road-hardened gambler, going from one frontier town to the next. She used good looks and gambling smarts to mesmerize her male counterparts. She is said to have celebrated large wins with dress-buying binges in New York City.
Poker Alice Ivers outlived three husbands, moithered a flock of children and spent the latter years of her life raising hell and tangling with the law. There were multiple arrests for drunk-and-disorderly conduct as well as for her maintaining a house of ill repute within the walls of her gambling club known as Poker’s Palace. She died at age 79, in 1930 (due to complications following gall-bladder surgery), left behind little of the $250,000 she claimed to have won over her lifetime and had a catchphrase that gambling victims remembered all too well: “Praise the Lord and place your bets. I’ll take your money with no regrets.”
ELEANORE “MADAME MUSTACHE” DUMONT – Refer to a woman as Madame Mustache and you pretty much deserve whatever she does to you. Such was the fate of those who decided to confront the fearsome Dumont across a gambling table. While faro and poker reigned as the games of choice when Dumont made her way to San Francisco around 1830 – arriving in time for the California gold rush – Madame Mustache excelled at vingt-et-un, also known as 21, which eventually became blackjack.
Card-counting and basic-strategy had yet to be invented but Dumont had clearly figured out a few things about the game – not least of which was how to chill out her marks after she separated them from their bankrolls. She commiserated over their losses, ordered them glasses of champagne and made it a point to be a good sport when she was beaten. Dumont sat in the dealer’s seat and enjoyed the mathematical advantage that invariably derives from that position.
For all of her casino-smarts, though, Dumont met her match away from the tables. Flush with cash – some of it earned through the ownership of gambling halls –she retired from gaming, bought a ranch and turned to the cattle business. She married the good-looking, fast-talking, sharply dressed Jack McKnight. He promised to help her in running the ranch. Instead, McKnight conned her out of it, sold the property out from under her, took off with his wife’s savings and left her destitute. She reportedly tracked him down and shot him – but was, nevertheless broke and needed to resume grinding.
Dumont worked hard, drank heavily, added prostitution of her repertoire of money-making gambits. Over the years, Madame Mustache’s body padded out and she sprouted the facial hair that earned her nickname. She had her share of ups and downs, going bust and getting flush, as gamblers became increasingly savvy. One night, in 1879, while dealing in a California saloon, she got the worst of it and found herself $300 in debt. Madame Mustache drowned her sorrows with red wine and morphine. Arguably, the Stu Ungar of her day, she was found dead from an OD on the side of a rural road just outside of town.
LOTTIE DENO – When you’re a woman whose nickname is Deno — which derives from “dinero,” the Spanish word for money, and was imparted after you fleeced a room full of male gamblers – you must realize that you are onto something big. Such was the case for the 19th century firebrand who had been born Carlotta Thompkins, the daughter of a racehorse breeder in Kentucky.
Out of the gate, she seemed destined for a fast life of gambling advantageously.
Deno’s father made sure of it: He taught her to beat games such as poker and faro. The lessons involved techniques for slyly cheating unwitting opponents. Deno was a notorious figure on riverboats that plied the Mississippi and she hung out with gunfighter Doc Holliday (he is said to have lost $3,000 to her at faro).
Known to some as the Angel of San Antonio, Deno’s reputation was burnished during a stint traversing the American West. She traveled alongside a man named Frank Thurmond – a fellow gambler and former employer – who was on the run after murdering a poker player with a bowie knife. Ankling their way across the Lone Star State, they took advantage of flush cowboys and rural entrepreneurs who were entranced by a good-looking redhead who was game to gamble.
She and Frank supposedly made enough money in the saloons and frontier outposts that they married, forsook the hustle and retired to a comfortable, quiet life in New Mexico before she died at the age of 89 in 1934.
Such a peaceful ending might qualify Carlotta “Lottie Deno” Thompkins as this trio’s biggest winner of all.
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ABOUT MICHAEL KAPLAN
With four books (and more on the way) plus hundreds articles, Michael Kaplan is one of the most experienced writer in gambling related subjects.
He have covered big stories including famous gamblers such as Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth for publications including Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. Based in New York, where he regularly writes for the Post.