Playing Cards have had a major role in the livelihood of professional gamblers and card sharks from the Mississippi to the mining towns of California. They have comprised a list of some of the most colorful and skillful individuals in the past few hundred years.
The riverboat on the mighty Mississippi became a haven for card games of every variety. Poker was the king on the riverboats and in wild west towns. But other games of luck like Three-Card-Monte, Faro, and Roulette were played by gamblers and dealers determined to make fast money.
There were the famous card players like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. And there were those who made a very good living as card sharks (or sharps). One of the greatest card sharks in history was a riverboat and railroad gambler names William "Canada Bill" Jones.
Canada Bill mastered a game called Three-Card-Monte. Similar to the shell game Monte was played with three cards, the first of which the dealer showed the "mark". He then turned it face down with the other two, rearranged them, and asks the "mark" to find his card. Well, of course, Canada Bill would palm the first card and replace it with another card. The "mark" would select what he thought was his card, lose, and be none the wiser. Canada Bill was a card shark at poker, too, but he died in 1880 penniless and was buried by the City of Reading, Pennsylvania at the city's expense.
Unlike the Top Best Poker Players of today who play the game like a science, the gamblers of old sat in the saloons with their backs to the wall and guns at their sides while watching the dealers very carefully. The dealers were very good at sleight-of-hand moves that came after long hours of practice, patience, and discipline. Of course, it never hurt to have food, liquor and painted ladies close at hand.
Many professional gamblers and card sharks would hang around mining towns and waterfronts.
They preyed on unsuspecting travelers and pioneers who had their life savings in their pockets.
These con artists would station themselves where local magistrates and police avoided, and a person who was lucky enough to win any kind of money stood a pretty good chance of being "greeted" by thieves when he left the saloon.
Gambling migrated and spread from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the West in covered wagons and railroads. One early author, Jonathan Greer in 1834 referred to the activity as the "cheating game". Dishonest card sharks ran confidence games, and companies cropped up specializing in the manufacture and sales of card cheating devices.
The professional gamblers had a very high opinion of themselves and took advantage of the growing obsession for card games in America. To be successful, they maintained a very fancy wardrobe and had an irresistible gift for conversation. These attributes often provided the introduction to the unwary card player.