Gambling in the Gold Rush

Mark Twain first heard the story of Jim Smiley and his jumping frog in the Angels Hotel. Smiley would bet on anything every time he could, and in Smiley Twain captured the passion that powered the California Gold Rush—the deeply rooted desire of man for quick, easy wealth. Starting from the first traveling grog shops at Sutter Creek to the bawdy pleasure palaces of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast alcohol, gambling and women with loose romantic affections were intrinsically interwoven. Miners often would lose a whole weeks profit in a crooked game of chance only to do it again the next week. Faro and three-card monte ruled Gold Rush saloons.

Monte in the mines

There would often be a crowd around the monte table, some working for the monte dealer as shills, or people pretending to win or lose to enticed another man, the mark, into playing and ultimately losing his money. Three cards are placed on a table. One is the winning card, usually the queen of hearts, then the dealer shuffled them around and the player had to find the queen. Often, when a shill lost, it would seem remarkable to the mark that the poor man could have picked the wrong card because the mark had no trouble following the queen at all. But when it was his turn, even if that mark were to accidentally pick the correct card a good monte dealer could switch it with another without being detected. Three-card monte was the ultimate con game.

Faro, J. D. Borthwick 1851

Faro probably evolved in France during the reign of Louis XIV then traveled to England before coming to America in the early 1800s. It was easy to play, used one regular deck of cards and an unlimited number of people could gamble at the same time. These gamblers were known as punters and they played against the bank, or house. Bets were placed on a layout of all the cards in one suit, usually spades. From a dealers box, or shoe, the first card, called the soda, is burned. The second card turned over was the player’s card and anyone who bet on it won. The third card was the banker’s card and those who bet on that one lost. Cheating was rife. Hoyles ‘Rules of the Game’ warned that no honest faro bank could be found, and sporting house suppliers openly sold rigged faro equipment. The house always won.


  1. Interesting! An excellent description of how the games were played. I especially like the videos that show the action. Thanks for the enjoyable and informative post!


    • Glad you like it, Carol. Gambling and gamblers figure into so much of the history of the west. The cardsharps flocked to every gold rush like bears to honey.

  2. It is true, a sucker born every minute. Of course you mentioned Twain, so I enjoyed the post, (smile). Really informative. Thank you.

    • The Celebrated Jumping Frog was a testament to men addicted to gambling and there must have been a lot of them back then. There are a lot of them now. Thanks for your comment, Doris.

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