When Mr. and Mrs. Ivers of Devonshire, England welcomed their daughter Alice to the world on a cold February afternoon in 1851, there was nothing to suggest she would become anything other than a conservative English lady, like her mother. Even in their wildest imaginings, her family could have never pictured the life this child would lead.
When she was 12 years old, Alice immigrated to the United States with her parents. The Ivers family initially settled in Virginia, where Alice was sent to a boarding school to adopt the manners of a refined lady.
The family moved again a few years later, this time to Leadville, Colorado. It was here that Alice met Frank Duffield, a mining engineer and poker enthusiast. She eloped with him, likely due to her family’s objections.
Alice created waves right away. Frank was a familiar sight at the poker table but the clientele at the saloon was taken aback to find the new Mrs. Duffield was not about to stay home while her husband had all the fun. Alice accompanied Frank out in the evenings, and sat beside him at the poker table.
The marriage was not destined to last long. Frank was killed in a mine accident just a few years later. Her husband was gone, but for Alice, there was no looking back. Throughout the long evenings of watching Frank play poker, she’d learned more than the game itself. She had a natural gift for reading faces and she had perfected it during her marriage to Frank. She took up gambling herself.
Rather than return to her family, Alice whiled away her time playing poker in various and sundry saloons all over the Wild West. She quickly became well-known, running the table every night, and winning startlingly large fortunes, up to $6,000 on occasion.
Alice was not one to hoard her cash. In her younger days, she regularly traveled east to New York City, where she would spend vast sums on her wardrobe. This was said to be part of her strategy when she played cards. She would return to the smoky saloons of the west, dressed to the nines, in the latest fashions from Paris. It was a business investment, she told her confidantes, because the extravagant clothing distracted her opponents.
Fate intervened in Alice’s life once again in 1890. By then, she had acquired the nickname Poker Alice, and adopted the profession of a dealer at the Bedrock saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. She was always armed with a gun, usually her .38 pistol. She had also taken to smoking cigars in her fine dresses. One evening, Alice saw a drunken miner attempting to attack another dealer named Warren G. Tubbs with a knife. Alice quickly intervened with her .38 and settled matters.
Shortly afterwards, she and Warren Tubbs married. They seemed to have been very happy together. In their 20 years of marriage, they had four sons and three daughters. The Tubbs family lived on a homestead by the Moreau River, deliberately leaving the saloon life Alice and Warren once enjoyed far behind them. Their happiness ended in 1910, when Warren Tubbs died of tuberculosis.
Alice loaded his body into their wagon and drove 50 miles to ensure he had a decent burial. It was more than she could afford. She had to sell her wedding ring to pay for it. With no other means to support herself, Poker Alice made a triumphant return to professional gambling. Her skill at counting cards and calculating odds transformed her into a legend. She purchased a saloon in Fort Meade, South Dakota, and converted the upstairs to a brothel. The brothel operated continually but the saloon was closed on Sundays. In response to the grumbling, Alice explained sincerely that playing poker on the Sabbath was wrong. Prostitution on Sundays was apparently still okay.
When they lived on the homestead, she and Warren had employed a man named George Huckert to help them. Huckert was desperately in love with Alice, but she seemed to have no interest in him until it was brought to her attention that she owed him $1,008 in back wages. After a few calculations, Alice decided marrying Huckert would be more economical than paying him. It was another short marriage; George died in 1913.
The same year, Alice found herself in hot water. A group of drunken soldiers appeared at her saloon on a Sunday, and became unruly and destructive. Alice was infuriated and pulled out her .38. She said she only planned to shoot to establish order in the house, but the shot struck a soldier, killing him. Alice and six of her prostitutes were arrested.
Alice, now in her 60s, spent her time quietly reading the Bible and smoking cigars. When the case finally went to trial, Alice claimed self-defense and was acquitted and set free. The saloon, however, was closed for good. The brothel remained open.
Alice was not scared straight while in jail. After her acquittal, she was arrested frequently for gambling, drunkenness, operating a brothel, and selling bootleg liquor. Her last arrest was in 1928 and due to her age, she was pardoned by South Dakota governor William J. Bulow.
The remarkable Poker Alice departed this world on February 27, 1930, at age 79. She is buried in St. Aloysius Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Alice Ivers was known as a beautiful woman for most of her life, though not photogenic. However, the first photo I saw of her is the one on the left, and it took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t Archie Bunker. But there is a resemblance, don’t you think?