c. 1850 | Mississippi River

Warming Up the Mark

Finding suckers on a Mississippi riverboat.

We were on board the steamer York Town one day when I thought there were no suckers aboard. I had looked around, and had about come to the conclusion that we would not make our expenses, when I saw a large, well-dressed fellow who had his whiskers dyed black as ink. I got into conversation with him, and we walked around over the boat, and finally up on the roof. Bob Whitney was at the wheel, and his partner, Bill Horricks, was with him in the pilothouse.

I knew the boys were all right, so I invited my new acquaintance to go up, as we could see better than on the roof. He accepted the invitation, and we were soon enjoying the scenery. I threw some of my cards on the floor, under the seat. The gentleman noticed them in a little while, picked them up, and turning to me he said, “If we had a full deck we could have a game.” I told him I hardly ever played, but I saw a fellow playing a game with three cards that beat anything I ever saw, but it took a smart one to play it. I began throwing them, when Bob Whitney got so interested that he came near letting the boat run away with him. He wanted to bet me fifty dollars, and he told Bill Horricks to hold the boat until he could make a bet. I told him I did not understand the game well enough to bet on it. About this time the capper put in an appearance, and he wanted to know all about the game. I explained it, and he made the usual bets. The pilot wanted to bet very bad, but I kept refusing. Finally my friend with the black whiskers got worked up to a thousand dollars and lost it. Then my partner put a mark on the winner, and beat me out of a thousand dollars. The sucker saw the mark on the card, and wanted to bet one hundred dollars. He was sure of winning, but he did not want to win but a hundred dollars. So I took his bet, and just as he was about to turn the card I said, “I will make it a thousand dollars”; but he only wanted the hundred dollars, and he got it. After winning the hundred dollars, and seeing the mark still on the card, he thought it was all his way, so he put up one thousand dollars. I saw it was about all he had, so I put up, and he turned the marked card; but it was not the winner for a thousand dollars so much as it had been for a hundred dollars. He walked out of the pilothouse and went down on deck. My partner followed him.

Life is the art of being well deceived.

—William Hazlitt, 1817

After they were gone, Bob Whitney said he would have turned the same card. Then Bill Horricks laughed, and told him he could hold a steamboat, but he could not beat Devol at his own game. I went down to the bar, and there was my black-whiskered friend talking to my partner. I invited them to join me, which they did, and then the gentleman said he would like to speak with me a moment. We walked out on the guards, when he said to me, “I know I am a fool, but I want to ask you one question, and I want you to be candid with me. Why did you pick me out from among all the passengers for a sucker?” “Well,” I said, “I will be honest with you; don’t you dye your whiskers?” “Yes,” said he.” “Well, that is the reason I picked you out.” He said, “I thank you, sir,” and walked off.

I went into the cabin and opened up again. I caught a few suckers, and then closed up monte. I then got out my wheel, and took in all the panfish. After closing up for the evening, I walked into the bar, and there I met a fine-looking, smooth-faced gentleman, who asked me to take a drink, at the same time saying: “Do you think shaving off my whiskers has improved my looks?” I told him there was not as much deception in him as there had been in the card with the pencil mark on it. We took another drink and separated, I with about two thousand dollars of his money, and he with the experience.


George Devol

From Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi. According to his own reckoning, Devol was born in Marietta, Ohio, in 1829, the grandson of a Revolutionary War officer. His occasionally implausible memoir, first published in 1887, relates a rough-and-tumble life spent as an antebellum gambler. One of Devol’s favorite cons was to relieve priests of their valuables only to return them and offer the biblical advice, “Go, and sin no more.” Devol wrote elsewhere in the book, “A gambler’s word is as good as his bond, and that is more than I can say of many businessmen who stand very high in a community.”