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Gambling in the U.S. Military
 
By Byron Liggett

Americans have always been gamblers. We waged war to win our freedom, and then created a system based on the principles of democracy and free enterprise—perfect conditions for a nation of risk-takers. Gambling has been an important part of our national experience and nowhere is it more evident than in our military history.

Lotteries helped finance America’s War for Independence. They were used to finance the Continental Army, led by General George Washington, and provide for the cost of defending key cities. Benjamin Franklin tried unsuccessfully to get a lottery approved for the defense of Philadelphia. The hero of the American Revolution, General Washington suffered severe personal attacks on his character by those opposed to his Presidency. Rumors were spread that Washington was given to “gambling, reveling, horseracing, and horse whipping.” These same detractors went so far as to say he had taken British bribes while commanding American troops!

The westward movement, which defined Nineteenth Century America, was led by a host of gamblers, gunslingers, and gold miners. The job of the US Cavalry was to maintain order and security. However, on the frontier, the military often provided a fertile environment for cheats, crossroaders and hustlers. In the 1800s, so prevalent was cheating some manufacturers produced decks with secret marks already on the backs of the cards. The largest single order for marked cards came from American gamblers during the Mexican War. Having already lost Texas and fearing that its expansion-minded neighbors to the north also hungered for New Mexico and California, Mexico declared war on the US in 1846. When General Winfield Scott marched into Mexico City a year later, American cardsharps were only one step behind the troops. Soon after the war ended the soldiers returned home, leaving the cheats with thousands of bogus decks. About that time, however, gold was discovered in California and the hustlers packed up their marked cards and headed for the mining camps to fleece the Forty-Niners.

When the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln put a poker player in charge of the Northern Army. Ulysses S. Grant’s genius was for anticipating his opponents moves. His brilliant tactical responses and combat bravado saved the Union. It is not surprising to find that the General used liquor and cards to escape the pressures of conducting the war. Although Grant’s detractors made much of his drinking, as President, he rarely touched a drop.

Traditionally the life of a soldier involves long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief and seemingly unending moments of stark terror. During the Civil War gambling was a popular way for combatants on both sides to pass the time and relieve the boredom. Lice races were a favorite form of gambling. The critters were plentiful, active, and required little care. Even the lowest ranking soldier could maintain a stable of miniscule steeds. Lice races were often accompanied by much excitement and wagering. Two owners would place their animals in the center of a tin plate. Spectators bet on the “runners.” Upon the command “Go!” the two competitors, cheered by their respective supporters, run for the edge of the plate. The first to cross over the edge of the plate was declared the winner.

The Civil War also produced America’s youngest general, George Armstrong Custer, age 23. After the war General Custer and the 7th Cavalry were sent to the Black Hills of the Dakotas, the most remote part of Sioux reservation. His orders were to establish an outpost and investigate rumors of gold. Although only small quantities of the precious metal were found, the flamboyant glory-hunting Custer reported gold was plentiful. His exaggerated claims ignited another gold rush. Newspapers trumpeted the call. One headline declared: “The National Debt to be Paid When Custer Returns.” A stampede of gold-seekers, gunslingers and gamblers thundered into the Black Hills. More than a thousand white men squatted on Indian land, trespassing on sacred places and disrupting their lives and culture. After several years of disregard and frustration, the Indians turned to their weapons. Led by chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Indians took revenge on Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the battle of the Little Big Horn, in 1876.

When the gold rush started in the Dakotas, Deadwood became a boomtown. Wild Bill Hickok was already a legend when he arrived there in July of 1876, having been immortalized nine years earlier in an article in Harper’s Magazine. Although the article and subsequent writers exaggerated Hickok’s accomplishments, he nevertheless lived an eventful life. Before he became a gambler Hickok had been a Union spy in the Civil War, an Indian scout for the Army, a detective, and the sheriff of several wild frontier towns. He even toured for a time with Buffalo Bill Cody. But it was as a gambler and gunfighter that Wild Bill Hickok became an American hero. He was just 39 when a saloon bum, Jack McCall, shot him through the back of the head at the Number Ten Saloon in Deadwood. Legend has it Hickok was holding two pair: aces and eights, a hand known ever since as the “dead man’s hand.”

Dodge City was another wide-open frontier town where cheats and hustlers found lots of easy action. Cowboys and buffalo hunters were not the only targets of an over abundance of crooked gamblers, soldiers from Fort Dodge were regularly cheated out of their meager pay. In the 1870s, a private made only $13 a month. In 1878, a group of soldiers returned to the Fort broke and complained to their company commander. He marched them back into town, fully armed and ordered them to shoot several volleys through one particularly offensive establishment. On his command, they fired, too high to kill anyone, but low enough to terrify the cardsharps inside. “This time, it’s a warning,” declared the C.O.

Few military regiments have ever achieved the kind of fame enjoyed by the Rough Riders, a unique collection of cowboys, Native Americans, African Americans, land speculators, and scholars, commanded by Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. After the war, Roosevelt wrote The Rough Riders, a detailed chronicle of the triumphs and defeats of the unit. The book became an immediate bestseller upon its release in 1899. In it, Roosevelt notes, “We had quite a number of professional gamblers, who, I am bound to say, usually made good soldiers.”

World War I brought two significant developments in gambling. Blackjack was a big hit with American doughboys sent to France. It was brought back to the US and became a featured game in illegal gambling halls and speakeasies throughout the country in the 1920’s. When Nevada became the first state to legalize casinos in 1931, “Twenty-one” quickly became the dominant game. That was the beginning of its national acceptance. Today, it is the most popular casino table game in the world.

While American soldiers discovered twenty-one in Europe during WW I, they also introduced the world to craps. Eventually, craps became the game of the “bootleg” generation during the Prohibition Era. Gambling, whether for money in the barracks or survival on the battlefield, has always been a part of soldiering. Poignant examples of this were decks of cards issued by Belgium during World War II using the likeness of Allied leaders. Winston Churchill was drawn as the king of spades, Franklin D. Roosevelt as the king of diamonds, Joseph Stalin was the king of hearts, and Charles de Gaulle was the king of clubs. Adolf Hitler was depicted as the joker, with a bomb dropping on his head.

Nor has the natural affinity between the military and gambling gone unnoticed by the US Government or private enterprise. For example, during WW II, playing cards with maps hidden in them were secretly shipped to prisoners of war to help them should they escape. One especially clever wartime sales promotion was offered by the Jennings Slot Manufacturing Company. A customer could reserve $4,000 worth of post-war slot machines for every $1,000 War Bond purchased. It was what you might call a pay-now-play-later program.

In fact, the popularity of slot machines has not been overlooked by the Armed Forces. The devices have been common in overseas service clubs since the Second World War. In recent years, the four branches of the service have operated some 10,000 slot and video poker machines outside the US, producing well over $150 million in revenue annually. The money is used to pay for leisure activities and improvements to military service clubs. The program is entirely self-sufficient and no tax dollars are involved.

During the Vietnam War, the ace of spades was considered the card of death by the Viet Cong. Consequently; millions of them were sent to Vietnam and used as calling cards after attacks on Viet Cong strongholds. The Bicycle brand was favored because a picture of a woman, another symbol of evil, is incorporated in the card.

In his book, “Man of the House,” former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill reveals that one of his most momentous and far reaching decisions on the Vietnam War began over a discussion in a poker game in which General David Shoup was playing. Shoup had recently resigned as Commander of the Marine Corps because he disagreed with the administration’s war policy. Eventually O’Neill reached the same conclusion and became one of the first members of Congress to oppose his own party’s President, Lyndon Johnson, on the Vietnam War.

American soldiers have been on the frontline of the action since the country rolled the dice for Independence. Not surprisingly, gambling has been an intimate part of military life, and always will be. Bet on it.

This story was first published in the Winter 2002-2003 issue of Gambling Times Magazine.

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