Life on the Mississippi wasn’t all whitewashing fences and getting lost in caves with Becky Thatcher, and one of the most profitable professions during that time was a riverboat gambler.
Two of the best were George Devol and Canada Bill Jones. One is pretty well-known, as Rounders fans will recognize the second name, but before you go around assuming Mike McDermott was quoting a famous poker player, Canada Bill was more or less a con man.
In those days even honest poker players cheated (honest players just cheated with skill) but Devol and Canada Bill were far from honest gamblers.
They won millions
2003 wasn’t the first time poker went through a Boom period. During the mid-to late-1800’s the game and its practitioners were among some of the most famous people in American culture. These “Sporting Men” as they were called also won and lost incredible sums of money (they would even be incredible by today’s standards) and captured the hearts of minds of the general public.
By his own account George Devol won over $2 million during his gambling career.
Canada Bill Jones never made such calculations, but it’s likely even more money passed through his hands.
He and Devol (the author of one of the first books to cover the topic of gambling on the Mississippi and in the Old West, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi) were notorious for setting up the suckers on the riverboats for a good old fashioned three-card-monte con, with Devol acting as the steerer and Canada Bill the monte dealer — Jones is mentioned as one of the greatest monte dealers that ever lived; which means he was one of the best card mechanics that ever lived.
Amazingly the basic gist of their con (which predates the pair by the way) is still in use today, and it became even more nuanced when Frank Tarbeaux came along and perfected the role of the “rube dealer,” but that’s a story for another day.
The duo could also play a mean game of poker (they were both card sharps mind you) and won plenty in honest games and by cold-decking travelling businessmen.
They were proficient in just about every form of cards and cons imaginable.
Devol and Jones partnered for several years before a falling out saw them go their separate ways. Devol primarily continued on as a riverboat gambler while Jones had more wanderlust in his DNA, and could be found in just about every Boom Town at one time or another.
Jones also was a regular on the trains that crisscrossed the west, including the notorious “Hell on Wheels” route, which is also a story for another day.
Canada Bill and his partners were so successful fleecing train passengers that several companies banned all monte dealers from their cars. Jones famously wrote a letter to the head of the Union Pacific offering to pay $10,000 a year for sole rights to ply the trains.
He was rebuffed, even after promising to only fleece businessmen and Methodist preachers.
They also lost millions
In an all-too-familiar refrain that poker players will recognize, both men died virtually broke, as did many others of their profession in those days.
And their nemesis was a common one, Faro tables.
For all their skill at the card tables, and at conning the rubes, the duo both had a major leak: They couldn’t resist gambling, even if the game was crooked –and you would think that being crooked card players they would know better.
Devol spent his last days hocking his tell-all book (of which I am the owner of an original copy, including the misspelled title on the spine, it reads, Life “of” the Mississippi), while Jones spent his last days in a charity hospital penniless with a collection needed to bury his body –it was customary in those days for other gamblers to chip in for such an expense, and when word got around that the legend Canada Bill Jones had passed the gambling brotherhood took care of the funeral expenses.
Canada Bill Quotes
“It’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money” — this is the famous quote Mike McDermott uses in Rounders, and considering his willingness to cheat with Worm during the film the two bear a striking resemblance to Devol and Jones, so it was very fitting that he was quoting a con man and not a legitimate poker player.
If luck was not on his side, Canada Bill was also not above winning the old fashioned way, which is to say robbing the people who beat him, as he once famously quipped, “No, son, you lose. ‘Cause this is a Smith & Wesson I’m holdin’ here.” Wild Bill Hickock (considered a very honest gambler) also pulled something similar, drawing two guns and saying, “this is a pair of sixes and they beat any hand.”
Another time, after being cleaned out, Devol asked Jones if he realized he was playing in a crooked game. Jones is said to have responded with something along the lines of, “sure, but it’s the only game in town.”
Knights of the Green Cloth, by Richard K. DeArment
Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, by George Devol