Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Although hardly anything remains of the era when California was the terminal part of the Old West, one survivor of those wide-open days lingers. Around tables in shiny casinos and seedy cardrooms in more than 140 cities, poker players eye the competition, calculate the odds, and still reach for cards that will make – or break – their luck.

Poker was a western game from its beginnings in New Orleans in the first decade of the 1800s through its spread further west by riverboat gamblers. Poker’s fast pace was made for California’s Gold Rush camps, where sudden wealth and loss were facts of camp life after 1849. “California is the place where poker has been most favorably received and industriously cultivated as a science,” wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1888, who wrote about all the ways in which gambling had shaped the experience of California.

But the poker player knows science isn’t enough. “Luck is his religion,” Bancroft added, “and in it he is a firm believer and devotee. There is but one thing certain about it however, and that is sooner or later it will change. To know when this point is reached is the sum of all knowledge.” More