The Wild West. Where disagreements were settled in corrals at high noon, the saloon was your second home, and “WANTED” posters gave you social clout. It was also where cowboys and ruffians played in the longest poker game the world has ever seen, ever. A game that stretched on for 8 years, 5 months and 3 days. Longer than it takes to, say, become a doctor. It all happened inside the roughest, dustiest, nastiest saloon this side of the Rio Grande—the Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone, Arizona, a town made famous by the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Here’s how this lengthy game played out.
Time and space in the 1880s
Before we go any further, a quick digression on the nature of time, at the time.
To put this nearly decade-long poker game in context, it helps to know that time meant different things to the people of the 1880s than it does now. Some things were slower. For example, a trip from New York City to Tombstone would have taken over a month on horseback. Life in general, on the other hand, went by faster. The average American’s life expectancy at the time was only about 48.55 years for men and 51.47 years for women. Meaning that an 8-year poker game, as wild as it is on paper, would have accounted for roughly 1/6th of an average person’s life. That’s intense. (Thankfully, no single player sat for every hand of the 8-year game—even old-timey gamblers had their limits.)
Now, back to the poker game
As mentioned, the famed 8-year game took place in the town of Tombstone, at a venue known as the Bird Cage Theatre. The illustrious venue initially opened as a high-class theatre for the desert town’s upper crust. The owners quickly realized, however, that to stay afloat in the small mining town, their genteel approach wasn’t going to cut it. So, they evolved their offerings to suit local miners looking for whiskey and good times, eventually attracting drifters in search of the same.
$10,000,000 changes hands
To fund their expanded offerings, the owners of the Bird Cage had a simple yet long-lasting stroke of genius—a high-stakes poker game. To join, players ponied up a $1,000 minimum buy-in, and over the course of the game it’s said that an estimated $10,000,000 changed hands. (That’s roughly $273,300,000+ in today’s dollars!) With over 10% of the proceeds going to the house, it’s clear why the Bird Cage never wanted the game to end.
The good, the bad, and the guilty
So, who exactly sat down to play? Records show that over the years, the table saw a revolving door of notables from across the Wild West, from high-class capitalists to on-the-run drifters.
On one side of the table, you had reputable captains of industry; people like Adolphus Busch, co-founder of Budweiser, and George Hearst, acclaimed businessman and California senator. On the other, you had a legendary cast of Wild West outlaws like Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and none other than Wyatt Earp. With such notorious figures putting their cold hard cash on the line, it’s no surprise the Bird Cage, which is still open as a tourist attraction, had several bullet holes fired into its walls over the years.
What caused the game to finally fold? A shoot-out? A heist? The law? None of the above, pardner. In March 1882, miners working in the nearby Grand Central Mine dug too deep, hitting the water table and flooding nearby silver deposits. The town’s economy tanked, and the owners of the Bird Cage pulled up stakes and split, putting an abrupt end to the longest card game that ever was. (So far!)
What can modern poker players learn from this story?
Well, as mentioned above, over the course of the 8-year game the “House” earned 10% of all the money that changed hands. What this shows is that things haven’t changed: No matter how long you play, whether it’s an hour, an evening, or 8 long years, the house rules stand the test of time. Gamblers back then probably didn’t know that a longer gambling session doesn’t make you any more likely to win. Or that a limit on your play time is just as important as setting a budget. That habit might have gone a loooong way toward keeping your money, back at the ol’ Bird Cage.
What’s it like to sit down at the poker table these days? Read our tips on poker etiquette. (Hint: no gunfire allowed.)