It was Aug. 2, 1876.
“Wild Bill” Hickok settled into a seat at the Old Saloon #10 on Main Street. Jack McCall approached him from behind and stuck a .45 pistol to Hickok’s head.
With that shot, Deadwood’s place in poker lore was forever cemented, as was the last hand Wild Bill was ever dealt — aces and eights.
Now, the town of 1,300 in the Black Hills of South Dakota is reasserting itself on the poker map, raising bet limits on July 1 from $100 to $1,000. While no one is certain how big of an effect the vastly bigger bets will have, enthusiasm is abound that it’ll make poker players in Denver, Minnesota, Iowa and beyond take another look at the bustling tourist town steeped in poker history.
“It’s sort of unchartered territory, but I will tell you that we’re really excited about it,” said Peter DeMangus, director of gaming operations for Isis Hospitality, which runs Cadillac Jack’s, one of five Deadwood casinos that deal poker. “It really puts us on par with more established gaming markets, so we’re really excited for it. We think it’s going to be a game-changer for us.”
Spread-limit has been the game of choice in Deadwood, with smaller games offering bets of $2 to $10 and larger games running from $2 to $100 per bet. Those games will likely remain, but the higher limits will give operators an opportunity to run games with more traditional structures.
“It’s going to be more Vegas-like,” said Nick Hubenka, poker room manager at Deadwood’s newest poker room, The Lodge at Deadwood, which opened in 2009. “We can actually offer a $1-$2 game and people are going to understand that. ‘Oh, it’s just like a $1-$2 game in Las Vegas?,’ whereas now it’s, ‘What’s that $2-$100?’ Only the locals understand what a $2 or $5-$100 game is.”
Hubenka expects the style of play to change as well.
“It’s probably going to clean our games up,” he said. “Now, players know it’s probably going to be $400-$500 to go to the river every single time. But with a $1,000 bet max, someone can move all-in and that’s really going to make players tighten up and just play better overall.”
While Deadwood has a loyal regional player base, it benefits greatly from tourism. And how big of an effect the bet change has is likely tied to the response it gets from out-of-town visitors.
“We have very solid, hardcore local players who are looking forward to the enhanced limits. But tourists are obviously going to get very excited about the limits changing, too,” DeMangus said. “It’s going to enhance our tourism in the summer months. You’re going to get people coming up here more for Vegas-style gambling because of the limits, and I think you’re going to introduce the market to people who maybe might be going to Denver now who are going to take a trip to come up here.”
Jesse Karns, poker room manager at the Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel and Gaming Complex, agrees.
“I think there definitely will be a few key weekends that it will affect a lot,” he said, referring to not only holidays, but also the large number of special events the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce plans throughout the summer. “We’ll definitely offer bigger games. We’ll still have our $2-$100 spread-limit with a $300 max buy-in, but we’ll offer something else without a max buy-in or a $100 limit, and see where people gravitate toward.”
A hotbed of poker history
Deadwood boomed in the 1870s, soon after gold was discovered in the Black Hills and prospectors near and far came in search of vast treasure. While gambling wasn’t exactly legal then, it was common. The gold rush “made, changed and killed people,” said Lee Harstad, marketing director for the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce.
“Poker has always been a pretty central theme to Deadwood,” Karns said. “Before it was legal, there have always been poker games here. It’s always been a part of the town.”
In 1989, in part as an ode to the city’s history and in part to the need for economic revitalization, limited-stakes gambling was introduced, allowing players to bet up to $5 on slot machines and poker tables. Harstad said the town’s infrastructure had deteriorated to the point that it didn’t even have enough water pressure to fight fires. At the time, Deadwood was the only place in the United States outside of Nevada and Atlantic City where you could legally wager on casino games. Since then, nearly $7 billion has been wagered in the city’s nearly 30 casinos.
But the landscape changed in just a few short years as more and more states got into the gambling business. Deadwood needed to change, too, and raised bet limits to $100.
“Once gaming started to really expand, and was on pretty much every street corner, they decided, ‘Hey, we need to stay competitive,’ so that’s why the bet limit was raised to $100 and, in reality, that’s why we’re doing it now,” Harstad said.
But for the true poker aficionado, there’s much more to Deadwood than simply playing.
The city is a National Historic Landmark, and fires and floods have destroyed the city several times over, so much so that the streets that Hickock walked are buried today as each time the city was reinvented on the ashes of its past.
“It’s just history, on top of history, on top of history,” Harstad said.
There’s perhaps no more historical poker site in the world than Old Saloon #10, where Hickok met his maker on that fateful day nearly 136 years ago. A sign on Main Street denotes the spot (as well as where McCall was captured a few hours later), but history buffs will be disappointed that, for now, the actual site isn’t open to the public, having just changed hands privately.
“It’s still preserved, but the doors are closed temporarily,” Harstand said. “But it’ll be open by summertime.”
On summer days, the new location of Saloon #10 across the street stages re-enactments of the Hickok murder. Players can soak up more history by visiting the Adams Museum (a suggested $5 donation), which has extensive displays and artifacts from the city’s early gambling days. Or you can take the Original Deadwood Tour ($9), a guided bus trip that offers an enthusiastic retelling of the city’s vast history as it stops at historical locations, including Hickok’s final resting spot in Mount Moriah Cemetery.
And an eye on poker’s future
Today, Deadwood has 15 poker tables scattered over five casinos: Cadillac Jack’s, Silverado, The Lodge at Deadwood, Saloon #10 and Gold Dust. At least three of the rooms stage big tournaments several times a year, which attract players from a five-state radius, including well-heeled players from the energy fields of North Dakota.
“Even though it’s small, what little market there is here is ultra competitive,” said Wes Pleinis, casino general manager at The Lodge at Deadwood.
Competitive … and unique.
“We provide very personable customer service,” said DeMangus, who came to Deadwood from Las Vegas. “We’re not stuffy and we’re very relaxed, as compared to Vegas, and that’s one thing that makes Deadwood very unique and special.”
Beyond that, DeMangus said, is the abundance of nature and historical sites within an easy drive that makes the area a true destination for gamblers and families alike all year long.
“In addition to the gaming, you have golf, you have hiking, you have the shrine of democracy in Mount Rushmore, you’ve got skiing and just so many different things to offer everyone in every demographic that it’s not just a one-trick pony,” he said.
But if you’re reading this, then we know you’re going for the gambling first and foremost. And that’s just fine with some city officials.
“Some people think gaming was the city’s downfall, but without it, it would be just another ghost town,” Harstad said. “It’s been a good ride and it’s only going to get better.”
Deadwood’s poker celebrities
Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was a gambler, gunman, scout, lawman and showman who came to Deadwood, as many did, in search of gold. He gained fame when his life’s exploits were chronicled in “dime store” novels, which were read the world over, but he will forever hold a place in poker lore after being gunned down at the original Saloon #10 by Jack McCall in 1876. He held the now-famous “deadman’s hand” (black aces and black eights) when he was shot. The site of his death wasn’t open to the public at press time, but a sign marks the location. Saloon #10 has moved across the street, where players can enjoy poker today. Hickok is buried high above the city in Mount Moriah Cemetery next to “Calamity Jane,” where tourists often leave mementos such as cigarettes and decks of cards, ensuring Bill will forever be able to enjoy the game of poker.
“Poker” Alice Tubbs
Alice Ivers Tubbs learned to play poker and faro to support herself after being widowed and played and dealt the games until she died, claiming to have won $250,000 without ever cheating. She was famous for her cigar-chomping straight face. Legend has it that when her second husband died, she pawned her wedding ring to pay for his funeral … and then went to a gambling hall and won it back. Alice knew her way around a gun, too, and was arrested at least once for shooting a drunken patron. She was acquitted.
Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort
cadillacjacksresort.com | 605-578-1500 | @cadillacjacksgr
The five-table poker room features $12 rebuy tournaments at 1 p.m. every weekday, with bigger buy-in tournaments at 7 every night except Friday. The room schedules live games throughout the week so you can plan ahead. A $5-$50 spread-limit hold’em game is started on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings and Saturday afternoon, while dealer’s choice and Omaha are Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. A $3-$6 Omaha game gets going daily. A bad-beat jackpot is offered, and with full houses or better, you get stamps on your Pink Card that can earn you $25 gift certificates. Tournament jackpots are offered, too.
Gold Dust Gaming Complex
golddustgaming.com | 605-578-2100
The two-table Bob Regan Poker Room bills itself as the longest-running poker room in Deadwood and features a bad-beat jackpot with an aces-full-of-10s-beaten qualifier. Tournaments run every Tuesday and on the last Saturday of the month.
The Lodge at Deadwood
deadwoodlodge.com | 605-584-4800 | @lodgeatdeadwood
Rounders, the newest poker room in Deadwood, eschews the Old West theme of most of the city’s rooms in favor of a modern, stately rich wood decor with a dedicated bar and Gary Platt chairs for poker players. The five-table room had a $76,000 bad-beat jackpot as of press time, and is aggressively designing some unique promotions.
First, the room runs daily tournaments from $11 to $55, and four of them a week feature 200 percent payouts, with the house matching the initial prize pool. Certain cash games during the week qualify for half-rake.
The most unique promotion is the new High Society Challenge. Players have 52 tasks to complete, one for every card in the deck, ranging from playing in tournaments to winning a hand with pockets aces. There’s no deadline to complete the challenge, but everyone who does wins a $5,000 prize package that includes hotel rooms, dinner and a staked cash game for the winner and several friends, as well as lots of merchandise, including an engraved bottle of whiskey. The room features two big tournament series each year.
saloon10.com | 605-578-3346
Locals will tell you this is the place for a rockin’ night on the town, with the three poker tables and blackjack just steps from one of the saloon’s two busy bars. The poker room pays homage to its historical name by giving players who win with the “deadman’s hand” (aces and eights) 25 percent of the bad-beat jackpot. Players also win $1,000 for winning with four 10s. Tournaments for as little as $6 are Thursdays-Sundays, and cash games include a unique Thursday night dealer’s-choice game. The dealer button is an eight-sided cube, each with a different game listed. When it’s your deal, simply move the cube to the game you want to play. With high-low versions, more than eight games are in the mix.
silveradocasino.com | 605-578-3670
The home of the South Dakota State Championship every May features tournaments with buy-ins ranging from $22 to $88 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, with various satellites the month before the $1,100 state championship. The five-table room spreads $3-$6 cash games daily, with $2-$100 bigger games on weekends. Omaha players will want to get a seat for Tuesday night’s dealer’s-choice game or Friday night’s $5-$10 limit Omaha game.
Also in Deadwood . . .
Deadwood has 24 casinos that don’t offer live poker: Hickok House, Buffalo Bodega, Bullock Express, Bullock Hotel, Celebrity Hotel, Gulches of Fun, Deadwood Dick’s Saloon, Deadwood Frontier Club, Deadwood Gulch, Deadwood Mountain Grand, First Gold, Four Aces, Gold Country Inn, Iron Horse Inn, Lucky 8 Casino, Lucky Nugget, McKenna’s Gold, Midnight Star, Mineral Palace, Miss Kitty’s, Mustang Sally’s, Oyster Bay, Tin Lizzie and the Wooden Nickel.
Also in the Dakotas . . .
North and South Dakota offer other places to play poker outside of Deadwood:
4 Bears Casino (New Town, N.D.)
Dakota Magic Casino (Hankinson, N.D.)
Dakota Sioux Casino (Watertown, S.D)
Ft. Randall Casino (Pickstown, S.D.)
Grand River Casino (Mobridge, S.D.)
Lode Star Casino (Fort Thompson, S.D.)
Prairie Wind Casino (Pine Ridge, S.D.)
Rosebud Casino (Mission, S.D.)
Royal River Casino (Flandreau, S.D.)
Sky Dancer Casino (Belcourt, N.D.)
Spirit Lake Casino (St. Michael, N.D.)
Rounders Spring Classic
$330 NLHE • May 18-20
1. Gil Martinez $14,883
2. Gary German $6,765
3. Alan Curl $4,510
4. Doug Ficken $4,059
5. Tom Vines $3,608
6. Bret Green $3,157
7. Jerry Bassett $2,706
8. Patrick Jones $2,255
9. Doug Norton $1,804
10. Ryan Thorson $1,353
S.D. State Championship
1. Cal Dardis, $30,000
2. Tony Hanig, $21,000
3. Tyler Peterson, $12,800
4. Tom Ahern, $9,500
5. Mike Harris, $7,500
6. Phuong Truong, $5,500
7. Miles Kobold, $4,500
8. Bill McDaniels, $3,500
9. Tony Diehl, $2,800
10. Jim Single, $2,200