A Game in New Orleans That Makes Modern “Big” Poker Games Seem Tiny by Comparison.
“The shrinkage in the value of poker winnings that get talked about nowadays,” said the New Orleans turfman at the beach dinner, “is mournful, that’s what it is. A few days ago a man told me that So-and-so, a gilded youth from up the State somewhere, had recently swooped down upon a gentleman’s poker club in New York, and had removed himself from the scene of play, after a five-hour séance, with $8500 in winnings. The man who told me this leaned back, after he had sprung the $8500 climax, and waited for my eyes to protrude. He looked a bit miffed and sulky when they didn’t protrude.
“‘Why, durn it all,’ said he, ‘I believe you affect your cold-blooded way of taking things. To see you twiddle your thumbs a man ‘ud suppose that you had no more sense than to imagine that an $8500 winning at a short poker sitting was the most ordinary thing in the’——
“‘Easy, easy,’ I had to put in, for he was heating himself unduly. Then, to bring him around to good nature again and to convince him that I wasn’t attitudinizing, I was compelled to spend a half hour or so in unwinding a bit of a reel of the days when there were poker giants in this country. He wasn’t quite willing, at the finish, to acknowledge that the winner at draw of $8500 was a poker pigmy, but when I happened to mention the occasion when Phil Cuthbert of St. James’s parish dropped, in a two-handed game at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, a little bundle of $400,000″——
“He told you, of course, that you were smoking,” interrupted the New York man.
“No, he didn’t. He asked me if it got into the New Orleans papers. I told him that in 1868 the New Orleans papers were too busy roasting the carpet-baggers to devote any space to such a minor matter as a $400,000 poker game at the St. Charles Hotel, where draw games approximating that in size were generally going on at any old hour of the day or night. There was some rhetoric, I admit, in that ‘approximating’ statement, but I wanted to set this New York man right. As a matter of fact, a $50,000 game of draw was not at all uncommon in the St. Charles’s private poker parlors. After Phil Cuthbert had dropped that mound of $400,000 on one hand, the New Orleans papers did announce that Mr. Philip Cuthbert, the well-known planter of St. James’s parish, was about to start on a gold-prospecting tour in the mountains of Honduras; but they were generous enough not to mention, if they knew it, that, with four aces in his hand, he had lost $400,000 to Mr. Joseph Lescolette, shipper, of Havre, Pernambuco, and New Orleans.”
“Lost $400,000 on a hand consisting of four aces, am I to understand you said?” asked the New York man.
“The statement was to that general effect,” replied the New Orleans turfman.
“Suppose you just lead up to that gradually by telling the story.”
“Well, in order to do that, I’ve got to plead guilty to having been a table arranger and sweep-out boy at the St. Charles at the time the thing happened,” said the horseman from New Orleans. “However, having achieved greatness since, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be willing to acknowledge that. Besides being table arranger and sweep-out boy, it was one of the functions of my job at the St. Charles to sort o’ stand by, as sailor-men say, when games were on in the private parlors, and run errands for the gentlemen playing. There was plenty of high poker play to be had at any of the first-rate New Orleans clubs at that time—too much of it, in fact, for the club games became so open, owing to the too generous distribution of visitors’ cards by the club members that many of the high-playing men of the town abandoned club poker playing altogether. When they felt the hunch to get into a game of draw they adjourned to the St. Charles, where, in the seclusion of a private parlor, they enjoyed freedom from the neck-craning gaze of onlookers, and freedom also from that bane of the genuine lover of a game of draw, the chap who stands behind one’s chair and keeps up a running commentary of approval or disapproval.
“Phil Cuthbert was a raiser of perique tobacco up in St. James’s parish, and he had besides several thousand acres in cotton. His father, who died before the war was well under way, was supposed to be worth from $2,000,000 to $3,000,000, and it all went to his only son, Phil. At the close of the war the estate had dwindled to some $800,000, and Phil started in to flatten it out still more. It was the talk of Louisiana that he had taken a $250,000 crimp in the estate within two years after he had entered upon it, and it had nearly all gone at cards. He wasn’t a dissipated man at all, but he just naturally couldn’t help but play poker, and he belonged to a family of losers at poker. Before this big game that I’m going to tell you about wound him up I’d frequently seen him win as much as $25,000 in a single night’s play at the St. Charles. Instead, though, of making a run for it for his St. James’s plantation when he made a winning like this, he’d be back again with a party of more or less solvent friends the very next night, and his winnings and an amount equal thereto that was not velvet, but hard, soil-wrung cash, would float out of his keeping into the hands of his friends. Wherefore, to insert a tiny bit of moralizing on the side, I want to say that your greatest gambler is not the man who possesses the greatest amount of skill in manipulating the cards, dice or wheel, but the man who knows to a T when the psychological moment arrives for him to quit, winner or loser.
“Joe Lescolette—called Joe familiarly because he was under 40, a rounder of French nativity who loved Americans and their nicknames and diminutives of good fellowship—was probably the richest of the New Orleans fruit importers at that time. His father before him had had a line of South American and West Indian sailing packets hauling fruit into New Orleans for the American market, and Joe came into the whole business at the old gentleman’s death. To go a little ahead of the story, Joe went to France at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, entered the French Army, and was killed at Gravelotte. He wasn’t a hectic flush gambler during the few years that he kept his name pretty constantly in the mouths of New Orleans folks on account of his extravagances, but he was a scientific master of the game of American draw, all the same, and, by the same token, as nervy a little man in a game of cards, or in any other affair of life, for the matter of that, as ever came out of Gaul. He was the original subsidizer of the French opera in New Orleans, by the way, and it was at a performance of ‘Aida’ that Joe met Phil Cuthbert on the night Phil struck the poker snag that wrecked his estate. The two men were friends of some years’ standing, members of the same clubs, and they had had various business dealings with each other besides. On the night of the ‘Aida’ performance Cuthbert had just struck town from his St. James plantation and he had the poker light in his eye. Cuthbert met Joe Lescolette in the smoking-room of the opera house during the final intermission and slipped his arm through Lescolette’s and said:
“‘Joe, I desire to accumulate, accrue and win a very large portion of your currency, even unto half of your kingdom, this night. There is too much conversation in a game of four. Suppose, then, when the dying strains of Rhadames are only echoes and this act is finished we slit each other’s weazens, pokerishly speaking, over at the hotel.’
“Well, when they came I was the buttons in charge of the parlor they selected for play. Much as they desired solitude, they couldn’t achieve it. About half a dozen of their friends traipsed along with them, and took one of the tables in the same parlor and went at a dinky game of $20 limit.
“I piled a couple of dozen of decks of cards within easy reach of Cuthbert and the Frenchman, and, after they had each taken two brandies and sodas apiece, talking the while of everything else on earth besides poker, they began to play. Both of them had their check-books beside them on the table, and the bank was to keep itself, as the saying goes. There was to be no limit. New Orleans men who, in those days, were poker players of the old time sort, didn’t ever play with a limit. None of them ever took advantage of this unwritten clause of the game to raise an opponent a million of dollars or so, and therefore out, but they played according to their means, and if any of them was raised a bit too strong by a confident opponent he only had to let out a word to have the raise reduced. I don’t suppose more absolutely on-the-level poker was ever played in this country than the game as enjoyed by men of wealth in New Orleans after the close of the war.
“The white chips in this game between Lescolette and Cuthbert were worth $10, the reds $25, the blues $50, and the yellows $100. This was double the usual value of the chips even in big games at the St. Charles, and I could see that both men were out for it—in a perfectly friendly and cordial way, of course, but out for it nevertheless. Lescolette was a scientific, cool, all-around, percentage player of poker. He had made a study of the game just as he had made a study of the fruit trade, and he had very little of the mercurial disposition of his race. Withal, he was a generous man in the game, and never took advantage of an opponent’s overgrown confidence. Cuthbert was an uneven player, not a cool-headed man at all. He had no license to play cards for big stakes under any circumstances. In the first place, he drank too much over the game, and, in the second place, he tried to play poker by intuition instead of by mathematical calculation and the study of the other fellow’s forehead. He knew poker thoroughly, of course, and he had flashes of genius at it, but in general, as I look back to his work now, I’d call his poker ragged, uneven, and unproductive.
“For all that, Cuthbert had Lescolette’s checks to the aggregate of nearly $13,000 after a couple of hours’ play. The friends of the two men at the other table knocked off to watch the play at the two-handed table. Lescolette, while he showed no nervousness, indicated by a somewhat deepened earnestness of manner that he didn’t relish being $13,000 or anything like it in the hole. After he had dashed off the check that put him that amount out, he sent me to the café for a lunch, and the two men and their friends spent an hour or so over the salads and wines.
“‘We’ll resume, then?’ said Lescolette, and they began play again. It was about 1 o’clock in the morning. Cuthbert had taken three pints of wine to wash down his luncheon, and then a rather heavy swig of cognac. When they resumed there was too much color in his cheeks for a successful poker player. Lescolette had drunk only Apollinaris.
“Cuthbert split open a new deck when play was resumed, and riffled them rather uncertainly.
“‘Damn a new deck of machine-burnished cards,’ said he. ‘Joe, you limber them up and deal this hand.’
“Lescolette took the deck and riffled them for fully two minutes. Then he spread them out all over the table, tossed them about every which way for a bit, straightened them together in a bunch, riffled them again, and passing them over to Cuthbert for the cut, dished them out.
“Cuthbert was one of those poker players who pick up their cards one by one. It is terribly bad form, that, but Cuthbert, with his nervous disposition, was addicted to it. He picked up his first card this time and said, ‘Ah, a good beginning.’ When he looked at his second card, said he, ‘Better yet.’ He made no comment upon his third card, but he flushed and gave a start that was perceptible to every man in the room save Lescolette, who was scanning his own hand. His fourth card took the flush out of his cheeks and steadied him. He went pale when he looked at it. He forgot to pick up his fifth card until Lescolette, looking up, remarked: ‘Phil, are you strong enough to beat me with only four cards?’ Then Cuthbert picked up his fifth card mechanically. It was a bad break, his leaving his fifth card untouched until reminded of it. It announced, simply, that he had pat fours. But he didn’t seem to think of this.
“Cuthbert’s $50 anteing chip was in the middle of the table. Lescolette looked at it for a second, and seemed to be in more than one mind about playing or making it a jack pot. He decided to play, and joggled in his blue chip.
“‘Suppose,’ said Cuthbert, still pale but steady, ‘we make it $100 more to play, Joe?’
“‘Of course,’ said Lescolette, and he shoved in a yellow chip to match Cuthbert’s.
“‘How many?’ asked Lescolette, ready to dish out cards.
“‘None,’ said Cuthbert, who looked queer and unnatural with his white countenance and glowing eyes.
“‘So strong as that on the go-in?’ said Lescolette, elevating his eyebrows. ‘You have me seined. I require a card.’ And he served himself with it.
“I pretended to have a bit of business to attend to behind Cuthbert’s chair, so I could glance at his hand. He had four aces. I couldn’t get behind Lescolette’s chair, for three of the players’ friends were seated behind him. Lescolette didn’t make any sign either of elation or disappointment when he looked at the card he had drawn. He looked up for a bet, for it was up to Cuthbert.
“‘A thousand dollars, make it, Joe,’ said Cuthbert.
“‘Oh, I’m not in so deeply that I can’t pull out of this pot,’ said Lescolette good-naturedly. ‘However, seeing it’s you, your thousand is sighted, and it’s $5000 more.’
“This was precisely what Cuthbert wanted.
“‘Now you’re racing,’ said he. ‘Ten thousand more, Joseph Marie.’
“Lescolette looked up at Cuthbert suddenly.
“‘I say, Cuthbert,’ said he, ‘isn’t this a bit tumultuous and headlong, as it were?’
“‘I don’t see why you should consider it so, Joe,’ replied Cuthbert. ‘I’m playing according to the value of my hand. However, if it seems to strong, why’——
“‘No, no, no,’ put in Lescolette, quickly. ‘I can stand it, and I do not seek to have you lower any of your raises. I simply was considering my own almost invincible strength herein.’
“‘I stood pat, and you drew a card, you know,’ said Cuthbert. ‘I rarely bluff. You are to regard me as a bit of an Atlas in this likewise. You see the $10,000 raise?’
“‘Surely’ said Lescolette, ‘and elevate it another notch of $10,000. Will one of you gentlemen’—addressing the somewhat wrought-up group of lookers-on—’keep track of this with a bit of a pencil?’
“One of the men in the group got out a note-book and stood by to register the bets.
“‘Having emerged from the narrow domain of chance into the field of uncertainty,’ said Cuthbert, ‘I fear me I’ll have to make it still another $10,000, Joe.’
“Lescolette, the more common-sense man of the two, rested his hands on the table before him and reflected.
“‘I don’t think I want any more of this, Cuthbert,’ he said. ‘There is now a great deal of money in the pot. It would be idle for either one of us to say that we could easily afford to lose our respective share in the pot as it stands. And yet, I don’t exactly feel like calling you. I’m too well fixed. I haven’t had such a hand at poker since’——
“‘That being the case,’ said Cuthbert, interrupting, ‘why not be a sportsman and play your string?’
“That remark nettled Lescolette just enough to hold him in indefinitely. There was no more talk on his part.
“‘Ten thousand more than you,’ he said, short and sharp.
“Then the friends of the two men began to mutter.
“‘This is all very fine as an exhibition of gameness,’ they said, collectively, ‘but there is a stopping point, or should be.’
“When there was nearly $275,000 in the pot both Cuthbert and Lescolette pulled out their notebooks and began to run over their bank accounts. Both found that they had about tapped their supply of ready banked cash. They wrote checks, payable to each other’s order, for their respective shares of the amount in the pot, and then Cuthbert said:
“‘Joe, I can’t let down in this. I could never quite forgive myself if I did. Appraise my St. James land.’
“Lescolette protested. He had often visited Cuthbert at his beautiful St. James place. He protested hard. Yet he wouldn’t call.
“‘Appraise the St. James land, Joe,’ said Cuthbert again. Lescolette declined to do it, and Cuthbert appealed to one of his friends to do it.
“‘I should say your St. James plantations are worth close to $250,000,’ said this gentleman, unwillingly.
“‘Very well,’ said Cuthbert. ‘Shall I say, Joe, that those three squares of yours on Canal street are worth the same amount?’
“Lescolette nodded gravely.
“‘Rather more than they’re worth, I should say,’ he remarked.
“‘Well, they’ll serve. I approximate their value,’ said Cuthbert, the flush back in his face again and his eyes burning like coals. ‘It is now my bet, is it not? Joseph Marie, my St. James plantations, at their appraised value of $250,000, against these, your Canal street property, if you elect—and we’ll show down.’
“‘Old man,’ said Cuthbert, then, ‘you don’t think I play it low down upon you? I couldn’t throw them away, you fully understand? Joe, I’ve got four aces!’
“‘Truly?’ said Lescolette, inquiringly and quietly. ‘Put them down, that we may see.’
“Cuthbert, confident then that he was the winner, nervously placed his hand face up on the table. Lescolette threw down, then, amid a very intense silence, the deuce of hearts, face up. Next, he threw by the side of the deuce the trey of hearts. Then the four of hearts. Then the five of hearts. He halted then for a second. Cuthbert was as haggard looking a man as I ever saw. Lescolette threw down the six of hearts.
“Cuthbert simply said, ‘All right, Joe,’ walked over to the sideboard, poured out a whopping big tumblerful of brandy, gulped it down, and, with a murmured ‘Good morning’ (it was dawn) he walked unsteadily out. That afternoon he made his St. James plantations over to Lescolette, notwithstanding the latter’s protests. He had about $20,000 out of the wreck of his estate. He went to Honduras on a prospecting tour, found gold, and died in a Tegucigalpa hut of the fever.”