Gambling is almost as old as time itself, with proof that it began before written history. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century in Italy that the very first casinos started to appear.
Traditionally, gambling was an activity associated with men; in Ancient Rome, females were only allowed to bet on Bona Dea, a festival that celebrated womankind.
Even today, it’s males that both offline and online gambling operators most commonly target as their audience – but there is a significant and sizeable female market too.
This is nothing new, a look back through history reveals there have been some particularly notorious female gamblers who could show their male counterparts a thing or two!
Here’s a look at some of the greatest female gamblers in history, together with a celebration of their achievements.
Maria Gertrudis ‘Tules’ Barcelo
Known to her friends as Tules, Maria Gertrudis Barcelo was a notorious gambler who led an eventful and colourful life. Born in 1800, she quickly fell into the life of gambling, being arrested at the tender age of 25 for running an illegal betting den in the Ortiz Mountains in New Mexico.
This didn’t deter the feisty player who quickly gained the nickname, Queen of Sin, for her skill at running betting saloons and sharpness at the gambling table. From wealthy Mexican parents, Barcelo became known for running gambling halls, eventually buying her casino in Santa Fe.
She was unusual for the era because despite marrying, she insisted on keeping her maiden name plus control of the property that she owned.
Although Barcelo was a no-nonsense casino owner, she achieved notoriety because of how well she played. She was renowned for being particularly adept at cards, cleaning out many of the male clientele who thought that she’d be easy to beat.
Stakes at her table could be as high as $50,000, but she was a master at disguising her emotions and reading others. She had the added advantage of knowing the betting habits of those who played regularly at her casino, making her almost impossible to beat.
Even the outbreak of war between the US and Mexico didn’t stop Barcelo. Cleverly befriending troops and siding with the Americans, she became even more wealthy, and by the time she died in 1852, she left behind a considerable fortune gained from gambling.
Alice Ivers – Poker Alice
Born Alice Ivers and born in the Devonshire countryside in England, Poker Alice later became known as the best poker player in the Old West. Moving with her family to the US as a young girl, she met and married a young American named Frank Duffield when she was just 20 years old.
It was through Frank that Alice first became introduced to gambling. Rather than sit at home alone, she would accompany her husband to the gambling halls where they lived in Leadville.
She began by merely watching everyone play, but before too long, she had a seat at the table, demonstrating incredible proficiency in games such as faro and poker.
Just a few short years into their marriage, Frank was killed in an explosion in his work as a mining engineer. Faced with the need to earn an income, Alice decided to try and make some money by playing cards.
Alice was a real beauty and educated to a high level, and these attributes together with her phenomenal skill at playing cards meant that her presence was soon in demand – both as a dealer and as a player.
She acquired the nickname Poker Alice and travelled from one mining camp to another, plying her trade. Carrying a gun and not afraid to use it, puffing cigars and wearing frilly dresses, Poker Alice was indeed one of a kind. She attracted huge crowds wherever she went and as such, was always welcomed warmly in every gambling hall she visited.
Later she was to marry again, a fellow player and dealer called Warren G. Tubbs. Although they had competed on the tables, with Poker Alice winning convincingly, Tubbs was besotted with Alice and they eventually wed.
Alice and Tubbs spent many happy years on a ranch raising children before Tubbs died prematurely of tuberculosis. Alice once again returned to gambling to raise money.
The rest of Alice’s life was just as eventful, meeting another husband and being widowed yet again proving that her luck really was reserved for the card tables and not for love. She opened a salon of her own but after shooting dead a man who was causing trouble, Alice was put on trial for murder.
She was acquitted, but her saloon had been closed, so she returned to gambling. Now in her 70s, Alice chose to dress as a man while also running a house of ill-repute. Often arrested for drunkenness or running a brothel, Alice received a pardon from the governor because of her fearsome reputation.
She continued gambling right up until the end, winning more than a quarter of a million dollars in her latter years alone. She eventually died in 1930 from complications following gall bladder surgery, having secured her place in frontier history.
An elegant woman who would later become known as Madame Mustache, Eleanor Dumont was as renowned for her beauty as her talent at the card table. She broke down the myth that only men could play blackjack, or 21 as it was known back then, by being the first female player to break into the game.
For around thirty years, Eleanor travelled around the western frontier, taking on men at blackjack and beating them with her perfect mix of style and grace. On the infrequent occasions she lost, she was as graceful in defeat as she was in victory.
After raking in hordes of money, Eleanor later set up her salon, Vingt-et-un. However, despite her efforts in establishing females as worthy opponents in gambling, she refused to let any women inside her club. Relying on her sense of fashion and flirty behaviour, Eleanor Dumont seduced men into spending a lot of money in her club.
Sadly, Eleanor’s fortunes were not to last as after a new adventure in ranching went severely wrong. Believing she had fallen in love, she fell victim to a conman who took her money and sold the ranch leaving her penniless.
Undeterred but now looking haggard after many years on the road, Eleanor returned to the circuit. It was at this time that an unkind and graceless losing opponent bestowed the Madame Mustache nickname upon her, on account of her hairy upper lip.
After leading a life of refinement and elegance, the last few years for Eleanor were less kind. As she aged, she began to lose her touch at the table, something which she couldn’t accept.
One night her body was found in the outdoors after she perished from an overdose of morphine and red wine. The death was presumed to be suicide, and her passing was mourned by those who had played with her over the years.
Mayme Stocker wasn’t a gambler herself, but no history of female gamblers would be complete with a mention of this inspirational woman.
Born in 1875, Mayme Stocker was the eldest of six children, taking care of the household from a young age. She later married a railroad worker and leaving her native Pennsylvania, and they ended up moving to the fledgeling town of Las Vegas.
With a dearth of entertainment options and poor amenities, Mayme took it upon herself to give the town a shake-up.
She was responsible for opening an establishment in 1920 called The Northern Club. Located on Fremont Street, it was such a success the club went on to become a local landmark.
Eleven years later in 1931, Mayme successfully applied for a gambling licence when it was re-legalised. This made her the first woman in history to hold a casino licence, a phenomenal achievement bearing in mind that very few women were still being seen publicly betting.
Fast-forward to the modern-day, and many female gamblers are leading the field. Some of the greatest players seen recently include:
- Vanessa Selbst – cashing in more than $11 million in live tournaments, Selbst is the only female player to be named as number one on the Global Poker Index
- Annette Obrestad – a young Norwegian player, she became the youngest ever player to win a World Series of Poker and claimed the record for the largest single-event payout to a female player
- Victoria Coren Mitchell – as well as being a famous journalist and celebrity, Coren Mitchell is a pro poker player holding the record for being the first person to hold two European Poker Tour titles. She was also the first woman to win a European Poker Tour title and the first person to win a televised poker event.
Other top names in modern poker include Vanessa Rousso, Kathy Liebert, and Annie Duke, among others.
Without the female trailblazers in history, the women who were prepared to ignore what society expected, it would have been much more difficult for modern women to enjoy betting.
However, whether it’s poker or any other type of gambling, it’s now just as acceptable for females to play as for men.
Last updated June 26th, 2020