Mark Twain is one of the best-known Missouri natives in the state’s history. One of America’s greatest writers, Twain’s novels and stories remain noteworthy today.
Twain’s story intersects with the history of Missouri gambling as well, thanks to his experience working on riverboats and many references to gambling in his writing. Read on for a quick overview of Twain’s life, covering both his own gambling experiences and some of his gambling-related wit and wisdom.
From the riverboats to a writer’s life
Mark Twain began life as Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. When he was a child, his family moved to nearby Hannibal near the Mississippi River. As a young man, he wrote for the local newspaper. Then he moved to New York, where he worked as a printer. Later, in his early 20s, he would return to Missouri and work as a steamboat pilot.
He published his first short story not long after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. He’d go on to write and publish some of the most celebrated novels in American literature, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889).
Twain wrote both fiction and nonfiction. His travel writing included “Innocents Abroad” (1869), which chronicled his travels in Europe. He also wrote frequently about his experiences working on steamboats, most famously in “Life on the Mississippi” (1883).
In fact, his pen name paid homage, in a way, to his experience working on those boats. A leadsman would call out “mark twain” to report that the lead line was showing the water to be two fathoms deep (about 12 feet) and therefore safe to pass through.
Twain ‘liked a little game of poker’ if the circumstances were right
Twain frequently witnessed gamblers plying their trade aboard those 19th-century steamboats. He was himself a card player and would play poker for small stakes, although he reportedly avoided getting involved with the savvy cardsharps on those boats steaming up and down the Mississippi.
In a humorous column from the 1860s, Twain once made reference to his poker playing by inventing a character commenting on Twain himself. “He can play draw poker equal to any man,” went the testimony. “He won those sleeve buttons that he has on from me at draw poker.”
As noted, however, Twain knew better than to risk playing with the sharps on the steamboats, most of whom were well-versed in various methods of cheating.
“Mark wouldn’t gamble with them fellers on the boats,” one acquaintance said of Twain after his death in 1910. “Mark liked a little game of poker as well as the rest of us, but he was mighty particular who he played with.”
Speaking of poker, Twain was responsible for a much-quoted passage about the card game:
“There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker. The upper class knows very little about it. Now and then, you find ambassadors who have sort of a general knowledge of the game, but the ignorance of the people is fearful. Why, I have known clergymen, good men, kind-hearted, liberal, sincere, and all that, who did not know the meaning of a ‘flush.’ It is enough to make one ashamed of one’s species.”
Some people will quote that passage as a straightforward defense of poker against those who might object to it. However, it’s probably more accurate to point out that Twain, a gifted humorist whose writings were often full of wit, was having a little fun. Poker was hardly “neglected” during Twain’s time, and in fact, in his fiction, Twain offered multiple examples of characters from all walks of life gambling on cards.
Gambling references in Twain’s writings
For example, Twain jokes that “clergymen” are unaware of poker. However, in 1870 he wrote a short story called “Science vs. Luck” in which clergymen do play cards for money.
In the story, some boys playing a game called “old sledge” or “seven-up” face charges of gambling. Their lawyer defends them, though, by staging a game between men who believe the game is a “science” (i.e., a skill game) and a group of clergymen who think it is all luck. The skilled players win easily, thus proving the boys innocent of playing a game of chance.
Twain makes references to poker in other works, as well, including in “Connecticut Yankee” and “The Gilded Age” (1873). Probably the most famous poker story by Twain is “The Professor’s Yarn” from “Life on the Mississippi.”
Twain relates how a fellow passenger (i.e., the “professor”) told him the story while the two of them were sailing on the Gold Dust in 1882. In the story, the professor tells of another steamboat trip in which he befriended a young man named Backus, who seems not terribly worldly. Also on that trip were three professional gamblers, men the professor describes as “rough, repulsive fellows” whom he sees gambling (and smoking and swearing) every night.
Much to the professor’s dismay, he sees Backus get involved in a high-stakes poker game with the gamblers. Thinking Backus to be a gullible innocent, he fears the young man will lose thousands in the game. But at a crucial moment, Backus shows four aces to beat his opponent’s four kings, later revealing that he and one of the men had conspired to cheat the others.
It was all a ruse. Backus was putting on an act both for the professor and for the gamblers he cheated. The story not only entertains but also tells us a bit about the dangerous world of 1880s “steamboat poker.”
Missouri casino commemorates Twain
Mark Twain’s connection to Missouri and riverboat gambling continues with the Mark Twain Casino in La Grange, a small town on the Mississippi River in the northeastern part of the state.
It seems only fitting that Twain’s name would adorn a Missouri casino, although one suspects Twain himself would have been careful not to risk too much on the games inside.