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The Western – Six Guns, Sheriffs And Barroom Betting  

  • All Western Saloons Contained At Least One Game Of Poker
  • Barroom Betting Added Color To Black And White Scenarios
  • Cinema Elevated The Romanticized Gambler To Western Hero 
barroom betting

The ubiquity of the western saloon is a cornerstone to an entire genre of movie making. From the swing doors to the spittoon, we are familiar with every inch of it. The shots are a coin a pop, the floozies spoken for and there’s always a game of poker going on. In fact, westerns treat barroom gambling as almost light relief. It’s something online sportsbook sites in the US like Bovada today try to emulate. So saddle up and let us ride out and examine the portrayal of gambling way out west.

A western saloon without a game of poker in progress would look instantly wrong. We have all but embroidered into our perception of the era. In the same way we expect a gunfight or Indians on the warpath, we need to see that game of poker. A minimum requirement, if you will. That we are so ardently comfortable with the presence of barroom betting speaks volumes. The gambler is very much a romanticized figure in westerns. The character of Bret Maverick took this to its zenith.

A riverboat and barroom betting professional this scallywag character underlines the audience’s bias. That he often strays over the line of propriety but is always no more than a rough diamond. This is a long way from the gritty gunfights of the true western over who cheated whom at cards. However, it is this fundamentally frivolous attitude to gambling the audience wanted. It is a happy-go-lucky atmosphere online betting sites in the US like Bovada still attempt to convey.  

Sylvester Newal

“I was playing poker last night, and YOU was tired, remember?”

Western Attitudes Copied By Sites Like Bovada

Bret Maverick then is a distillation of an audience’s desire to see the gambler in a positive light. Not as a victim or aggressor but as charmer and rogue. It might have seemed out of place with John Wayne in Rio Bravo or Gary Cooper in High Noon, but for Harvey Presnell? Perfect. His portrayal of Rotten Luck Willie perhaps the epitome of barroom betting charm shining through its flaws. The audience need to see gambling in Paint Your Wagon smothered in attractive allure. 

When Lee Marvin advised Clint Eastwood not to play poker with Rotten Luck Willie his partner claims not to gamble. “Neither does he.” Replies Mavin. No one questions why everyone tolerates this obvious cheat and charlatan in their midst. Nor finds it particularly troubling when Marvin loses to him later on. Barroom betting seems to have a get-out-of-jail-free card with audiences rare in cinema. Those taking advantage of US gambling laws at Bovada today are not so lightly treated.

Barroom Betting
Painting of a barroom – Image source: John Lewis Krimmel via Wikimedia Commons

Barroom Gambling Was More Charm Than Harm

Barroom betting sits as a piece of malleable morality to balance out the black-&-white nature of the plot. In the wider world of the story, the good guys always win and ride off into the sunset. The bad guys, by contrast, always lose. However, in the background is this ethically dubious yet ultimately accepted bit of window dressing. Very much akin to the acceptability of prostitution in this genre of filmmaking. It has created stereotypes as strong as those from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 

Ben Rumson

“There’s sixteen gambling halls in this town, seven hotels, twenty one saloons and assorted playgrounds.”

That, according to the cinema, they didn’t bet on sports in the US much before the turn of the century is a little strange. Barroom betting very much a minority of the actual gambling occurring in this period of history. However, to provide depth to an otherwise unworkably simplistic social structure it has provided directors with plenty of scopes. From John Ford on down this characteristic of westerns is eternal. Out west, where life was cheap, gambling, cinema said, just wasn’t worth worrying about.     

Read more about gambling in cinema’s different genres.

We take a look at the Western and how barroom betting is in the grey shadows cast by the black-&-white progress of the plots.

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