A Gunslingers History Of Gambling In Kansas

Kansas gambling history

It’s hard to remember a time when gambling in some form wasn’t legal. You can’t watch ESPN anymore without a constant reminder of a game’s point spread or money line.

It’s interesting to see how such a taboo concept has quickly become welcomed in so many states. Believe it or, that wasn’t always the case.

Things got so out of control in Kansas in particular, that pretty much all forms of gambling were banned by 1903:

  • Table games of chance were made illegal in 1868
  • Gambling of any kind was restricted to state fairs in 1895
  • Slot machines were banned in 1903

The laws stayed like this until 1986, which is when the state decided to legalize the state lottery and re-institute pari-mutuel betting on dog and horse races.

Although there was a change, the fact remains — there was a good 80-90 year gap where Kansas gambling wasn’t legal in any form. So why?

Most of it had to do with the fact that in the mid to late 1800s, Kansas was home to one of the biggest gambling towns in the entire country: Dodge City.

Gambling became incredibly popular while we were expanding out west, and towns at the end of various cattle trails seemed to become the “Las Vegas-es” of their time.

Dodge City was at the end of one of these cattle lines, and quickly became the place to be for gamblers and cowboys alike.

Earp, Masterson, Basset: The early days of Dodge

Dodge City was founded in 1872 and was barely a dot on the map when it first originated. It was originally a small town for buffalo hunters, but in 1875 everything changed.

Cattle trails and railroads finally reached Dodge, transforming it into one of the most popular cities in the west.

Charlie Basset was the first-ever Sherrif of Dodge County after he was initially elected in 1873.

Basset was well known in the town thanks to the Long Branch Saloon, which he opened in 1872 with partner Alfred J. Peacock. Basset served two successful terms as sheriff, with really nothing notable happening during his time in office.

Basset was barred from being elected a third-time thanks to term limitations, so he was replaced by Bat Masterson, who became Basset’s deputy one year prior. Masterson’s policing team was made up of the who’s who of the wild west, rolling around with a posse of:

  • Wyatt Earp
  • Doc Holliday
  • Bill Tilghman
  • Ed Masterson (Bat’s Brother)

This fearsome fivesome practically ran the town, snubbing out gang activity while also participating in some of it. Masterson and his gang of guys were heavy gamblers and would frequent some of the most popular gambling spots in town, such as the Long Branch Saloon.

Luke Short and the Long Branch Saloon

The Long Branch Saloon was the most popular in all of Dodge City from about 1874 to 1885. One of the most notable events to happen at the Long Branch Saloon is what’s known as the Long Branch Saloon Gunfight, which took place in 1879.

The fight was between two gamblers and gunmen, Frank Loving and Levi Richardson. Loving and Richardson had reached a disagreement during a game of poker when all of a sudden bullets began flying.

Loving made it out relatively unharmed, but the same could not be said for Levi Richardson.

If something like that happened today, the bar would be shut down, most likely for good. But back then? That was just an average Tuesday in Dodge City, and the Long Branch Saloon was open for business the very next day.

Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the rest of the gang were frequenters of the Long Branch Saloon and were very good friends with the owner at the time, Chalk Beeson.

In 1981, Beeson sold the saloon to famed gunfighter Luke Short, who quickly fell in favor of Masterson and Earp.

Games played at the Long Branch Saloon

Some of the most popular card games in casinos today were also played back in 19th century Dodge City.

Poker was a favorite of those frequenting the Long Branch Saloon. And a game called “Draw Poker” is what initially sparked the feud between Frank Loving and Levi Richardson.

Games of chance, such as Keno and Chuck-a-luck, were also incredibly popular at this time. Wyatt Earp and his gang reportedly spend most of their time playing Faro, however, which is a French card game.

There had to be a dealer for Faro to work. So Earp, Masterson and Short were more often than not the dealers for these games — just in case anyone got out of line and needed to be “taken care of.”

The bloodless Dodge City War, an end to gambling

In 1883, the Dodge City Council (led by Lawrence E. Deger) passed a pair of ordinances in an attempt to force the closure of the Long Branch Saloon.

Deger went so far as to have three of the Saloon prostitutes arrested, which seemed to cross a line for Short and his pals.

Lawrence Deger and Short got into a gunfight later that night, yet no one was hurt. Short was later arrested and released on $2,000, as long as he left Dodge. Luke Short obliged and left Dodge in May of 1883, later meeting up with Charles Basset.

Basset, Short Earp, and Masterson were devising a plan to bring Short back into Dodge. But before they could, the now Mayor Deger issued a proclamation ordering the closing of all gambling places in Dodge City.

A sour taste in the mouth of law enforcement

For uncorrupted law enforcement, Dodge City was a nightmare. The crime that originated from gambling was destroying the town, so that’s why the ban came down swift, and hard.

Dodge City will forever be one of the most iconic western cities in American history. And is almost solely to blame for Kansas’ late arrival to the new era of gambling.

Photo by Associated Press