Liz Duckworth is a freelance copywriter and editor and the author of several books including “Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story” (Filter Press), “Wildflower Living” (WaterBrook Press) and “A Perfect Word for Every Occasion” (Bethany House) as well as three children’s picture books.
She has performed multiple times as Poker Alice Tubbs throughout Colorado. Having grown up in Colorado, she has long enjoyed a passion for western history.
Her website offers a behind-the-scenes look at the world of Poker Alice: PokerAliceHistory.com.
The following is an excerpt from “Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
Colorado Authors League finalist in History
The ghost of Poker Alice Tubbs nudged me one summer day in Creede, Colorado. I was reading a free newspaper, curled up on a large couch in a small house on Main Street. That house, which belongs to my parents, sits practically next door to the site of Alice’s former workplace—a saloon where she practiced her trade as a professional gambler in 1891, until the place burned down in 1892, along with most of Creede.
The article fascinated me, as did the picture of Poker Alice. Why did the photo of a pickle-faced, white-haired, cigar-chomping old lady grab my heart and spark my imagination? Why did a short article launch me on a journey to learn much more?
Perhaps it was the spirit of Alice herself, wanting somebody to care enough to investigate and tell the truth about her life. Maybe she was tired of legends spun from unfounded rumors or online exaggerations. It was time someone discovered the real Poker Alice.
Alice was an authentic daughter of the Wild West. No wonder so much was written about her that the stories grew into myth. She garnered great press coverage, starting in 1927, and that attention refused to fade after her death in 1930. (The press wasn’t quite so supportive in reporting on a certain manslaughter incident in 1913, but that’s a story for later.)
The first thing I did after gathering a few nuggets of history about Poker Alice Tubbs, was to fictionalize her story, just as many other writers had done before me. She lived in Creede during its boom days, which seemed like the perfect setting for a murder mystery. For years I’d acted with Red Herring Productions, spreading fake murder and mayhem throughout Colorado and other western states. Inspired, I wrote a script set in Creede, mixing real-life figures—Poker Alice, Soapy Smith, and Bat Masterson— with made-up characters based on historical accounts of life in the boomtown. Alice was one of the script’s red herrings, a character with a motive for murder, who existed in the story to throw the audience off track. It’s ironic that my eventual quest to find the truth about Poker Alice was filled with red herrings, false clues that often led nowhere. And the temptation to fictionalize her life was not mine alone. From books to short stories, TV shows to movies— even “journalistic” accounts—most of what’s been written about Poker Alice since her death has favored fiction over fact.
I believed everything I read in books, articles, and online before I started to research Alice in earnest, preparing to perform as a historical re-enactor for the Buffalo Bill Birthday celebration in Golden, Colorado. Her story was compelling and made for a lively presentation. Except it was filled with gaps and contradictions.
Was Alice born to the Ivers family in England in 1851 or in 1853? Or was she born in Virginia? Some accounts said Alice was a finishing-school graduate and genius at math. She came to Leadville (or was it Lake City) as a young bride and lost her first husband in a mining accident. One thing was clear—she played poker to support herself and traveled the western mining towns: gambling, winning, moving on. But what about reports that, as a devoted Catholic, she never played poker on a Sunday? Did she truly live in Creede for nearly two years, moving to Deadwood, South Dakota, after the big fire in 1892? Or was she in Deadwood as early as 1876?
As her story grew wilder, I researched and wondered where the truth lay. Which of the many reported events really happened?
Did her second husband, Warren, fall in love with her after she shot an angry gambler who tried to knife Warren as he dealt the game of Faro?
Did the couple move to a ranch near Sturgis and raise seven children? Was it true that Warren died of tuberculosis in the middle of a raging blizzard? Had Alice really driven his frozen body to Sturgis and used her poker skills to win the money to pay the undertaker?
Did the aging widow open a poker parlor and house of ill repute, and later marry her handyman to avoid paying his bill?
Her story seemed too good to be true, and in the years after my first performance as Poker Alice, I started sorting fact from fiction, the myth from the mundane. Though many of the juicy tidbits about her life proved untrue, so much of her story is still fascinating. (Yes, there are holes in Alice’s story that remain to be filled today, and I’m still digging as fast as I can.)
The many accounts I found in my initial research were filled with colorful quotations from Alice.
“Play your cards and place your bets. I’ll take your money without regrets.”
“I thought it would take longer to pay back the loan on my place, but I forgot about that convention of Methodist preachers coming to town.”
“At my age, I suppose I should be knitting. But I’d rather play poker with 4 or 5 good players than eat.”
Only that last statement was actually one of Alice’s, but she had a lot of other colorful things to say about her life in the Wild West.
I understand why there’s so much misinformation published about her. It’s tough researching a woman who wasn’t famous in her day—until the last years of her life. Alice lived during a time when census records weren’t always accurate and marriage certificates or personal IDs weren’t required. She moved frequently from start-up town to boomtown. Her letters weren’t saved and no diary exists. No doubt she edited her own story and may have lied about her name and age here and there. Her fame came in her later years, thanks to articles written by newspaper reporters who sometimes cared more about telling a good story than fact-checking it.
Her ghost keeps nudging me. I think she’s not too happy about all the untruths I once helped spread. So my book holds as much truth about the real Poker Alice Tubbs’s story as I could track down in reliable sources. It’s the fascinating story of a woman who was way ahead of her time. Poker Alice deserves to be a legend because of her real life in real places that were dangerous and desirable. Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story digs into the truth about Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert. (That might even be her real name!)
Her story really started in Lake City, Colorado in the mid-1870’s. With no children to care for, and her husband Frank Duffield hard at work in the mines, Alice had plenty of free time. She could have passed her days reading for entertainment. She was well educated, the daughter of a schoolmaster from Sudbury, England (she said). After her parents came to America, they raised their children in the East, far from mining camps and games of chance. But young Alice had a zest for adventure, which made it easier to marry Frank and leave her Eastern home for the unknown west.
As the months in Lake City went by, Alice turned her skill at cards to gambling and won money. She and Frank enjoyed the extra earnings—and he didn’t need to worry about his wife’s safety in the busy mining town. Alice could take care of herself. She carried a gun in those days—a .38 on a .45 frame—and she knew how to shoot it. She said, “My father had been an excellent marksman and he had passed his knowledge to me. . . . I was not afraid. I went everywhere, the faro and stud games of the gambling halls being my chief lure.”
After Frank’s sudden death in a mining accident, Alice was forced to make a crucial choice. She had to make a living. Her education qualified her to teach school, but Lake City was not exactly an ideal place to raise a family, so it had no schools. Other work in the area involved heavy labor or the more traditional mining town occupations of “soiled doves” and saloon girls. None of those choices appealed to Alice. So she turned to the skill she’d perfected in her free time: playing poker for money. She was young, she was attractive, and she quickly learned how to make her way in a man’s world.
Though losing her young husband was a tragedy, the loss marked the beginning of Alice’s adventures as a professional gambler. She was in the right place at the right time to live the life she sought. The Colorado Rocky Mountains and surrounding states saw an explosion of boomtowns throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, and Alice was smack dab in the middle of it all—experiencing her personal times of boom and bust, joy and danger, excitement, and challenge.
Fifty years later, speaking to a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post, Alice reflected on her past and her reasons for making unorthodox choices about how she’d live her life. She knew the path she followed made her a rare woman, and she was certain about her personal motivations: “It was the thrill of it, to buck the game and beat the game. . . . The thrill, in case one may think that I am looking upon memories from afar, never leaves one.”