Card games in gentlemen’s clubs
Several games, especially card games, have been popular among gamblers in New Zealand. In the 19th century playing cards for money was a favourite pastime of all social classes. Among the wealthy, poker, twenty-one, whist and loo were played by sheep-station owners and the urban elite in the gentlemen’s clubs established in the main centres. Julius Vogel, who became premier of New Zealand, was described as a ‘by no means contemptible player of unlimited loo’1. Houses and farms changed hands on the outcome of a game. Charles Suisted, the proprietor of Wellington’s first hotel, boasted that he had won the lease of the building in a game of cards.
Māori soon became enthusiastic gamblers on cards and other games of chance. In 1851 the missionary and printer William Colenso published instructions in the Māori language warning against gambling on cards. The Māori-language newspaper Te Wananga published several notices warning readers against playing cards. In 1878 they were reminded that card-playing on the railway between Napier and Waipukurau was forbidden, and offenders could be fined £5.
One of 19th-century New Zealand’s most notorious gamblers was US-born William ‘Bully’ Hayes. He arrived in Dunedin in 1862 and opened a hotel and theatre in Arrowtown. A rumour circulated that years earlier, in California, Hayes had been caught cheating at poker and his ear had been cut off. Five pounds was offered to any Arrowtown barber prepared to cut his long hair. One accepted the challenge and Hayes was shown to be indeed minus his right ear. He left for Hokitika, where he again gambled heavily. He finally died in a brawl in the Marshall Islands.
Large numbers of migrants, mostly male and single, poured into the country whenever new goldfields were discovered, bringing new card games with them. Some had earlier worked on the California goldfields and introduced the game of faro. Irish miners preferred forty-fives, and this card game remained popular on the West Coast, where many Irish settled, into the 20th century.
Wartime card games
During both world wars New Zealand troops gambled furiously to while away boredom and, if they were lucky, supplement their pay. Poker and pontoon were the most popular card games although during the Second World War the more complex game of 500 emerged. Card sharps (cheats) used a system of cigarettes to signal to their partners – a new one for hearts, a relit butt for spades, a struck match for diamonds and frantic puffs for the joker.
The depression of the 1930s meant enforced idleness and economic hardship for relief workers and encouraged many of them to gamble on cards. Cribbage, slippery sam and euchre were played in pubs, boarding houses and relief camps around the country. In the early 1950s groups of urban Māori women were reported to gamble for money at ‘card schools’ in each other’s houses. Privacy protected them from the social stigma associated with gambling. Men were usually less concerned about their reputations and frequently staked their pay packets on a game of euchre-loo at single men’s camps, freezing works and other large workplaces.
Gambling on card games was not widely accepted until the 1990s, when New Zealand’s first licensed casino opened in Christchurch. However, many New Zealanders had become skilled gamblers long before this and in 1989 Paul Pedersen, a Whanganui sheep farmer, competed in the world poker championships in Las Vegas. In 2008 Auckland’s casino, Sky City, ran the first Festival of Poker, the biggest poker tournament in New Zealand history. There were 306 participants, most of them international players. The following year Sky City launched New Zealand’s first training school for poker dealers.