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WOSTER: I won the day Deadwood gambling became legal

I’m the sort of gambler who folds with three aces if the other guy raises me a nickel, so you’ll recognize how amazing it is when I tell you that I cleaned out the house on the first night of legal gambling in Deadwood 25 years ago.

That was on Nov. 1, the day Deadwood gaming houses became legal and one day before the 100th birthday of South Dakota as a state. My newspaper, which planned a centennial edition with old-style type, design and illustrations, sent me to Deadwood with $100 of company money to test my luck at the slot machines and card tables, just like Wild Bill Hickok or those folks on the HBO television series.

Now, when I say I’m the sort of gambler who folds with three aces, that’s pretty close to true. Back in college, we usually played with match sticks. Who had money after paying tuition, buying books and getting a fresh State College sweatshirt for the year? If a guy raised me a couple of matchsticks, I often said, “Too rich for my blood,’’ whatever that means, and folded my hand. Having the paper send me to Deadwood to show people how to play the games was a bit like the time when the sports editor lined me up to play a round of golf at Elmwood with Terry Comstock to show people how the course played.

(For those scoring at home, Elmwood played for Comstock -- home for a brief time from the professional golf tour -- a whole lot different than it played for me. I recall one hole where I was lying five and ready to pitch to the green, just waiting for Terry to hit his second shot. His ball after the drive was about five feet short of mine after five strokes. In my defense, it was a long par four.)

So, it wasn’t a seasoned Las Vegas type of card shark who sauntered into one of the gaming halls that evening and cased the joint for the best tables and machines. It was me, the Lyman County kid who didn’t like pitching pennies because he never won. Well, I was on assignment, so I took a stool at a fan-shaped table to play me a little Blackjack, hoping I looked like maybe I’d done it a time or two before. As I settled in, I mentioned to the dealer that I was fixing to try my luck. The guy next to me growled, “Luck’s got nothing to do with it. This is all about skill and nerves.’’

I thought about scooting out of the stool and looking for a friendlier game, but the dealer smiled and started tossing out cards. I can’t recall the first hand. I usually remember that stuff. What I know is that my growling friend with the skill and nerves lost a couple of bucks and I raked in a couple. Same thing the next hand, and the next, and a fourth.

“Well,’’ I thought, “this isn’t too shabby. I just might sit here awhile and play cards.’’

What it was, I think, was that it wasn’t my money. The deal with the paper was that I could lose the $100, no problem. Anything I left the gambling houses with got turned back to the paper. If I earned additional money, we would give it to charity. With nothing to lose, I couldn’t lose, not for a long while. I started playing $5, the limit, and then two hands at a time at $5 a hand.

Streaks end. Any gambler will tell you that. From being up quite a lot (for a matchstick player) I lost a while. When I had $50 of the original $100, I cashed in and headed for the door. It was almost deadline.

But, wait. I needed to play a slot machine, just once, just for the story. I stuck a quarter in, bells and lights went crazy and a bunch of coins fell into the slot. The cage counted $40. I took the money, wrote the story in time for deadline and never tried my luck there again.