San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter XIII.

THIS is how it happened: A crowd of enterprising young men who conducted a private poker game for "friends only," on the top floor of the very "quiet and highly respectable" boarding house at 905 Sutter Street, heard that I had saved up about a thousand dollars with which to defray the expenses of a proposed Eastern vacation; and they decided among themselves that they could invest this money to a better advantage than I could.

I had been introduced to one of these young men by a relative of his, who was well known in San Francisco and in the Sonoma Valley as a school teacher, and is still better known now on account of her having figured largely in the divorce courts and daily papers in the spring of 1893. Therefore, when the young man showed a disposition to continue my acquaintance on a chance introduction of this kind, I naturally supposed, as anyone else would under the circumstances, that it was all right.

It was not very long before I received an invitation from my new acquaintance to call upon him at his chambers in the boarding house above mentioned. When I called, he greeted me as if he had known me all my life: "I am delighted to see you, captain; come right up to my rooms, and take off your overcoat, and make yourself at home," said my extraordinary host; and before I had time to catch my breath to request him to call me plain "Mister," instead of captain, he ushered me into a pleasant looking suite of apartments, and introduced me to several of his guests, who were sitting around the room. The most starting episode of this occasion was the manner in which he introduced me: "Gentlemen," said my distinguished host to his colleagues, "allow me to present you to my friend, Captain Fruit-tree, of whom I was just speaking when the doorbell rang. Captain, permit me to present you to my friends of whom I was telling you at the ball." Then (aside to me in a whisper as I was taking off my coat) he said, "These gentlemen are fruit-pickers."

I had always had an idea that "fruit-pickers" were persons who worked in orchards; and it struck me at first as rather strange that young horticulturists who gathered apples, oranges, prunes, and other California fruits for a living should wear swallow-tailed coats and diamonds when making an ordinary evening call on a gentleman friend. And then these "fruit-pickers" were so affable and courteous that I felt sorry for having for one instant imagined that they were ordinary dressed up farm laborers. Subsequently I felt sorry for the farm laborers.

I supposed, of course, that the "fruit-pickers" would tell me all about picking plums, grapes, and the more delicate fruits which are so abundant in this State, (I knew that such sweet- scented dudes could never compete with the Chinese in picking the coarser and more vulgar fruits, such as watermelons, pumpkins, and squashes,) but they did nothing of the kind, and I did not feel like asking such "polished" young men whether they picked prunes and strawberries at so much per bushel, or whether they worked by the day, week, or month. It was after dinner, and we were all in evening dress; and it is very bad form, you know, to talk "shop" after a gentleman doffs his rough working clothes and dons his tailor-made suit of that hue and fashionable cut which polite society ordains that all well-bred gentlemen shall wear after the business of the day has been laid aside for the peaceful enjoyment of an evening with friends. The "fruit-pickers" talked about everything except their occupation. They never said one word about fruit of any kind.

A nice plate of pears and apricots stood among the decanters of wine and bottles of "O.P.S." and Bethesda water on the sideboard, but, although I was invited to sample the liquid refreshments, my host never once asked me to have a plum.

When the conversation about balls, parties, charity high teas, and the latest parvenu divorce scandals began to grow less and less interesting, my host expressed a regret that a high regard for good form prevented him from inviting a few of his "lady friends" in to enliven the occasion with a little music; and, just by way of an apology for the lack of musical talent, he suggested a little game of poker, "just to while away the time, you know."

One of the "fruit-pickers" declared that his knowledge of the game was limited, and I felt called upon to offer the same excuse; but our courteous host soon made us feel quite at ease with this ingenious and somewhat humorous little speech:

"Why, the idea!" said he. "We are not going to play for money; but we play with a small amount each, just to add interest to the game, and, as our experience is limited, we will limit the game. Gentlemen never play for money; they only play with it."

That settled the question, and my courteous host invited me to take the "lucky" seat between himself and his trusted first assistant card manipulator. He then produced a "deck" of brand new cards, and red, white, and blue poker chips enough to go around.

"Captain, permit me to present you to the "fruit pickers,: said my distinguished host.

The host fixed the value of the chips at five cents for the whites, ten cents for the reds, and fifty cents for the blues. Each player purchased two dollars worth of chips to start in with, and the host's first assistant, who acted as banker, deposited the money in a cigar box, and then, after shuffling the cards and extracting the joker, he invited me to "cut for deal"; ace high and king next. I drew a big red ace and got the opening "deal."

"Everybody ante up a white chip," said the host. "The limit will be a blue chip, and no one will bet any more than that amount at one time."

By direction of my host, I dealt each "fruit-picker" five cards and the same number to myself.

After the "deal" all the "fruit-pickers" said "pass." I supposed, of course, that they had reference to the bottles of O.P.S. and Bethesda; l but the host came to my rescue, like the courteous host that he was, and explained that the work "pass" only meant that the gentleman who said it did not wish to bet on his "hand" just then. He further explained to me that since all the rest had "passed" it was my turn to speak. If I had a hand that I could bet on, I could signify the same by "chipping in" a white one. If I did not wish to "chip" I should gather up the cards and pass the "deck" to the man on my left; and I had the privilege of making it a "jack pot" if I chose.

"A jack pot," my affable host explained, "cannot be opened with anything less than a pair of jacks on the deal." If no one got jacks or better before the "draw," the "deck" should be passed to the next man on the left, who would shuffle the cards and deal them over. This was called "progressive jack," and it progressed with each deal as follow: Jacks or better on the first deal; queens or better on the second deal; kings or better on the third, and aces on the forth. If no one got "openers" in four consecutive deals, the openers descended to jacks again. This was an interesting game. Each time that the "deck" passed for want of an opening hand, each "fruit-picker" and I threw a five-cent white chip into the pot.

After the deck had passed all around the table several times, and there were twelve or fifteen white chips in the pot, my host got the deal, and, shuffling the cards in the most approved Banduria, and Friday Night Cotillion Club fashion, dealt them.*

[Note: These two clubs have been largely advertised in the fake society news. Their combined memberships amount to about four hundred persons, comprising the arch parvenu element of San Francisco. According to Mr. Greeway the other 299,600 persons in the city are "the coarse, vulgar herd."]

I got three jacks before the "draw," and as it was my turn to speak, I opened the pot with a red chip. Al the "fruit-pickers" chipped in and the dealer said "discard." I discarded two, and all the rest discarded three except the dealer, who threw up his hand, declaring that he "couldn't see it." I drew a pair of kings, which gave me beautiful "jack full," on which I bet two red beans. One "fruit-picker" threw up his hand, and the other one "stayed in," and raised me to the full limit. I called him and he showed me three aces and reached his hand out as if rake in the pot.

"Hold on, jack!" said the dealer; "the captain may have a better hand than you have."

"Oh, beg pardon!" said jack; "what have you got, captain? Show your Hand."

I showed my jack full on kings.

"Ah, Jack, my boy," said the dealer, "that's the time you burned your fingers! Captain, the pot is yours; take it in."

I was now beginning to think that I knew how to play poker.

"A jack full in a progressive jack pot calls for a round of drinks," declared Jack, as he gracefully laid down his "beaten" hand and pushed the pot over toward me.

"Let us sample a little of Sprunace, Stanley & Co's Old Kentucky."

"What's the matter with sampling Cartan, Mcarthy & Co.'s O.P.S., Jack?" asked the host, who was always addressed either as "Hal," or "old man."

"Oh, hurry up, boys, I'm getting thirsty! Give me a little O.P.S. and Bethesda," said the young man from Wells, Fargo & Co.'s, who has a good deal of Chin in his name.

"All right, boys," said the host, "Here's to our distinguished guest, the captain, the boss poker-player."

In a while after resuming the game, one of the "fruit-pickers" lost all of his chips, and purchased a dollar's worth from me. Each time that my host dealt the cards I got a winning hand, and in less than half an hour from the time the game commenced, I had eight dollar's worth of chip in front of me.

Just at this stage of the game my host remembered that he had a very "important engagement" at the Hotel Vella Blista, one of those "quiet family" boarding houses that we hear so much about around the billiard rooms, poker clubs, and other places where the young men about town meet to tell one another what they know about things in general--things that are not spoken of among ladies.

When my host signified his intention of going out, the "banker" cashed in my chips and complimented me on my good luck.

"Of course, captain," said the modest "fruit-pickers" in chorus, "you'll come up to our seance, Saturday night, and give us a chance to get back the eight dollars that you have won from us?"

Thanking the jolly "fruit-pickers" for their kind invitation, I bade them good-night. My host having insisted on my walking up to Vella Blista with him, I decided to accompany him as far as the door. He was a very interesting conversationalist, and, during the ten minutes' walk from 905 Sutter Street to the corner of Pine and Taylor Streets, he told me a good deal about himself and friends, mentioning the names of many "prominent" citizens in the most patronizing way. I learned afterward that these "prominent" citizens had savory reputations. They, like the "fruit-pickers," belonging to Mr. Greenway's Friday Night Parvenucracy.

This mentioning of names was intended to create an impression in my mind that he moved in the very best element of San Francisco society. That which puzzled me most, however, was the over-cordial manner in which he treated me right from the start. I could not understand at the time, why this man, who professed to be a member of high and exclusive society, should be so desirous of introducing into his "set" a comparative stranger, of whom he knew nothing further than what he had heard from the mutual acquaintance who had introduced him to me.

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


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