January 8, 2012

Tivola: Swindle game with an elegant name.

Fig. 1:  "The table"

In my book, Alias Soapy Smith, I published a letter to Soapy Smith from George Mason of the Denver office of George Mason and Company. The firm sold gambling gear and furniture to sporting houses like Soapy's Tivoli Club. The response letter was penned to Soapy in Spokane, Washington, August 10, 1896 indicates that Jeff was running games of chance in Spokane. Below is the complete text of that letter.

From the Bob and Jonathan Shikes collection
Reproduced from Denver's Larimer Street
by Thomas J. Noel


Playing Cards and Ivory Goods,
1413 Eighteenth Street.

Denver, Colo. Aug. 10, 1896
Friend Jeff:

Yours at hand and will say am glad to hear from you and you are still on earth. We have a new small Tivola. We made a few weeks ago a New Orleans Belt with 50 spaces [—] there is [sic] 2 prizes and 3 blanks. It is a good deal larger, that is, the basket, than the old style and makes a better showing. We made it for one of you x lieutenants Power and the gang and think they are doing well with it, as they were running at Fisks Gardens and done well. Since then I see in paper they were arrested at Colo Spring and fined 50.00 and a few hours to get out of town. Since then I have heard nothing from them or seen them. There is nothing going on here at all and it seems worse than ever. We will soon make some drop cases, that is as soon as we can get at them [i.e., get to making them]. Ed Chase sent over a note for that machin[e] saying it belonged to him and he paid what charges was on it. The machine we put the celluloid on and fixed up. But your jewelry spindle is still here. Jeff wishing you success we remain yours



Larimer Street, Denver
From the R. Ronzio collection, reproduced
from Silver Images of Coloradoby Richard A. Ronzio

Jeff was known to purchase gaming equipment from this company, which was located literally next door to Soapy's Midway saloon and just around the corner from his Tivoli Club previous to Soapy's escape from the Denver courts in 1895. Gambling reforms had hit Denver hard since 1892 and the George Mason Company moved to another location just around the corner at 1413 Eighteenth Street where the above letter was written.

Fig. 2:  "The cloth"

The "Tivola" game described to Soapy by Mason was almost a total mystery to me at the time of publishing my book. What little I could find was published in the footnotes for the letter, as follows.

Notes: Tivola: probably tavola, the Italian word for “table, plank, board.” New Orleans Belt … 3 blanks…: an imprint on the table for some sort of gambling game containing a belt of 50+ spaces, presumably for bets. the basket: may refer to a “bird-cage” dice rolling basket device such as used in “chuck-a-luck.”

Recently I came across a detailed description and drawings of the game. I found it under 3 names, Tivoli and Tivolia as named by author, John Philip Quinn and then Tivola as named by George Mason. I have every reason to believe that all 3 names are referring to the same device. John Quinn is the author of Fools of Fortune or Gambling and Gamblers (1890) which I just finished reading. Below is the text from Quinn's book, complete with spelling errors. I believe it to be the definitive answer I was looking for.

Tivoli or Tivolia, the game

This game is at once one of the most seductive and the most deceptive in the outfit of the peripatetic gambler. In some minor respects it resembles the children's game of the same name, inasmuch as both are played upon a board containing a number of pins and having numbered compartments at the lower end. At this point, however, the resemblance ceases.

The gambling device known by this name is shown in the accompanying illustrations, figures 1 and 2. Figure 1 represents the table and figure 2 the cloth which always hangs behind it, and forms an indispensable feature of the game. In explaining the diagrams, the construction of the table will be first described. It is made of wood usually about 3-1/2 to 4 feet in length and 2 feet broad, and when in use the upper end rests upon a wooden framework, giving the board an inclination of some 30 degrees.
Running lengthwise through the centre [sic] of the table is a wooden partition, dividing it into two equal parts, At the lower end of each division are ten compartments, open at the top, each set being numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0. At the upper end of each division is a gate, lettered on the diagram c.c. Between the gates and the numbered compartments are placed metal pins or pegs, arranged substantially as shown by the dots on the diagram. Directly below the lower row of pins and extending over the upper ends of the compartments is a board, which runs entirely across the table, but only one-half of which is shown in the illustration.

Before describing the mode of play, an explanation of the cloth (as shown in fig. I) is necessary. This cloth is generally three feet in length by two in breadth, and is divided into 100 squares, arranged and divided as shown in the cut. The figures―$I.00, $5. 00, etc.―in the squares indicate the prizes which may be won by the players. The abbreviation "bl'k." stands for "blank," and indicates the losing numbers, on which no prize is paid. The letters "rep." are an abbreviation for "represent," and show that the player who happens to make the number in that square must, if he does not wish to lose his stake, double it and play again.

Those who wish to play, pay the proprietor a certain sum for the privilege of dropping two marbles down the board, one rolling through each of the gates C.C. The little spheres (d.d.) roll down the inclined plane, their course being deflected from point to point, by the metal pins until they finally come to rest in the compartments at the lower end, one on each side of the centre [sic] board. The operator then looks to see the numbers into which they have fallen. If the left hand marble has rolled into "0," the number of the right hand one only is taken. If the latter rolls into “0,” and the left hand one, into some compartment bearing a significant number, the entire amount is read as IO, 20, 30, 40, etc. If both numbers roll into the numbered compartments, both figures are read, as e. g. 56, 79, 84, etc.

The number made by the player having been thus learned, the cloth is inspected with a view to ascertaining the result of his play. If the number which he has made calls for a prize, the same is handed to him. If he has "drawn a blank," he has to content himself with his loss. If his number corresponds to a square containing the abbreviation "rep.," he may either lose the sum paid or double his stake and try again.

To show how utterly impossible it is for a chance player to win, it is only necessary to explain the very simple secret mechanism which enables the operator to send the marble into a losing compartment at his own will. If the reader will look at the diagram, 1, he will see a slender line running from the right hand set of numbered compartments along the entire length of the board, on its right hand side, and terminating near the gate (c.), its course being indicated by the line (b.b.). This line represents a stiff wire lever, placed below the board and entirely under the control of the manipulator. By working this lever he can raise a row of ten triangular metal points, marked a,a,a, all of which are covered by the board at the lower end of the table, and which are so arranged that one shall stand in front of each alternate compartment. When the marble strikes one of these points, as a matter of course, it inevitably glances off into one of the adjacent divisions. The peculiar beauty of the contrivance, as viewed from a gambler's standpoint, is the fact that the compartments in front of which the points are placed are inscribed with the winning numbers. The divisions into which the marbles are forced to roll invariably correspond to those numbers on the cloth which contain those words (so ominous to the greenhorn) "blank" or "represent."

In this, as in all similar games, the assistance of "cappers" is indispensable. The dupes who stake their money in good faith are never permitted to win, but unless somebody occasionally draws a prize, interest is certain to be supplanted by a sense of discouragement. It follows that confederates must be at hand. One of these will approach the table and after being recognized by the operator will buy a chance. At once the metal points are so placed that he has an even chance of winning and he perseveres until he draws a handsome prize. Ordinarily, however, the "capper" resorts to stratagem. Approaching a countryman, he offers to "divide risks" with him; i. e., to advance half the money and share equally in the gains or losses. As long as the "capper" and the "sucker" play together, they invariably lose. Should the dupe become disgusted with his "run of hard luck," the "capper" continues to play alone. The operator works the lever and his confederate soon wins a prize; the greenhorn (who always stands near, to await the issue) at once feels encouraged, and it usually requires little persuasion on the "capper's" part to induce him to make another venture.

Tivola: page 419.
George Mason and Co.: pages 123, 419-20, 451.

Jeff Smith


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