March 30, 2021

"this is a snide auction watch." Mock Auction House, Denver Republican, Feb. 11, 1882

Denver Republican
February 11, 1882

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ell," said the Jeweler, "this is a snide auction watch."

It is not known for certain if Soapy Smith was operating any of his "mock auction houses" in Denver in 1882, but the methods are the pretty much the same. It could be one of "Big Ed Chase's operations, or even "Doc" Charles L. Baggs' place, as he was the "bunko boss" in Denver at the time. Below is the transcribed newspaper article from the Denver Republican (February 11, 1882) describing one of the early "mock auction houses" that prospered for decades in Denver.

How a Young Man “From the Country” Was Taken In One of Many Similar Cases.

      “A young man from the country” walked himself into one of the cheap jewelry auction shops on Larimer street yesterday, and was induced to buy a gold watch. The “ticker” was a fair-looking hunting case, warranted to be gold, and had an Elgin movement. It was a taking piece of property and sold for the wonderfully small sum of $24. The young man bought and received the following guarantee:
                                                                      Denver, Colorado February 10th 1882.
Mr. H. A. Taylor,
      Bought of H. Simon Auction and Commission House, 371 Larimer street, red front.
No. 1,319.
One solid gold watch fortwenty-four dollars, and I guarantee the above-mentioned to be solid gold cases and in good running order for two years. H. Simon.
     By and by it dawned upon the young man that maybe he had been swindled, and meandering into Ingalls’ jewelry store he submitted his "solid-gold" ticker to have judgement passed upon it. "Well," said the Jeweler, “this is a snide auction watch. It is worth at the utmost from $15 to $18. The case is a gold that runs about three karats fine and the works are the cheapest Elgin procurable." The jeweler was asked to test the case with acid. On applying the liquid it sizzed, hizzed and boiled and forever tarnished that "solid-gold" case. The young man left the jeweler's office with blood in his eye, but up to a late hour last night no murder had been committed.
     It will be observed that the auction man made no false representations. It is a “solid gold” watch and the watch is also “in good running order for two years.” The only safety the public has is to deal with reputable Jewelers.

View the following day's more detail article on this case: April 2, 2021
     Below is cartoon showing the standard path of a victims lesson in dealing with one of these establishments. Do click on the image for an enlarged, readable view.

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 Mock Auction House
Auction House: pages 15, 43, 75-76, 88, 90, 92, 120, 129-32, 138, 162-63, 180, 188, 190-91, 242, 294, 360, 421-22. 

"If ye must bette, at least bette upon a sure thinge."

"… and have we got a sure thinge for you!"
Jeff Smith

March 29, 2021

Artifact #79: Acting school program for Ethel Catherine Reitz, Soapy's daughter-in-law, 1907.

Ethel Reitz performance
January 24, 1907
Artifact #79
Jeff Smith collection

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rtifact #79: Acting program by Ethel Catherine Reitz
Ethel Catherine Reitz (10 AUG 1888 - 26 AUG 1931) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where she met and married Jefferson Randolph Smith III (Soapy Smith's son) on April 30, 1908, making Ethel Soapy's daughter-in-law. Ethel is my paternal grandmother.
Before getting married, nineteen-year-old Ethel was enrolled in the Vivian Page School of Acting. On January 24, 1907, she performed as "Joan" in a public showing at the Strassberger Conservatory Hall.
Ethel Catherine Reitz
Original black and white

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Ethel Catherine Reitz
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Strassberger Conservatory Hall
Circa 1905

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Strassberger Conservatory Hall
As it looks today

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 Ethel C. Reitz, animated
Ethel Catherine Reitz
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Ethel Catherine Reitz
February 5, 2011 

"One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you're going to wind up with an ear full of cider."
—Damon Runyon
Guys and Dolls, 1955

March 28, 2021

Did Soapy Smith go to Deadwood, South Dakota in 1897?

The Deadwood Evening Independent
May 18, 1897

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id Soapy Smith go to Deadwood, North Dakota in 1897?
If you watched HBOs series Deadwood (2004), then you may recall seeing a character loosely based on Soapy Smith ("Soap with a prize inside!"). A lot of research went into the making of the series, and apparently they found the old published letter from a Deadwood pioneer writing about a particular stagecoach ride in which one passenger was "Wild Bill" Hickok, and the other was "Soapy" Smith. While it is possible that there was a passenger who went by the alias of "Soapy," it is likely not Jefferson Randolph Smith, who at age 16, was still living at home with his parents and siblings in Round Rock, Texas. It would be another nine years (1885) before he would obtain the moniker "Soapy."
     The topic of Soapy Smith in Deadwood comes up occasionally, but until now there has been no evidence that he visited the town. The primary Deadwood gold rush ended in 1890, but gold was still being mined, and the population maintained a slow growth, so there was money to be made for someone of Soapy's career choice. He had visited smaller towns in his travels, so it is possible. 
     After 1890 famous gambler's, such as Alice Ivers Duffield, known to most as "Poker Alice Tubbs," were still arriving and working in Deadwood, via train, also a newcomer to the gold-town. Al Swearingen and his Gem Theatre were still operating (until 1899). Gambling and prostitution were still legal (until 1898), indicating that Daedwood was still on the wild side, a natural attraction for Soapy Smith to visit in 1897.
Still wild
Deadwood in 1897

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     The newspaper piece is dated May 18, 1897 so one of my first tasks was to try and pin-point where Soapy was known to be operating around this time.
  • January-February 1897: Spokane.
  • May 1897: St. Louis.
  • July 1897: Seattle.
     Soapy was constantly moving around during this period. Few of the letters written to him at his last known location, did not reach him right away. Thus, it is very possible that he was in Deadwood in May 1897. 
Seth Bullock, Sol Star and Soapy Smith?
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Back on December 18, 2020 on Facebook I posted the above photograph taken in Deadwood, South Dakota, showing Seth Bullock and Sol Star, with an unidentified gentleman that looks surprisingly like Soapy Smith. At the time I did not think it was Soapy so I did not post it here in this blog. When I posted the newspaper clipping that mentions Soapy Smith in Deadwood in Deadwood on May 18, 1897 I sought out the photograph of Seth Bullock and Sol Star and have to wonder if that third gentleman is actually Soapy?


"It is a notorious fact that confidence men and gamblers and other traffickers in the weaknesses of human nature are shrewd, companionable and generous men. They are generous on the order of “lightly come, lightly go.”"
Daily Alaskan, July 25, 1898.

March 26, 2021

Bascom Smith is free: The Butte Miner, December 10, 1896

The Colorado Terror
The Butte Miner
Butte Montana
December 10, 1896
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ascomb Smith: The Colorado Terror
I previously published a Butte newspaper clipping for October 2, 1896 in which a drunken Bascomb Smith had an altercation with a Miss Dora Harris, who retaliated by instigating Bascomb's arrest on a concealed weapons charge. Bascomb turned around and accused her of stealing $25 of his. It appears that in between October and December Bascomb got into hot water again, this time for pulling his pistol and menacingly pointing it at Elsie Edwards. Below is the transcribed article. 


Elsie Edwards Gets Scared of Him and Digs Out.

Bascom Smith, the Colorado terror, a brief sketch of whose career in that state was contained in the Miner a few days ago, was discharged by Justice Almon yesterday for want of prosecution, the complaining witness, Elsie Edwards, having made tracks out of the city. At the time of his arrest the woman was positive that she would prosecute Smith for drawing a weapon upon her but she recalled the bloody record of the man in Denver and lost her nerve.
     Smith has appealed to his more famous brother “Soapy” Smith on several occasions when he was in trouble but he did not know this time where “Soapy” might be found or this community would not have been large enough to have held the greatest confidence man west of the Mississippi river.
     Bascom Smith is now making ready to return to Colorado.

Bascomb states that he did not know where his brother ("Soapy") was, and this was likely a legitimate claim. Bascomb had spent a year in prison, while his older brother had already spent the good portion of that year traveling the west and northwest, including two months marooned in Alaska, Seattle, Spokane. Soapy was also looking for Bacomb, asking friend Bat Masterson in a letter dated November 18, 1896, if he had seen Bascomb in Denver, of which Bat had not actually seen him, but wrote

"I hear of him, however, and always in some kind of trouble. He has been arrested twice of late for disturbance and discharging firearms down in the neighborhood of 20th and Market streets, and you know the kind of people who frequent that locality. If I were you I would advise him to leave here, as it is only a question of time until he will get a “settler” and every time the papers speak of him they generally say the brother of “Soapy” Smith, who was last heard of skinning suckers in Alaska. So you see you are not getting any the best of it."
Masterson was not exaggerating Bascomb’s troubles. The Denver Evening Post lists five charges against him, including vagrancy, drunkenness, disturbing the peace, carrying concealed weapons, and discharging firearms. He was fined a total of $153 and had his “elegant, silver-plated, highly engraved revolver confiscated.” On November 5, 1896, he was in court for stealing a woman’s expensive diamond-encrusted jewelry. According to the Post, Bascomb still had some friends in the current administration and received an order to leave town rather than face fines still owed from his October melee. Bascomb left Denver and landed in Butte, Montana leading up to his current affair.

Bascomb Smith

Bascomb Smith: pages 22, 41-42, 67, 75-76, 88-89, 92, 120-22, 139, 143, 162-63, 165, 167, 169, 176, 178, 182, 214, 247, 264, 273-75, 336, 340, 352, 355, 361, 363, 367, 370-77, 381-86, 391-99, 403-05, 408-09, 412, 420-23, 519, 554-55, 584, 588-89, 594. 

"It’s only a gambling problem if I’m losing."

March 24, 2021

SAW THE FAKE COLLISION: Oct 2, 1896 Bascomb Smith is arrested for concealed weapons

Bascomb Smith goes on a tear.
Denver Post
October 2, 1896

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hiskey induced a desire for war and Smith carried his artillery with the bravado of a Leadville militiaman.
On the early morning of April 21, 1895 "Soapy" and his younger brother Bascomb, who had been drinking heavily on Saturday evening, started in on causing trouble in Denver. After exposing that the chief of police was inside one of the cities brothel's, they decided to visit the saloon of their enemies, Sam and Lou Blonger. Finding neither were in, the Smith's went into the Arcade Clubrooms and started an argument. When proprietor, John Hughes tried to stop the Smith's they unleashed their rage on him, nearly killing him. Soapy and Bascomb were arrested and a trial date was set. Soapy fled the state before the trial, and before doing so, he desperately tried to convinced Bascomb to come with him, but for whatever reason, Bascomb chose to remain in Denver, and on September 20, 1895 he was sentenced to one year for his part in the attack on John Hughes.
Fast forward one year, Bascomb Smith is released, and though he swears he is reformed, he falls back into bad habits. The newspaper article from the Denver Post, October 2, 1896 is transcribed below.


Which drives Bascomb Smith to drink and Dora Harris to jail.

      When Bascomb Smith was released from the county jail a few weeks ago he swore by the beard of Ali that he would forever lead a life of rectitude and control any unruly desire to terminate a McKinley argument with a Colts’ 44. He shunned saloons and avoided the lair of the tiger until his pals marveled. The Temptations of a great city had no attractions for the reformed gun artist and chronic rounder, who deviated not one jot from the straight but narrow path, yet Bascomb finally plunged headlong from grace. In an evil moment he permitted himself to part with half a dollar, and was one of the 18,683 “suckers” who witnessed the pre-arranged locomotive collision last Wednesday. Related closely to Jefferson Randolph Smith, Past Grand Imperial Potentate of the Sacred Order of Fakirs, Bascomb declared the Elyria affair too raw to catch a Missouri tie chopper. Smith persuaded himself to remain until the big swindle had finally been consummated, then he vanished, intent on an orgie which would make Market street nervous. He prefaced his trip by a select collection of profane expletives which he showered on the management of the collision fake, and bled himself to the haunts of the sinful. Then Bascomb drank. Any old liquid concocted that came his way was gulped down as quickly as an alligator swallows a Mississippi Coon.
     Bascomb's thirst continued all of yesterday and far into the night. Whiskey induced a desire for war and Smith carried his artillery with the bravado of a Leadville militiaman. At midnight Bascomb became involved in an argument with Miss Dora Harris, who was a sweet-faced babe in gay “Paree” just 45 years ago. Bascomb and Dora flirted and quarreled. When the reformed county jail graduate missed a roll of $25 he threatened to inaugurate an extended slumber in Riverside for the giddy French girl. She retaliated by having Bascomb jugged for carrying concealed weapons. Now la petite Dora languishes in a prison cell pending her trial on a charge of larceny from the person.
     And the pre-arranged collision fake is responsible for it all.

If the article is correct, the train collision that occurred "last Wednesday" took place on September 30, 1896. The other well-known crash exhibit occurred fifteen days earlier, on Tuesday, September 15, 1896, and ended in tragedy as both train boilers exploded, killing three spectators and injuring many more. Because of the article heading, Saw the Fake Collision, I believe the train crash Bascomb witnessed was a duplicate copy, taking advantage of the staged crash and horrific incident in Texas? I could not find anything on the staged crash of September 30th, but there is film and photographs of the crash fifteen day prior.

  • "Grand Imperial Potentate of the Sacred Order of Fakirs."
    • Love it!
  • "Bascomb declared the Elyria affair too raw to catch a Missouri tie chopper"
    • I don't know what this means. 
    • Elyria is a town in Ohio, if that means anything.
  • "When the reformed county jail graduate missed a roll of $25 he threatened to inaugurate an extended slumber in Riverside for the giddy French girl"
    • Riverside is the main cemetery in Denver, so Bascomb was threatening to kill Dora Harris.

"The confidence game took many forms, but its underlying principle was always the same: to let the mark beat himself, using his cupidity as the motor of his doom."
—Luc Sante

March 23, 2021

Not The Same Old Story: An 1895 newspaper clipping about a swindle gone wrong.

Not The Same Old Story
Unknown newspaper
"Around December 19, 1895"

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e is a bunco steerer that I've just been having fun with."


"You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."
~Denis Diderot, 1684.

This is the story of a swindle by Soapy Smith and "Reverend" John L. Bowers that didn't pan out, thus the articles title, "Not The Same Old Story." It is dated "around December 19, 1895." I do not know the exact date, nor the newspaper it was published in. It was sent to me long ago by a friend who didn't re-call the details. I searched on the numerous newspaper archives and could not find it. Below is the transcribed article.


George W. Alden Gives the Denver Deceivers the Laugh.

     The following article appeared in yesterday morning's Denver Republican. To the many people who were acquainted with George W. Alden during residence in Pueblo the story is a particularly good one:
     “G. W. Alden, a Buena Vista mining man, encountered ‘Rev.’ Joseph [John] Bowers on Seventeenth street yesterday and the bunco man was worsted at his own game. The ‘parson’ introduced himself to Mr. Alden as ‘Mr. Williams of Cripple Creek and claimed to be an old acquaintance. Alden saw through the confidence man readily and decided to humor him. He walked up Seventeenth street with Bowers, showing him a circular describing the Buena Vista mineral springs by way of a topic for conversation, and Bowers at once saw in the circular a chance to ‘skin’ his prospective victim.
     “He knew a lady and gentleman, he said, who were afflicted with the rheumatism and meant to make a trip to Hot Springs, but might be induced to visit the Buena Vista springs, on the recommendation of Mr. Alden. Would Mr. Alden go a short distance up street and be introduced to the gentleman who was suffering from rheumatism. Mr. Alden was willing to meet the ‘parson’s’ rheumatic friend, so they traveled along until they met ‘Colonel’ Smith leaning against a telephone pole.
     “ ‘This is my friend who has rheumatism,.’ said ‘Rev.’ Bowers, introducing the Buena Vista man and winking vigorously at ‘Soapy.’ The latter immediately assumed a limp and winced perceptibly as Alden shook his hand. At this stage of the game along came Policeman Van Vleet and asked Alden if he knew who ‘Rev.’ Bowers was.
     " ‘Of course I do; he is a bunco steerer that I've just been having fun with,’ he answered. Bowers was arrested on a charge of vagrancy, but discharged when taken before Judge Frost.

"Anyone who gambles today, not only bucks the laws of chance but is likely as well to meet the chicanery of science-using crooks."
—Thomas M. Johnson, 1933

March 22, 2021

Soapy Smith in the TV series The Alaskans.

Jefferson Randolph Smith
Alias "Soapy"
The Alaskans TV series
Season 1 - Episode 6

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id you ever hear of Jefferson Randolph Smith?
He just happens to be my brother-in-law. Sure he's got a reputation, most of it's bad, but the point is, Soapy's a big man in Alaska, and I'm gonna be a big man too.
 —"John Matthews" played by Jesse White
In this 1959 TV series two adventurers, played by 32 year old Roger Moore as "Silky Harris" and Jeff York as "Reno McKee," head to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush, hoping to get rich by taking advantage of prospectors headed to and from the Dawson gold fields. Dorothy Provine also stars as their friend, Rocky Shaw, a saloon entertainer.

In this episode (Big Deal, season 1 - episode 6) Silky and Reno discover a lost hotel deed, and stumble upon a scheme by con man "Soapy" Smith, played by John Dehner, to seize control of the entire district of Alaska. Dehner also plays "Soapy" in the episode, Remember the Maine (season 1 - episode 12).

Soapy explains his plan
The Alaskans TV series
Season 1 - Episode 6

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Sure, it's not very accurate, it is from 1959 after-all, but the following monologue by "Soapy" exposes the fact that someone in the show did some research on the real Soapy Smith, capturing his standard tactics, and in my opinion they captured Soapy pretty well.

"Gentlemen, there's more gold concentrated in Alaska than any place on earth right now. But tomorrow who knows. Gold strikes have a way of ending fast. So cash in while you can is my motto. That's why we're here today. With all due modesty I can say that I own the town of Skagway. I ask myself, 'why stop at Skagway?' With a little organization we can run Alaska, the way I run Skagway. It's all in knowing how. Now I can tell you the trick, if you make it worth my while. My men are in every saloon, every gambling casino in Skagway. They meet every boat, make friends with the new comers, they size 'em up, steer 'em to where we can get their money the easiest and fastest. But a lot of the money gets away once they leave Skagway. I hate to see it go. So, I suggest that we divide up the whole territory of Alaska. We divide it in sections. Each one of us controls a section. Each section pays me a percentage. I know how to organize, you don't.

The first rule is this: Always keep on the good side of  the people. Sure, I'll take anything a man's got, if he's fool enough to give it to me, but after that, what? Do you let him starve? Desperate men can make a lot of trouble. We'll have soup kitchens for the poor. We take up collections for widows and orphans. We promote church buildings. I even feed stray dogs.

Never rob the local people. We stick to the transients. They don't have any friends to complain to. They don't vote for the town counsel. Now if the town counsel is with you, then you have nothing to worry about. Just don't attract any attention."
Below is the entire episode for your enjoyment!


"In one instance I heard of, a holdout worked too well. It was designed to operate without any tell-tale movement of the hands or legs, a wire about the chest projecting the lazy-tongs arm when the gambler took an especially deep breath. It worked without a slip for more than a week. Then, in the middle of a game the wearer had to sneeze. The sudden intake of breath operated the device and out popped an ace in full view of the other players!"
— Thomas M. Johnson, 1933

March 21, 2021

On A Big Toot: Soapy beat up by two St. Louis detectives, June 12, 1895.

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June 12, 1895 Soapy is overpowered and beaten by two detectives. It is published in the St. Louis Dispatch on June 15, 1895. Below is the transcribed text of the article.



McGrath and Tracy Started Out With a Bucket of Red Paint.

Detectives McGrath and Tom Tracy, two of Chief Desmond’s cleverest sleuths, have been suspended. They took advantage of the chief’s absence from the city Wednesday and went on a hilarious tear.
     After visiting several down town resorts the detectives entered a hack and went to the saloon out on chestnut street. There they met “Soapy” Smith. Tracy thought Smith wanted to insult him, and McGrath proceeded to knock an apology out of him. “Soapy” Smith is the man who stood off the Colorado militia with a Winchester during the trouble between Gov. Waite and the police two years ago, but Detective McGrath, reinforced by a jag, proved too much for “Soapy,” and he and Tracy hammered the Denver man till he was nearly unconscious and drove him out into the darkness. Then the detectives resumed their pilgrimage in the bad lands.
     Chief Desmond was asked about the detectives’ suspension this morning. At first he denied it, for both McGrath and Tracy are excellent detectives, and the Chief hates to hear of anything derogatory concerning them. Finally he admitted that he suspended them, and said he would appear against them both for neglect of duty.

The following comes from Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.

In Soapy's telling of the affair, he went to St. Louis when David R. Francis, ex-governor of Missouri, sent for him. Francis was running for senator and wanted Jeff’s help in the election. Perhaps Jeff saw the chance for election spoils in the form of a new territory to run if he could get Francis elected. Moreover, should things go well, Jeff could be with his wife and children again. But things did not go well, not at all. Jeff clipped the St. Louis newspaper story seen above, telling Mary what happened.
     According to one St. Louis newspaper, two other detectives also took part in Jeff’s beating, making it four against one, and Jeff received a broken nose. The Denver Evening Post claimed the two detectives were drunk.
The bartender pointed “Soapy” out to them and said he was a bad man from the west. The detectives wanted to gain some notoriety, and approached Smith, saying: “You are ‘Soapy’ Smith, a gun-fighter from Denver, ain’t you?”
     “Soapy” acknowledged … their identification, but said he was no fighter. Some words passed, when one of the detectives pulled his revolver from his pocket and struck Smith over the head. The other detective drew his gun, and before “Soapy” could defend himself he was badly beaten. The detectives sent him to police headquarters on the charge of vagrancy, which charge they trumped up against him to save themselves. “Soapy” was so badly hurt that the police surgeon was obliged to dress his wounds.
     While this was being done Chief Harrigan came into the office and inquired how Smith got hurt. The detectives said he had resisted arrest and they were obliged to “trim him up.” By some means the chief found out the true state of affairs and asked “Soapy” to bring charges against the detectives for their cruel treatment.
      “I thought of that,” said “Soapy,” “but I investigated and found that both men have families depending upon them for support and I decided not to do it.”
     The chief insisted, saying that he did not want such men on his force and some one had to make the charges.
     “Well, I’ll never make them, and if I am subpoenaed I’ll testify that I started the fight,” said “Soapy.” He left town the next day and the detectives are still on the force.
     Why did the detectives attack Jeff? A whispered word from a local crime boss to the police, honest or otherwise, might have been the trigger. That the local newspaper printed Jeff’s alias of “Soapy” is a good indication that his reputation preceded him or was intentionally surfaced by his rivals. No matter the blame, it was enough to keep Jeff from setting up operations in St. Louis.


On A Big Toot: pages 381-82.

"He held three aces and a pair of kings and the sharper held the rest of the deck."
Silverton Standard
May 15, 1897

March 19, 2021

Daily Sentinel: Getting rid of Soapy Smith, April 25, 1895

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"Never take another man's bet. He wouldn't offer it if he didn't know somethin' you don't."