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A Peek Inside a Chicago "Poolroom"

As the jury in the first Luetgert trial deliberated, the case generated some gambling at Chicago's "poolrooms" betting establishments where one could place wagers on horse races and other sporting events.

According to a Chicago Journal article from October 18, 1897, odds of "40 to 100" that Luetgert would be declared not guilty were "posted conspicuously, with a few takers" at one poolroom. "The betting on disagreement of the jury is more spirited," the newspaper reported. "On this proposition it is even money."

Poolrooms were also in the news because an Illinois Senate committee accused the Chicago police of allowing these illegal establishments to flourish. (Read more on the Senate investigation of police corruption and cronyism.)

In its January 6, 1898, issue, the Chicago Tribune offered the following description of a typical Chicago poolroom. A Tribune reporter visited a saloon owned by Alderman John Powers of the 19th Ward, who had been indicted for allowing gambling on the premises. Powers insisted the charges were false. Excerpts from the article follow:

He told how wicked and designing persons had conspired to conduct sundry games of chance in the rooms over and under his saloon at 170 Madison street, and thus cast obloquy on his name...

It is a fact that there was gambling in Alderman Powers' saloon yesterday afternoon. Conscienceless bookmakers, ensconced in the stalls in the barroom, took bets on races that were run at New Orleans and San Francisco, and paid them when the bettors won.

"Post at 'Frisco!"

Such were the mysterious words ejaculated by one of three men seated at a table in a stall in the saloon at 4 o'clock. Just before this the sound of a dumb waiter rattling down a wooden shaft and stopping with a thump at the bottom was heard. The bottom was in the stall where the three men sat at a table. A young man in shirt sleeves opened the dumb waiter, took out a slip of paper and gave it to one of the men at the table. They pressed closely together, peering over each other's shoulders to get a look at a card which lay on the table. This card gave information of the entries and odds for the races at the Ingleside track at San Francisco.

Money was passed from the men in the crowd to the men at the table.

"Straight on, Prestar," said one, handing over a dollars.

"Texarkana for a place," said another, forking out a $2 bill. And so it went on.

Just before the announcement that the horses were at the post at Ingleside the result of a race at New Orleans came down the dumb waiter. Elkin won, and the few men who had backed that animal received their winnings from one of the men at the table.

In the main body of the saloon, outside the stall where the dumb waiter was at work, stood a large crowd of gamesters, touts and hangers-on, and from this crowd individuals would go into the stall, make their bets or collect their winnings, and then come out. It was cramped quarters to do business in, but considerable business was doing just the same.

Except the announcements of the men at the table, there were no outward signs of pool-selling. No tickets were issued. The bettors paid their money, gave the initials of their names, and awaited results. If they won they received their money on mentioning their initials.

Somewhere in the mysterious regions above the saloon was located the source of the information that came at intervals down the dumb waiter; there was no ticker nor any telegraph instrument in sight, but that men at the table were in close touch with such could not be doubted from the promptness with which the "official" summary followed the first news of race.

The operations in Powers & O'Brien's saloon constituted the "big game." Only bets of $1 and $2 were accepted...

[Smaller bets were taken in the saloon in the basement.]