A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from February 08, 2011
“It’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town”

A story is told about a 19th century gambler who was gambling in a small town. A friend told him that the game was rigged, but the gambler remarked, “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.” The story is most often told about “Canada Bill” Jones (1820-1877). “It’s the only game in town” has been cited in print since at least 1889.

The December 13, 1906 New York (NY) Times used the “it’s the only game in town” story in its “Topics in Wall Street.” The saying has often applied to the stock market and other investing, wherever the public has strong doubts about the integrity of the market.


Wikipedia: Canada Bill Jones
Canada Bill Jones (?-1880) was the working nickname of William Jones, a noted confidence artist, riverboat gambler and card sharp. He has been described as “without doubt the greatest three-card-monte sharp ever to work the boats, perhaps the greatest of them all.”

Life
Born in a Romnichal tent in Yorkshire, Jones learned the classic scams young. At twenty, he migrated to Canada in search of fresh marks. He honed his three card monte travelling Canada as a thrower with Dick Cady. When Jones wanted bigger game, he left Cady and headed south to the Mississippi riverboats. There he joined up with George Devol, Holly Chappell and Tom Brown, working the boats. When the foursome broke up, Devol and Jones kept at it until the American Civil War. They fell out when Jones caught Devol trying to cheat him.

After the war, Dutch Charlie was Jones’ next partner, this time in Kansas City. When they won $200,000 there, they decided to move on to working the Omaha, Nebraska to Kansas City trains. When the Union Pacific Railway management started clamping down on three-card-monte players, he wrote the general superintendent of the railway, offering $10,000 a year to secure an exclusive franchise, but was rebuffed.

Jones moved on to Chicago, in 1874 teaming up with Jimmy Porter and “Colonel” Charlie Starr. There he opened and worked four gambling joints, all crooked.

He won and lost $150,000 in a year, consistently falling for short card cons. Moving on to Cleveland with Porter, he continued to lose to professionals there as fast as he won from his marks. He moved on in 1877, dying a pauper in the Charity Hospital at Reading, Pennsylvania. The mayor was reimbursed for the funeral by the gamblers of Chicago. John Quinn wrote in Fools of Fortune that

…as the coffin was being lowered into the grave one of his friends offered to bet $1,000 to $500 that `Bill was not in the box.’ The offer found no takers, for the reason, as one of his acquaintances said, ‘that he had known Bill to squeeze through tighter holes than that.

Quotations
“It’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money”
“A Smith and Wesson beats four aces”
“No, son, you lose. ‘Cause this is a Smith & Wesson I’m holdin’ here.”
“Nobody ever went bowlegged carrying away the money they won from me.”
“Tie? You want me to wear a tie?”
“Yeah, but it’s the only game in town!” - on being told by George Devol that a Faro game in Cairo, Illinois was crooked. The same exchange has been variously ascribed to locations “in the back of a barbershop in Baton Rouge” and in Soapy Smith’s Tivoli Club in Denver, but always over Faro. The quote may simply have been part of his rube act.
“I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.”

4 August 1889, Aberdeen (SD) Daily News, pg. 4:
(The left column on this article is illegible—ed.)
A (...) story is told of a young Aberdeen (...) who frequently visited the (...) rooms of St. Paul. A friend who (...) one of these places saw the Aberdeen (...) deeply interested in the game. (...) aside he said, “What are you (...) old man? Don’t you know (...) brace game?” “Why, Great (...) know that,” was the reply, “but it’s the only game in town.”

Google Books
The Spenders;
A tale of the third generation

By Harry Leon Wilson
Boston, MA: Lothrop Pub. Co.
1902
Pg. 72:
“That’s like Billy Brue,” said Uncle Peter. “Billy loves faro bank jest as this gentleman loves (Pg. 73—ed.) New York. When he gets a roll he has to play. One time he landed in Pocatello when there wa’n’t but one game in town. Billy found it and started in. A friend saw him there and called him out. ‘Billy,’ says he, ‘cash in and come out; that’s a brace game.’ ‘Sure?’ says Billy. ‘Sure,’ says the feller. ‘All right,’ says Billy, ‘much obliged fur puttin’ me on.’ And he started out lookin’ fur another game. About two hours later the feller saw Billy comin’ out of the same place and Billy owned up he’d gone back there and blowed in every cent. ‘Why. you geezer,’ says his friend, ‘didn’t I put you on that they was dealin’ brace there?’ ‘Sure,’ says Billy, ‘sure you did. But what could I do? It was the only game in town!’”

13 December 1906, New York (NY) Times, “Topics in Wall Street,” pg. 13:
Certain groups of men, with unlimited resources, do things independently of their bankers, or in disregard of their counsels. A small number of people control the floating supply of stocks, and for want of anything more profitable to do they play with the professional element which will trade all the time and on any terms, as a man once played faro at a “crooked bank,” because it was the only game in town. The prevalent notion of the market as an affair arbitrarily controlled by a few powerful men appears in nine-tenths of financial comment. Stocks will not go down because the big people have them, and will not let them go down. They will go up because the men who have them will put them up to sell them to the public. The “right people” are doing this or doing that; the “right people” say this and so.

Google Books
February 1908, The American Magazine, “The Metropolis” by Upton Sinclair, pg. 375, col. 1: 
“God knows,” said the other, “I don’t I sometimes wonder myself. I guess it’s because I’ve nothing else to do. It’s like the story they tell about my brother—he was losing money in a gambling place in Saratoga, and some one said to him, ‘Why do you go there—don’t you know the game is crooked?’ ‘Of course it’s crooked,’ said he, ‘but it’s the only game in town!’”

Google Books
Fore!
By Charles E. Van Loan
New York, NY: George H. Doran Co.
1918
Pg. 18:
If you wonder why the club held together, you have only to recall the story of the cow-puncher whose friend beckoned him away from the faro layout to inform him that the game was crooked.

“Hell” said the cow-puncher. “I know that; but — it’s the only game in town, ain’t it?”

Google Books
The Metropolis
By Upton Sinclair
Pasadena, CA: Author
1923
Pg. 124:
“‘Of course it’s crooked,’ said he, ‘but damn it, it’s the only game in town!’”

15 October 1945, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), pg. 5, col. 4 ad:
Gambling kept him poor!
Canada Bill Jones was known as the cleverest three-card monte operator on the river, back in the heyday of the Mississippi’s floating palaces. But he stayed poor, because his passion for gambling was too great.

Marooned one night in a Louisiana village, Canada Bill searched everywhere before finding a faro game in the back room of a barber shop. After a few plays, his partner warned him that the game was crooked. “I know it,” Canada Bill replied, “but it’s the only game in town.”
("STANDARD OIL DEALERS’ 10 STAR FALL TUNE-UP”—ed.)

Google Books
Gambling in America:
An encyclopedia of history, issues, and society

Edited by William Norman Thompson
Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO,
2001
Pg. 205:
Jones, “Canada Bill”
“Canada Bill” Jones (1820-1877) was the master of three card monte in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Stories are told about characters in the gambling world, and some of the best are told about Canada Bill. When he was circulating through the South during the post-Civil War years conning people with his monte games and looking for any action, he found a poker game. As he entered the game he was warned that it was a crooked game. he responded simply, “I know, but it is the only game in town.” Certainly the same story has been told about other gamblers. It was quite likely to be true about Canada Bill, however, who in his lifetime won millions of dollars on his own specialty game. He then turned around and lost the money gambling in other games, usually poker and faro games.

The Big Picture
The Story of Canada Bill Jones
By Guest Author - September 29th, 2010, 1:04PM
(...)
While Canada Bill was a great hustler, he is reputed to have been a terrible and insatiable gambler. As the story goes Bill’s longtime partner, George Devol, stumbled across Bill losing his shirt in a clearly rigged poker game. George tried to convince Bill to quit the game, arguing he couldn’t possible win. Bill famously retorted “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town”. I called my dad last night to tell him I finally knew exactly how Canada Bill felt.

Sal Arnuk
Themis Trading LLC
10 Town Square, Suite 100
Chatham, NJ 07928
973-665-9600
AIM : SalTheBroker
http://www.ThemisTrading.com

CNBC
Stocks: The Only Game in Town?
Published: Thursday, 30 Dec 2010 | 6:28 PM ET
By: Tom Brennan
Web Editor, Mad Money
Cramer gets it—you don’t trust the market.

How can you, right? The most recent of crashes, in 2008, hurt much worse than the one that came before, in 2000, and it took down even those stocks outside the most affected sectors, i.e., the financials and techs, respectively.

And what about the “flash crash” in May 2010, where the Dow plummeted nearly 1,000 points in a matter of minutes because the exchanges computers broke down? Or the fact that, at times, it just seems like the whole investing game is rigged?
(...)
So even though you may hate the stock market, or feel “mistreated and abused by equities,” Cramer said, “you have to stay in the game, people. You can’t afford to spend the rest of your life on the sidelines.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBanking/Finance/Insurance • (0) Comments • Tuesday, February 08, 2011 • Permalink