Gambling took many forms on riverboats. Gambling with one’s life with the boilers aside, there were sharks around willing to fleece the unsuspecting rube. As cities passed ordinances against gaming houses in town, the cheats moved to the unregulated waters of the Mississippi aboard river steamers.
There was also gambling with the racing of boats up the river. Bets were made on a favourite vessel. Pushing the boilers hard in races would also cause fires to break out on the wooden deck structures.
History Of Riverboat Gambling
One of the classic images of the American frontier era is that of the riverboat gambler.
In the early 19th Century, the Mississippi river provided an efficient method for transporting goods from state to state and so became a major center for trade. Since trade centers attract people with money, the Mississippi also attracted professional gamblers. At the time, a professional gambler was very often a card sharp, a cheat who manipulated cards to achieve their desired result.
Popular Online Casino Theme
Several Internet casinos today, especially the casinos accepting US players, use the classic riverboat theme to niche the casinos. However, you can still find several riverboat casinos in business in America – not just the replicas that can be found in Las Vegas hotels.
19th Century Riverboat Gambling
In 1835, five card sharps, no doubt caught in the act of card manipulation, were hanged in Mississippi. This understandably made other card sharps reluctant to spend too much time on dry land, and so many remained on the boats that carried traders from place to place, plying their trade on these riverboats in relative safety.
20th Century Riverboat Gambling
The first casino riverboat in the modern era appeared in Iowa in 1989. In the U.S., in the 20th Century, riverboat gambling served a very specific purpose. Since many states have laws that prohibit most types of gambling on dry land, gaming on the water has arisen as an alternative. Some riverboat casinos do not even go anywhere, but are rather docked a sufficient distance from the main land to avoid legal problems.
Riverboat Gambling Today
Modern riverboat casinos have games like blackjack and roulette and plenty of slot machines. These days, many even feature Texas hold’em tournaments, taking advantage of the 21st Century boom in interest in this poker game.
A card sharp (informally cardsharp, card shark, card snark or cardshark) is a person who uses skill and deception to win at poker or other card games. Sharp, Snark, or Shark appears to be interchangeable based on region and local dialect.
The label is not always intended as pejorative, and is sometimes used to refer to practitioners of card tricks for entertainment purposes. In general usage, principally in American English and more commonly with the “shark” spelling and much less frequently with “snark”, the term has also taken on the meaning of “expert card gambler who takes advantage of less-skilled players”, without implication of actual cheating at cards, in much the same way that “pool shark” or “pool hustler” can (especially when used by non-players) be intended to mean “skilled player” rather than “swindler”.
A card sharp/shark/snark (by either of the gambling-related definitions) may be a “rounder” who travels, seeking out high-stakes games in which to gamble.
 Etymology and usage
According to the prevailing etymological theory, the term “shark”, originally meaning “parasite” or “one who preys upon others” (cf. loan shark), derives from German Schorke/Schurke (“rogue” or “rascal”), as did the English word “shirk[er]”. “Sharp” developed in the 17th century from this meaning of “shark” (as apparently did the use of “shark” as a name for the fish), but the phrase “card sharp” predates the variant “card shark”. The original connotation was negative, meaning “swindler” or “cheat”, regardless of spelling, with the more positive connotations of “expert” or “skilled player” arising later, and not supplanting the negative ones. “Card sharp” and “card shark” are synonymous, although American English is somewhat, but informally, beginning to favor “shark” as a positive term versus “sharp” as a negative one. (However, not even all American dictionaries agree with this, and some suggest the opposite.)
 In popular culture
- The Lady Eve (1941)
- The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
- The Sting (1973)
- Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
- The Prestige (2006), the supporting role of the magician in Falcon’s show was played by Ricky Jay, a world-renowned card sharp
- Rounders (1998)
- Shade (2003)
- 21 (2008)
- The Princess and the Frog (2010)
- Stage magician and actor Harry Anderson (of Night Court fame) made several appearances on Cheers as card sharp “Harry the Hat”.
- In an episode of Friends, Ross was debating with his doppelgänger Russ about the correctness of the term “card shark” vs. “card sharp”.
- A Homicide: Life on the Street episode, titled “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song” (season 7, episode 103), features the homicide investigation of a woman who made a living as a card sharp, but whose gambling on other games sank her into substantial debt, with dire consequences for herself and her extended family.
- On Mission: Impossible, members of the Impossible Missions Force (particularly Rollin Hand), would often use their card sharp skills as part of a mission.
- In Prison Break, the character Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell is an expert card sharp, who says, “there are maybe five people in this country who can do what I do with a deck of cards.” T-Bag uses this skill successfully in the episode “Bluff“.
- Sanford and Son featured an episode wherein card sharps defeated Lamont at poker. Fred was able to defeat the card sharps and win Lamont’s money back.
 Video games
- The antagonist Luxord, of Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts II, is a gambler who fights with dice and cards, and uses card tricks as the majority of his attacks.
- In League of Legends, the champion Twisted Fate is a card sharp.
- ^ a b Harper, Douglas (2001). “Online Etymology Dictionary search results”. EtymOnline.com. pp. entries “shark” & “sharp”. Retrieved 2007-07-08. – gives the negative meaning only, for both
- ^ a b Hawkins, Joyce M. (ed.); Allen, Robert (ed.) (1991). The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary (hardback ed. ed.). New York: Clarendon Press. pp. 1334. ISBN 0-19-861248-6. – gives only the negative meaning for both; labels negative verb “to sharp” archaic.
- ^ a b c d Chapman, Robert L. (ed.) (1983). New Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 380. – gives both positive and negative meanings for both “shark” and “sharp”, labels them synonymous in this context, and indicates that positive sense of “shark” arose much later than the negative meaning, and later than it did for “sharp”
- ^ Partridge, Eric (1983). Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House. pp. 614. ISBN 0-517-414252. – gives only negative meaning for “shark”, and gives “sharper” as synonymous, without addressing the shorter form “sharp”
- ^ a b c McKechnie, Jean L. (ed.) (1971). Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 274, 1668. ISBN 0-671-41819-X. – gives both meanings for both terms and even for the obsolete “sharker”, but provides only the swindler definition for “card sharp” and both definitions for the “card shark” version, thus contradicting itself at the “sharp” entry
- ^ Onions, C.T. (ed.) (1994). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (hardback ed. ed.). New York: Oxford at the Clarendon Press. pp. 817. ISBN 0-19-861112-9. – gives only the negative meaning for both “shark” and “sharp”
- ^ Weekley, Ernest (ed.); Scott, Anne (ed.) (1911). New Gem Dictionary of the English Language. London: Collins. pp. 418. – current around time that “shark” gained a positive sense, gives only negative meaning for both
- ^ Kipfer, Barabara Ann (ed.); Princeton Language Institute (eds.) (1999). Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (Second Ed. (paperback ver.) ed.). New York: Dell Publishing. pp. 306, 786. ISBN 0-440-23513-8. – gives both meanings for both
- ^ “Dictionary.Reference.com search results”. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Lexico Publishing Group. 2007. pp. “sharp” dfn. 36 & 37, “shark” dfn. 2-1 & 2-2. Retrieved 2007-07-08. – gives both meanings for both, with negative meaning being primary for both, positive meanings informal
- ^ Soukhanov, Anne H. (sr. ed.) (1994). Webster’s II: New Riverside Dictionary (hardback ed. ed.). Boston: Riverside Pub. Co.. pp. 1072. ISBN 0-395-33957-X. – gives both for “shark”, only negative for “sharp” and “sharper”
- ^ Guralnik, David B. (ed.) (1982). Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (Revised) (Revised Ed. (paperback ver.) ed.). New York: Warner Books. pp. 547. ISBN 0-446-31450-1. – gives both for “shark”, only negative for “sharp”
- ^ “American Heritage Dictionary of the English language (online Fourth Ed.)”. Bartleby.com. Houghton Mifflin. 2000–2006. pp. “sharp” dfn. noun 3 & “shark” dfn. noun 2. Retrieved 2007-07-08. – gives both meanings for both, with positive being primary for “sharp” but negative for “shark”