Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Who’d’a “Tunk” It? - How a Yale Researcher Helped Discover that Yale Freshmen Invented Strip Poker in 1904

“Strip poker” was invented (or at least popularized) by reports of Yale University freshmen playing the game in 1904.  Appropriately enough, a Yale researcher’s discovery of the earliest known example of “strip poker” in print (from Los Angeles in 1906) prompted the discovery of its origins two years earlier at Yale.

In October 2019, Fred Shapiro, a Yale Librarian and leading contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary,[i] posted a message on the American Dialect Society’s e-mail discussion list (ADS-L) with what is believed to be the earliest example of “strip poker” in print, from Los Angeles in 1906. 

The chorus girls of one of the last comic-opera companies which visited Los Angeles introduced the young bloods to a new fascinating game called “strip poker.”  The introductory game took place in one of the private rooms of the Bisbee Inn.

The cards are held by the young men.  The girls sit by to watch.  At the end of every hand, all the girls whose young men have lost, proceed to remove the one article of wearing apparel.

The game continues until – well, for a long time.

Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1906, page 17.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the game was not indigenous to Southern California and had no relationship to Hollywood “starlets,” moguls or casting agents, as the Hollywood film industry was not yet in existence.  The game was an import and the first local game took place at the Bisbee Inn, a “notorious”[ii] saloon in downtown Los Angeles that billed itself as the “Headquarters for Arizona folks.”[iii] 

A few years later, the Bisbee Inn changed owners and its name.  When the new owners brought in additional investors for the renamed St. George Hotel, they neglected to tell them about the building’s seedy history and reputation, which became an issue in a lawsuit.[iv]  Today, a building bearing the same name (the St. George Hotel) sits at the same address (115 E. Third Street).[v]  No word on whether strip poker is still played there.

Although “strip poker,” by that name, may have been new in Los Angeles in 1906, it was not the first time someone had played cards with clothing as the stakes. 

Shortly after Fred Shapiro posted the earliest example of “strip poker,” Garson O’Toole, the “Sherlock Holmes of quotation sleuths,”[vi] shared some references to the ADS-L, of an apparent precursor, a gambling card game called “strip tunk,” played by “co-eds” and high school students in Kalamazoo, Michigan two years earlier.

Kalamazoo co-eds are devoting their spare moments to “strip tunk” – a game similar to poker, with the main feature a gradual taking off of clothing by the loser of each hand.  The game is also played in local high school circles, and has reached such prevalence that school authorities are planning a campaign against it. . . .

In “strip tunk” the loser of each hand divests herself of one article of clothing.  After several hours the party usually resembles a garden of Eden social event.  At a recent party of which “strip tunk” was a feature the finish turned on the last articles divested – one participant wearing a union suit, the other separate garments, the union suit wearer losing by one point.

The True Northerner (Paw Paw, Michigan), May 6, 1904, page 6.

But once again, the co-eds of Kalamazoo were not the first people to play cards for clothes.  Garson O’Toole’s contribution led another researcher (you're welcome) to discover that just a few weeks earlier, newspapers across the country had carried stories about gambling for garments at Yale University.  The New York Sun gave the game by the more innocent-sounding name of “pajama poker,” but the game was the same as what would later be called “strip poker.”

Freshmen Who Lose Must Leave Their Clothes With the Winners.

New Haven, Conn., April 4. – It was learned to-day why many Yale students during recent weeks have mysteriously dashed out of Pierson Hall[vii] dormitory at all hours of the night with hardly enough clothing on to cover their limbs and disappear in a nearby building where they room.

Some of the freshmen who room in Pierson Hall have adopted a new penalty for those who lose in the poker games that are played by the freshmen.  Instead of playing for money they stake their clothes, putting so much value on each garment.  The game ends only when the first freshman has put up everything but his stockings.  There is a pajama outfit in the room that he dons and then he goes home, leaving every stitch of his clothing behind.  Next day he comes back after the clothes.

The Sun (New York), April 5, 1904, page 12.

Buffalo Evening News, April 5, 1904, page 1.

Buffalo Times, April 5, 1904, page 10.

In the following days, weeks and months, similar headlines and stories appeared in dozens of newspapers in no fewer than fourteen (of 45) states, one territory (Arizona) and the District of Columbia.  The Kalamazoo co-eds, who made their own headlines a few weeks later, may have been inspired by the notoriety of the Yale “Freshies.” 

Not to be outdone by the young students out East, the “society ladies” of Ottawa, Kansas were playing “strip euchre” a few months later.

The society ladies of Ottawa are enthusiastically playing a new game called strip-euchre.  The player takes off a stickpin, collar or other article of apparel every time she loses.  It is doubtless all right if not carried too far.

Ottawa Daily Republic (Ottawa, Kansas), August 17, 1904, page 6.

It is impossible to say how widespread the game in subsequent years.  But it appears to still have been considered novel in 1906 when the chorus girls of the comic-opera introduced “strip poker” at the Bisbee Inn in Los Angeles. 

By 1923, “strip poker” had become ubiquitous enough that a reporter noted, “of course everybody has heard about ‘strip poker.’”  But it took a bunch of Ziegfeld “Follies” chorus girls to introduce the game of “strip golf.”[viii]

And for anyone who didn’t run across the game in their own lives, numerous divorce actions and one widely reported wrongful dismissal action kept “strip poker” in the headlines throughout the 1920s; it was, after all, the “Jazz Age” – the “Roaring ‘20s.”

Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1925, page 22.

 Claire Deerfield, a former ballet dancer and young wife of an industrial dyeing magnate, claimed she visited the home of a wealthy broker at 2 a.m. to feed his dog.  She also admitted that, “on another occasion she fed the kitty in strip poker game, losing shoes, belt, blouse . . . and string of beads.”[ix]  She was found innocent, despite the admission – “nothin’ to see here.”

New York Daily News, February 8, 1929, page 3.

 In other cases, results were mixed. 

San Francisco Examiner, March 28, 1925, page 15.

Montana Standard (Butte, Montana), March 14, 1929, page 10.

 A widely reported wrongful termination case presented a twist.  Two young women were fired from their jobs as teachers in Kansas for playing “strip poker,” but stripping wasn’t the problem; the case hung on the strictly legal question of whether “strip poker” constituted gambling.[x]

Windsor Star (Windsor, Ontario), June 8, 1927, page 1.

Everything came full-circle nearly a century later, when a Yale researcher’s discovery of the earliest example of “strip poker” in print prompted others to uncover the game’s origins at Yale.

Just one more thing for Yalies to be proud of . . . even more so than another Yale brush with Ziegfeld Follies chorus girls fame, when they won the pogo-stick races in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics to make up for losing the big game to Harvard earlier in the week.  See my earlier piece, “Hopping Stilts and Chorus Girls - a History and Etymology of "Pogo" Sticks”.

“Yale just had to win something last week.  It was the final heat in the ‘Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic’s’ pogo race.  If one’s life insurance is paid up and there’s plenty of liniment in the pantry, we suggest this as a breakfast teaser.”  New York Tribune, November 27, 1921, page 45.

Chorus Girl, Geneva Mitchell in her Yale “Y” sweater - The Morning Tulsa Daily World, March 26, 1922.

[i] Fred Shapiro is Associate (Library) Director for Collections and Access and Lecturer in Legal Research at Yale Law School. He is also the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, as well as many other books, and has been recognized as the leading contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. He holds a J.D. from Harvard University, an M.S.L.S. from the Catholic University of America, and an S.B. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
[ii] Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1906, page 13.
[iii] Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1905, page 3.
[iv] “What’s In a Name? Much to These Investors,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1912, part II, page 2.
[vi] Garson O’Toole is the author of Hemingway Never Said That and The Quote Investigator website ( From a review of his book: “Garson O’Toole is the Sherlock Holmes of quotation sleuths, and Hemingway Never Said That provides an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look into his case files. A thoroughly enjoyable book on its own, and an essential reference work for those who take their quotations seriously.” —Dr. Mardy Grothe, author of Metaphors Be With You.
[vii] The Pierson Hall dormitory is distinct from what is now Pierson College.  Pierson Hall, located on York Street between Chapel and Elm where the western edge of Memorial Quadrangle now stands, opened in 1896 and closed in 1917. Report of the President of Yale University for the Academic Year 1902-1903, pages 84-86.  In 1904, it housed almost exclusively freshmen.  Pierson College, located a block away on the other side of York, opened in 1933.
[viii] San Francisco Examiner, May 6, 1923, “The American Weekly” supplement, page 3.
[ix] New York Daily News, January 19, 1929, page 1.
[x] The distinction is reminiscent of the old joke about Baptists who refuse to have sex standing up because it might lead to dancing.

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