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WW1 Lafayette Escadrille pilots and poker players

You know the guns are prone to jamming so you take great care to polish every round. People are already calling you an Ace, something brand new in reference to pilots, and you smile as you think about it. Of course, sometimes the smiles are hard to come by when you think about the horrific battles you’ve seen from the air and the danger you and your men experience every single time you take to the skies. On the other hand, there’s plenty of excitement back at the base, too. There’s alcohol flowing like a river and the boys are always up for a card game. Naturally, you have to play. If you’re the first ace that means you’re in luck, right?

World War I was called “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.” Unfortunately for the world, it didn’t end all wars and there have been a great many other wars where great sacrifice was made. From this time period, though, came certain cultural heroes and profound stories of courage and excitement and maybe none is quite as compelling as the tale of the Lafayette Escadrille, the French flying squad composed of volunteers from the United States who joined before their country entered the war. Their military exploits are legendary enough they were known as the Valiant 38. On the other hand, their rugged American individuality in many cases shocked and surprised our European allies.

Lion cub mascot for Lafayette Escadrille pilots and poker players
Whiskey, Poker, and Airplanes always go together

First of all, the American flyers were daring. They erred far more on the side of being too aggressive than too cautious. In addition, their backgrounds were wildly divergent so that eleven of the original thirty-eight were the sons of millionaires, some were college graduates, some had already joined the French foreign legion, and some were dubbed “rascals” by the others. By contrast, most French military officers had the same origins. One of the Americans went on to co-author Mutiny on the Bounty! To give you an idea about their attitudes, they bought two lion cubs as mascots and named them Whiskey and Soda. French officers at the time were put off by their constant poker and dice games, played to the sound of a steady stream of ragtime music.

Former Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley called the thirty-eight original pilots the “the founding fathers of American combat aviation.” Because they helped popularize poker in WW1 and that led to the growth of the game across the world and back in the States in the 1920s and 1930s, it wouldn’t be a mistake to call them the founding fathers of informal poker games. In fact, one of the men, Elliot Crowdon, was the first American to ever receive the French military honor Médaille Militaire. He was also such a skilled poker player that he grew unpopular with the squad because he won all their money!

The Lafayette pilots eventually transferred into the U.S. Army Air Service, newly created in 1918. Their legacy in aviation and popular culture can’t be overstated. There was a silent movie produced about their exploits, another movie in the 1950s and, of course, the recent box office flop Flyboys. Here at the Hangar Poker House, we’re excited about their specific cultural impact on the game we love, their poker legacy. Sure, a poker room in Houston isn’t as exciting as a European air station but at least the aces still fly.

About the Author

W.J. Wright played his first game of poker at the age of eleven. In the late eighties he started playing for money and hasn't looked back. You can usually find him hiding his hole cards while sipping scotch and considering which player and which hand will end up in his next writing project.

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