The history of poker

Kat Martin
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Last updated: July 19, 2022 3:33 pm EDT

During much of its established history, most authorities assumed that the game of poker had an ancient and Persian origin. In 1895, for example, General Albert Houtum-Schindler had the following to say about the game of “As-Nas”:

“The game of As is exactly like Poker, but without any flushes or sequences. There are four players, and each player gets five cards, dealt to the right. The dealer puts down a stake. The first player then looks at his cards. If he “goes”, he says dîdam (I have seen), and covers the stake or raises it. If he does not wish to play, he says nadîdam, (I have not seen) and throws his cards. He may also “go” without looking at his cards – that is, in poker parlance, “straddle” – and says nadîd dîdam (not seeing, I have seen). The second player, if he wishes to play, must cover the stakes, and can also raise. The third player and the dealer then act in the same way just as in poker, and when the stakes of all players are equal and no one raises any more the cards are turned up and the player holding the best hand wins the stakes.”

Later work has cast doubt on this connection, compelling though it appears to be. In his tour de force “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker,” author James McManus provides a beautiful and comprehensive description of how the great game of poker evolved to its current, well-known form. The back jacket includes the following summary of part of the material included in the book’s nearly 600 pages:

“It describes how early Americans took a French parlor game and turned it into a national craze by the time of the Civil War.”

The parlor game in question is “poque,” and, like McManus, most modern historians of poker assert confidently that it is the forerunner of poker. For example, Loomis and Malmuth state in “The Fundamentals of Poker” that:

“When French colonists arrived to settle the Louisiana Territory in the 1700s, they brought poque with them.”

The association between poque and poker is a natural one based purely on the spelling and sound of the word, but is that sufficient to determine a clear ancestry?

Poch, Pochen, Poque

The history of poker on American shores is less murky than its earlier origins. We know, based on an account by the English actor Joseph Cowell, that a game called poker was being played in New Orleans in 1829. A stripped twenty-card deck was used, with four players betting on who held the strongest five-card hand. Since the area was settled by the French, the connection to poque is strengthened.

So what are the rules of poque? 

Fortunately, the game is still played today, predominantly in Germany, where it is known as poch or pochen. It boasts an impressively long history, being played in Strasbourg as early as 1441. Thus the next time you sit down at a poker table, you will be participating in a game that is nearly seven centuries old!

Except there’s a problem.

Beyond being played with standard playing cards, the modern game of poch has a somewhat tenuous connection to poker.

The first hole in the poch-to-poker narrative is readily apparent when one looks at the board (pochbrett) on which poch is played, an example of which is shown below.

Source: Wikipedia/Aineias

The strange contraption becomes more comprehensible when placed in the context of the rules of poch. These are lengthy, but roughly speaking can be broken into four phases. Initially, each player places a chip in each of the “pools” on the pochbrett. Cards are then dealt, with the final one being turned face up. The suit of this card determines the “pay suit.” The initial round of play sees players claim the chips they have won by virtue of holding a card corresponding to the pay suit.

The second round is the part of the play where the game feels something like poker. Players take it in turns to bet on the value of their hand. The only hands that have value are, in conventional poker terminology, quads, trips and pairs. Also like poker, bluffing is possible, so that if a bet drives out all other players, the bettor wins any chips bet. In principle it is possible for this phase to result in no net gain for the “winner,” since no blinds or antes are used.

There are chips left over however, in the central pool of the pochbrett. These are won in the final phase when cards are played in sequence, such that if a player leads the jack of hearts, it is followed by the queen of hearts, and so on. The player who discards their entire hand first takes the central pot.

Is a connection an origin?

It is clear that most poker historians are satisfied with an ancestral connection between one phase of the fascinating game of poch/poque and the modern game of poker. And the similarity in names certainly adds weight to the idea that it arrived on the shores of Louisiana by French settlers.

The unsatisfying part of this narrative, however, is that in terms of European card games (not to mention the Persian game of As-Nas), there are a multitude of related candidates that have far closer thematic links to poker, and do so without the elaborate pochbrett.

Most notably, the card-game family that includes the Spanish primera, the Italian primiera and England’s primero all seem to descend from a common Italian ancestor: the game of gilet. The ancestral tree can be projected forward to include games such as the English “brag,” which is still played and is essentially indistinguishable from a three-card variant of poker.

Given that the pochbrett does not include any features used in the pokeresque phase of gameplay, it is even possible that poch absorbed those elements later in its evolution. In which case, poch and poque may have provided a name for our great modern card game, but the concept and rules have an independent origin.

The history of Texas Hold’em

By most accounts, the game of poker made its way from Europe to America via immigrants, gaining mainstream popularity in the 19th century. It became a favorite pastime in small town saloons and on Mississippi River boats, making its way through Middle America and to the West along with settlers and adventurers.

Texas hold’em was a particular variant that originated in Texas as a spin on the classic form of seven-card-stud poker and five-card-draw poker. Most historians trace Hold’em back to Robstown, Texas in the early 20th century, as recognized by the Texas legislature

Poker players like Johnny Moss and Doyle Brunson traveled with the game from Texas to the further Wild West, landing in places like Nevada and California. As for Nevada, Felton “Corky” McCorquodale, now a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, introduced the game to the California Club there, where its popularity helped it spread to other Las Vegas casinos. 

Texas hold’em made its way to the World Series of Poker in 1971 through Benny and Jack Binion, who pushed for it to become a primary determinant of the best players. With most players in agreement, the Binions used the game as the basis of the WSOP Main Event

The popular variant held onto that position of honor, and eventually became the gold standard of poker tournaments from coast to coast. California card clubs soon adopted Texas hold’em, as did players across America looking for a standard variant.

How technology has shaped the way poker is played

Technology and specifically computers changed the face of poker in ways the Binions and others had probably never even imagined.

Computers in the 1990s featured something called IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which was the first form of online messaging. Through that innovation, developers began to incorporate games into computing, and poker was one of them. Chris Ferguson was one of many early adopters of online poker, which he initially accessed in a play-money format involving only virtual poker chips.

Planet Poker became the first company to take games to a real-money online poker site in 1998, dealing its first virtual poker hand on January 1 of that year.

Other sites like PartyPoker and PokerStars followed Planet Poker. Improvements in technology allowed those sites to introduce satellite tournaments that offered cheaper entries into larger tournaments. Satellites into live poker tournaments like at the World Series of Poker gained worldwide recognition when Chris Moneymaker won his WSOP Main Event seat for less than $100 on PokerStars, then won the tournament for $2.5M in 2003.

Moneymaker’s success catapulted online poker into the spotlight, and hundreds of poker sites subsequently launched around the world. This period of time during the 2000s became known as the poker boom.

Technology has changed nearly every aspect of poker through the years. Automatic card shufflers have increased the speed of live poker settings. E-wallets and cryptocurrency have introduced new ways to play online poker and transfer funds virtually. Educational and analytical poker software has provided the tools that let poker players improve their skills and create careers and businesses from their knowledge of the game. 

The future of poker

Even as online poker has opened the game to decades of possibilities and growth, legal barriers have stunted that growth to some extent. 

Countries around the world, including the United States, have put restrictions on real-money online poker by linking it to gambling. From the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) that ran many online poker operators out of the U.S., to similar laws in other countries, the online availability, licensing, and taxation of online poker have become contentious issues.

Some countries restrict online poker by using geolocation technology, as do some states in America. Online poker once connected players around the world via virtual poker tables, but laws in the past 15 years have decreased the game’s global reach.

At the same time, poker players have continued to improve their abilities through analysis and game theory. Basic poker strategy allows players to compete in poker, but younger players continue to develop enhancements that introduce more levels to their gameplay and improve their rankings. From HUDs to poker solvers, technology consistently expands the limits of the modern poker game.

The future of poker faces challenges from laws and those who want to capitalize on the game for profit. However, the game itself will continue to bring players together for competition and entertainment for decades and perhaps centuries to come.

Featured image source: Library of Congress