The origins of poker

Kat Martin
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Posted on November 30, 2021 12:22 am EST

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.

Featured image source: Library of Congress