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Poker: A Look at Its History

Gone are the days when poker was only a game for the underground world. This card game is now a mainstream pastime, greatly popularized from casinos big and small, to home parties, and even broadcasted in sports television.

How did it begin though? Well, knowing its history probably won’t help you be a better player. But for curiosity’s sake, let’s talk about the history of poker.

The game’s history, as well as the actual playing cards we know of today, is surrounded by a good deal of theories. That’s owed mostly to the fact that gaming is always present in different cultures in different times of history.

19th Century

R.F. Foster, in his book titled Foster’s Complete Hoyle (1937 ed.), claimed that the game is the Persian card game known before as As Nas. However, some historians specializing in gaming expressed counter-theories that the game is directly derived from As Nas. This is because evidence suggests that the French had a game that resembled poker and it was played in the region where poker was believed to have started. The game was titled poque. This game’s title was likely derived from the Irish word Poca (meaning pocket) or the French word poque, itself derived from the German word pochen, which means “to brag as a bluff” (literally “to knock”).

However, it is still not confirmed whether the game, as we know it today, has its origins with these games with those names. The game is also theorized to have shared roots with primero, a Renaissance game, and also with brelan, another French game. Brag, an English game, is clearly a descendant of brelan. Brag involved bluffing (though bluffing was already a concept known in other games of that time). There is a good possibility that the modern game we know in this age had influences from all these games.

There is a paradigm that disregards these origins completely because they direct their attention on the game’s card play. It is said to be trivial and probably derived from several games or built on general card play principles. Instead, the feature of the game which is unique is in the betting methods which were not present in older games. If this perspective is used, then the game’s origins are way later – estimated to be in the early to mid-18th century. From there, it expanded through travelers of the Mississippi River by the time 1800 arrived. The game is believed to be played in many different formats – using the full deck of 52 cards, including both the straight and stud varieties. The 20-card variant was used when there are only two players – the English commonly practice deck reduction for games of fewer players. The advancement and modifications for the game is related to the historical revolution that also led to the formation of commercial gambling.

Joseph Crowell, an English actor, claims that the game was conducted in New Orleans back in the year 1829 – using a 20-card deck, four players place bets according to who they think has the best hand. In the book by Jonathan H. Green, titled An Exposure to the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, the game’s spread from the said place was explained – the whole country got exposed to the game via riverboats traveling Mississippi. The travelers commonly pass time with gambling. From the Mississippi river, the game reached the Wild West at the time of the gold rush. The game is believed to be a component within the frontier pioneer ethos.

This expansion is followed by the use of the full deck (52 cards) and the introduction of the flush. Before 1850, the draw was added as it had its first printed mention in a handbook for games. When the American Civil War came, several additions came such as the straight and 5-card stud. More innovations came including the introduction of the wild card (estimated around 1875), the split-pot format, lowball, along with community card game variations.

20th Century

During the 1970s, the game saw a number of developments that pushed it towards popularity. In 1970, the World Series of Poker was introduced that led to the popularity of modern tournament play in casinos around America. These early tournaments produced some notable champions like Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Peggy Pearson, and Bobby Baldwin. In the later part of the 1970s, serious strategy guidebooks emerged. The most notable ones include works from Doyle Brunson, Mike Caro, and David Sklansky.

By the time the 1980s came, the game was portrayed widely on pop culture giving it a reputation as a conventional activity for recreation. The most popular example of this is perhaps in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the senior staff of the crew for the fictional ship gathered in at least 10 episodes for a game as their weekly event.

21st Century

The popularity of the game rose at an unexpectedly high rate in the early 21st century. The major contributor for this is the emergence of online gambling and the hole-card cameras as it turned the game to a spectator sport. People were able to watch the game or join a game from their own homes. Many people followed the broadcast of tournaments, creating a huge business for distributors of both satellite and cable TV. The pro players became celebrities and fans from different parts of the world joined professional tournaments with the objective of at least playing with them. The broadcasting of games also added a new element for the professional players, as they can gain insight from each other’s strategies by watching the games they participated in at a later time.

The tournament fields for the game expanded dramatically starting from the year 2003. Part of that is because of the rise of online qualifiers handing of a prize of a major tournament entry. Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, 2003 and 2004 World Series champions, respectively, entered through online satellite qualifiers.

In October of 2006, UIGEA was passed which caused a dip in the popularity of poker. But, it was only at first, as they continued to grow and as of today, the game is more popular than it was prior to 2003.