History of Poker, King of the Card Games

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A Brief History

On November 13, 2019, we celebrate “Lucky 13” by telling the history of the card game, Poker, a game that enjoys widespread popularity and comes in so many forms it would be difficult to explain all the different games.  In 1937, R. F. Foster wrote: “the game of poker, as first played in the United States, five cards to each player from a twenty-card pack, is undoubtedly the Persian game of As-Nas.”  Ah, but more recent historians, including David Parlett, that study the origins of poker have concluded that Mr. Foster was wrong!  They claim poker evolved more recently, in the early 19th Century to become the monster recreational gambling game that it is today.

Digging Deeper

Often depicted being played by cowboys in saloons in the Wild West of America’s frontier, a famous instance of poker associated with the Wild West occurred in Deadwood, South Dakota (then the Dakota Territory), in 1876.  Wild Bill Hickock was an avid practitioner of the art of card playing and gambling, and was famous for normally sitting with his back to a wall, facing the entrance and main floor of the room he was playing in so as not to be surprised if any of his many enemies should enter the establishment with the aim of doing him harm.  On the fateful night of August 2, 1876, Bill took a seat with his back to the room, reluctantly we expect, because no other player would relinquish their own seat with its back to the wall.  It just so happened that on that particular night, assassin Jack McCall came up behind Wild Bill and shot the famous gunslinger dead.  Wild Bill was holding a pair of aces and a pair of 8’s, thus forever giving the hand “Aces and Eights” the nickname, “Dead Man’s Hand.”

While poker spread to become a mainstay of popular card games, it was in the 1970’s that the popularity of poker really took off.  Major casinos started holding well publicized tournaments and the World Series of Poker began, first held in 1970.  While Americans dominated the early years of the World Series of Poker, champions have hailed from many other countries since 1990.  The winning prize for 1970 was a mere $30,000, a token payout compared to the more recent prizes of $8 to $12 million!  Since 1970, major poker tournaments have become fan favorites, and many celebrities have participated, some with considerable success.  (See this link for a list of celebrity poker players.)  Poker rewards players with brains, and the best brains playing poker win the most money.

Casual players at home dealing stud, draw, or straight poker probably know all sorts of variations of those games, while more avid card players that frequent local casino nights, illicit events, and commercial casinos probably know even more games and variations.  A popular style of poker that has taken the card playing world by storm is Texas Hold ‘em, a game designed to create large pots, upping the excitement of the game.  Other poker variations stretch the definition of poker itself, such as Acey-Deucey and Red Dog, as well as 3 Card Poker.

The easing of gambling laws in the United States has greatly expanded the allure of poker games at the casinos that have popped up all over the country.  No longer do those seeking casino action have to travel to Nevada.  Atlantic City, Indian Reservations, and then various states followed with casinos galore.

Another major development in the world of poker was the adaptation of poker to video/electronic format, so that a player could play against a computer program instead of other people.  Taking things even further, online poker was invented and developed, becoming another popular form of “card” playing.  As the internet evolved, online poker first appeared in the early 1990’s, quickly picking up popularity. The reversal of interpretation of the Interstate Wire Act in 2011 instantly made online poker legal in Nevada or other states that chose to allow such activity, and that state saw the introduction of Ultimate Poker in 2013, the first regulated online poker site.  Thus, Nevada became the first US State where players could legally play online poker for money within the state.  Other states followed, and in 2018 the states of Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware joined in a 3 state compact to allow the pooling of players and games.  In fact, various online poker sites have a world-wide revenue of billions of dollars.

Poker is played over a lunch table at work between as few as 2 players, or in enormous casinos by rich and poor alike.  Back when this author was a Teamster, we had a coffee machine at work which had a poker hand on each coffee cup, allowing us to “play poker” with each other just by buying a cup of coffee!  Almost everyone has access to online poker, even if you do not have friends to play with at home, or cannot travel to a casino.  Depending on the source, poker has been described as the “most popular card game in the world.”  We can see why!

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite poker game?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

De Toffili, Dario. The Big Book of Poker: In-Depth Knowledge for Winning Strategies. Duncan Baird Publishers, 2018.

Hardin, Alton. Fundamentals of Exploitative Online Poker: Learn to Exploit Your Opponents Through HUD Stats, Player Tendencies and Table Selection. Amazon Digital Services, 2015.

McManus, James. Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry drinking alcohol and playing cards in front of tents, is in the public domain because it is a mere mechanical scan or photocopy of a public domain original, or – from the available evidence – is so similar to such a scan or photocopy that no copyright protection can be expected to arise. The original itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.  This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpb.03882.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.