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The Complete History of Poker

Written by Jason Frakk. Last updated on

The origins of poker are shrouded in mystery and burdened by disagreements.

What can be said with fair certainty, is that no one aspect can be attributed to the “birth” of poker.

Rather, it is an accumulation of cultures, games and ideas.

Early concepts of betting or bluffing type games can be found as early as 900 AD; specifically, Emperor Mu-Tsung and his adaptation of Chinese Dominoes.

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are Dominoes the first betting game?

Dominoes, as you may know, is not played on cards but tiles. They even use other material, such as bone or shells, at the time. While cards themselves may or may not be present, it is the first appearance of betting in history.

It is also rumored that certain royals during this era played with domino cards, in which leaves were used as the cards.

The role of betting in a game is not enough for some historians though. They say that cards, as well as betting and bluffing, need to be intrinsic in the game as well.

is a Persian Card game the Origin of poker?

From the top: As (Ace), Shah (King), Bibi (Queen) Serbaz (Soldier) and Couli (Dancer)

Historians speculate that a more fitting beginning to poker was As Nas.

As Nas is a Persian game consisting of 20 cards with 5 ranks. They often are on tile or tortoise shells and are hand painted.

The game included familiar elements, such as, the Ace, King and Queen ranks. In fact, betting and bluffing was at the core of this strategy game.

This satiates many critic’s desire for a more well-rounded similarity to modern day poker.

The hands mirror a lot of the hands we know today: high card, pairs, trips and quads. The exception to this is that the game lacked flushes and straights.

In order to win, you had to be dealt the best combination of cards.

There were no draws or additional cards, the entire deck was dealt out.

You would simply bet or bluff on what you had in your hand and hope for the best.

While it is doubtful that our western idea of poker comes specifically from the Eastern game of As Nas, it is easy to see similarities.

Did the french invent the game?

What is more likely and directly linked to our idea of poker today, is the game of poque, which was developed in France.

There were similar versions in Germany, Spain, and Italy as well.

The reason poque is a stronger contender is due to the influx of French settlers into North American in the 1800s.

Where the French got the idea is, like the rest of poker history, up for speculation. There are some crucial factors to take into consideration though.

The French could easily have taken bits and pieces from other cultures. The French were quite enthralled with other cultures at this time. It was the “in thing” to be sporting Egyptian style garb or furniture, for example.

Another thing to note, was that cards were an extremely popular past time for the French during the late 1700-1800’s.

Napoleon was campaigning to many different countries at this time, and his soldiers would bring back ever popular cultural influences.

I’m sure we can all attest to the power of a fade spreading like wild-fire. So it is a possibility that the game of poque was influenced by some of the eastern invasions.

However, no one can say for sure.

Regardless of how or where the spark of an idea came for this game, it became popular and was taken to North America.

Louisiana as the Possible Birthplace

With the purchase of Louisiana by the US from France in 1803, the two cultures were able to mingle freely.

Louisiana at the time was a massive chunk of land located in the middle of the United states, so it’s easy to see how the game spread so easily.

There are two other main reasons that the game extended the way it did: riverboats, and the gold rush.

Riverboats were essentially gambling establishments before there were casinos and the like.

French settlers frequented these riverboats, and there, they would teach Americans the fine game of poque.

The name was often mispronounced by English speakers as, you guessed it, poker and this is where we get the true beginnings of our beloved game.

With the gold gush making a name for itself, the country was swimming with new riches, and of course, mines.

Another hot spot for these alluring card games were mining saloons, where people would spend their freshly acquired wealth, hoping to double, triple or quadruple their gains.

The excitement of fresh wealth bulldozed old preconceptions of betting and bluffing.

The game of poque was adapted to satiate the desire for bigger pots and more chances of winning.

It is from here more cards were given to players (from 3 to 5) and the chance to draw again came into play.

The Poker revolution in the american civil war

Around the time of the American Civil war, 1861-1865, the whispers of our very own poker game were being uttered.

Five-stud poker is one the first poker games America can call it’s own, and one that you can clearly see the game of poker as we know it today.

Five-stud poker is still played today, although not as widely as it once was.

It consists of bets, raises and bluffing. Unlike more well known styles of poker played today, only one card was face down, hidden from your opponent.

You had 4 cards showing, so if you were going to bluff, you had better bluff well.

Now that poker was catching on, this new way of gambling started to etch its way across the landscape.

New Orleans, thanks to John Davis, was one of the first to open its very own gambling den.

It was open 24 hours for the pleasure of its citizens.

His success would spawn imitators, and gambling dens trickled through the city. Soon it was a haven for risk seekers, gamblers, and travelers looking for excitement.

New Orleans was filled with saloons, dancing girls and a fine array of music, food and booze.

The wealth and commotion of the city drew in a different sort of crowd as well, those looking to take full advantage of this explosive trend.

the rise of poker celebrities

It’s at this time in our history that we get our first glimpse of poker celebrities. In order to be a poker professional during these crazy, wild-west days, it took much more than being good at cards.

You had best be able to put on a show as well.

Many popular card players, or cardsharps, were an excellent shot and had a magnetic personality.

Many were known to be con artists, good at slight-of-hand, and other forms of cheating in order to win.

Some notorious men from these times are known to us because of popular culture.

Names such as, Wild Bill Hickok, and Doc Holiday.

Their deceitful ways may have been frowned upon, but it was largely due to them and their boisterous style that poker became so popular.

As more and more people became attracted by the “New Frontier” more and more saloons opened, mainly in river ports.

Soon San Francisco would take New Orleans’s spot as the Gambler’s city.

It is also largely due to the gold rush that these dens would spread to the interior and across America.

from classic to modern

The game of poker makes a slow but steady climb into popularity, with different variations and rules making their way into the game.

Wild cards were added around 1875, but one of the more notable changes was the creation of Texas Hold’em in the town of Robstown, Texas.

Simply called hold’em at the time, it quickly became extremely popular in the town of its origin.

Like much of poker, the exact how, where and who of the game is foggy, but we do know it was created in the early 20th century and took about 70 years to ever hit a casino.

At this point Las Vegas is now, and still is, the hub of gambling activity so its an obvious choice for Hold’em to make its way there.

Although it started off in the Golden Nugget, which is off the main strip and was known as a rather seedy place, it did manage to take off.

Eventually the game was brought to The Dune, a casino on the main strip with a much better reputation. A tournament was held in their lobby and it was then that the game sparked interests and started to rise in popularity.

The world series

The next massive milestone in poker history was the birth of The World Series of Poker. Created in 1970 by father and son duo Benny and Jack Binion. The Binion’s Horseshoe held the first WSOP tournament.

Benny Binion, the father, was a notorious mobster and a heavy gambler and his interest in poker was peaked from the tournament of Hold’em he saw played at the Dune, and was looking for new ways to profit from this exhilarating high-stake game.

While Benny’s name was sullied from his connection with the mob and he had lost his gambling license, Jack’s name was still in good standing with the Casino industry, so he was the current owner of the Binion’s Horseshoe.

With that pillar in place, the Binions bought out what was called the Gambling Fraternity Convention and renamed it to The World Series of Poker.

The name change was an obvious choice as the Gambling Fraternity Convention sounds like an elite secret society rather than a series of poker games where all were welcome; if you’re willing to put your money down that is.

The first couple of years boasted less than 100 people, but eventually word spread and the number of people playing increased.

Texas Hold’em has been the main event of this series ever since the second year in 1971 and remains a huge draw for those looking to participate, and spectate.

Over the next ten or so years poker would remain inside of casinos and homes with little notable changes.

poker as emerging culture

The most significant thing to happen was the game of poker’s appearance in a wildly popular TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It became a meaningful part of the show. Due to the fanaticism of the show, it was noticed by the population.

More and more people were learning the game.Upon playing it, they concluded that it was clearly the cool thing to be doing.

Despite, and also because of this trend, poker would finally make its way into the online world.

In 1994, a popular chat room site, known as IRC, would introduce the first online poker game room.

It was extremely complex to the average person and required some knowledge of the technical side of things in order to enter commands and so on.

Because of this the user base tended to be, excuse my crude wording, but on the nerdier side.

These early games were not technically for money but certain users did find their own way of making the stakes real.

Some would bet their play money, and give it real value, agreeing to meet up in person or other ways, and pay up when all was said and done.

Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, was one of the most well known players to make his start in this IRC, online poker world.

the start of online poker

It wouldn’t be long before online poker became more user friendly, and for real money. Planet Poker made its online debut in 1998.

Created by Randy Blumer, and endorsed by popular poker player Mike Caro, Planet Poker would be the start of a truly phenomenal trend.

Although small in size at its creation, the fact that you could play for real money, without the complexity and risk of meeting up in real life, was a massive draw for players.

Pj’s and poker was an enticing concept.

Bugs riddled Planet Poker and the scope was limited, as you could only play Texas Hold’em. Soon a new heavy weight would enter the ring.

Paradise Poker would very rapidly take over as king pin in the online poker world. It was a smoother system with more options such as Omaha and 7 card stud.

Paradise Poker’s popularity is surrounded in conspiracy though. On the day of its launch, Planet Poker just so happened to have a massive and long lasting outage. They are pulling people towards Paradise Poker for their poker needs.

Media coverage at the time chalks it up to merely a coincidence but one cannot help but notice the suspicions behind it.

Regardless of how or why Paradise Poker became popular, it wouldn’t last long. Soon, multiple contenders would join the battle.

Examples include: Ultimate Bet, Party Poker and Poker Stars.

Increasing online presence

Party Poker was a notable adversary at this time. They had aggressive advertising, including commercials, and would remain on top until 2006 when they would leave the market.

Party Poker was the first site to introduce a million dollar (US$) guaranteed online poker tournament, launched in 2002.

In the early days of online poker, before 2003, it was difficult to find a full room.

You would spend a lot of time waiting in order to start a game.

Poker sites needed a way to counteract this delay, so companies would hire what is known as, prop players. The name itself gives a pretty good hint as to what they do.

They would be paid to play in real money games.

Once the table was full and active, they would leave.

They will start the process all over again in another empty room.

This helped to keep the ball rolling and maintain player interest. No one wants to sit around waiting for hours on end just to play a hand.

In addition to prop players, there was also another method used to keep around the clock games going, which was more of a lure affect.

Poker sites would have a number of free to play games rolling at any given time, and they would hype the launch date of a real-money tournament during these free to play games.

Hopefully, and often, a high enough percentage would make the switch, unable to resist the attraction of making real money.

So, when did online poker become the sensation it is today, with no need for prop players and lure affects? It happened in 2003 with the start of satellite tournaments.

satellite tournaments

Satellite tournaments were tournaments where the prize was a seat in The World Series of Poker’s main event. The buy-in was usually worth around $10,000.

From here, we get what is colloquially called, the “Moneymaker Effect”.

Chris Moneymaker, (yes this is actually his last name – huge marketing win), was one of the first people to win one of these online satellite tournaments where he would go on the win the World Series of Poker.

His win from such a humble start gave online poker an extraordinary boost.

Now average joes, such as Chris, could make big money with the right combination of skill and luck. All they had to put down was 40 bucks.

It’s in the early 2000’s that Poker starts to make a ruckus in the televised world because The World Series of Poker has now become a spectator sport – it’s not for just the players anymore.

People like Tom Dawn become the poster boy for average joes making it big. With his looks and personality at the table, he helped create the belief that people can make a living playing poker. And that with as little as 40$ at an online poker site.

This idea then produces a rush of adrenaline in the population and you start seeing commercials, websites, books, and variations on tournaments pop up everywhere.

From this sensation, poker icons start to emerge; people are uttering names like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey everywhere.

They help to create a show worth watching with their antics and skilful plays; it’s not just about the game anymore, people watch, to watch them.

Eventually celebrities such as, Gabe Kaplan and Jennifer Tilly make televised poker and even bigger splash.

Now poker is in its full swing

Online poker rooms are bursting and tournaments and pubs are showing games throughout the day; it’s hard to avoid the apps, shows, and massive advertising plastered around town.

When it comes to the history of poker and its emergence into our society, its in the 2000’s where we can literally see the impact of poker popularity. Buut it’s also evident that poker has been popular since it’s creation, whenever one may think that was.

It just took some time, travel and technology to make it what it is today.

A world-wide sensation that any one can partake in. Obviously, the better you are, the better you’ll do.However, essentially anyone can enjoy the game in some form or another.

Whether it’s free to play at a local community function or online, to participating in tournaments at casinos or The World Series of Poker; there is a poker game for everyone – let’s play.

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