history of poker origins

The History of Poker and Its Possible Origins

history of poker origins

Poker has sustained mainstream popularity for going on 15 years now, but the history of poker origins is outside the common knowledge of most players.

If you’re a baseball fan, you know about Abner Doubleday – the inventor of baseball.

If you’re a golf nut, you know about the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, and the sport’s even-earlier Scottish pedigree.

But you’re a hardcore poker player. Why is it, more likely than not, that you don’t know anything about the history of poker?

Part of it is because the history of poker is indeed hard to pin down. Poker origin theories also depend on what you consider the fundamental element of poker: the gameplay, or the money. Both of those have very different beginnings.

Let’s start with the gameplay.

Where Did Poker Originate?

Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that poker was derived from a Persian game called as-nas. As-nas seems a likely origin of poker as we know it, but recently, historians have challenged the as-nas narrative. They point to other games as the most direct ancestor to modern poker, like:

  • Poque (France)
  • Poca (Ireland)
  • Brag (Britain)
  • Primero (Spanish, or possibly Italian)
  • Brelan (France, but a bit later)

Each game has their advocates as the true roots of the game, and each can stake a plausible claim in the question “where did poker originate?”

Brag, in particular, may have a case for two reasons:

  1. It comes from an English-speaking country
  2. They used antes

In its simplest form, betting would continue not for X number of rounds, but until only two players were left. The game typically was played with a 32-card deck, and each player was dealt three cards. Three of a kind, as you might imagine, was the best hand. So perhaps this is where poker started in terms of direct lineage.

What is As-Nas?

Let’s go back to as-nas for a moment, because it’s a pretty interesting game. There were only 20 cards were in an as-nas deck, and the five ranks, from highest to lowest, were:

  1. as (ace)
  2. shah (king)
  3. bibi (queen)
  4. serbaz (soldier)
  5. and the couli (dancer)

Each player got five cards, which meant that the whole deck was dealt out. The high hands were the same ones we use today, minus straights and flushes, and the best hand won.

history of poker origins as-nas deck

As-Nas deck from the Brooklyn Museum

There was betting in as-nas, but with no draws and no remaining cards to be dealt, it was purely an exercise in deciding whether to bet conventionally, or bluff.

There was even a form of straddling in as-nas, where you could bet before looking at your cards. You did this by declaring “Not seeing, I have seen.” (How badass is that?)

The creators of as-nas may have been who invented poker cards — in a very early form.

Some forms of as-nas had five suits instead of four, so 25 cards instead of twenty. Modern players of the game will replicate this by using five identical decks of modern cards and utilizing the 5 aces of hearts (for example), five kings of diamonds, five queens of spades, five jacks of clubs, and five jokers.

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History of Poker in the United States

Even though there were gambling elements to all of these games, historians are clearer about how poker became popular as a United States betting game. That goes hand and hand with the advent of riverboat gambling on the Mississippi River, and nearby areas, in the 1700s and 1800s. It’s here where we really start to see similarities between poker then, and poker now; not just in gameplay but in culture. This is the time when poker was invented as we know it.

In the gambling houses, saloons, and riverboats that dotted the Mississippi river at the time, they sometimes played with a deck of 20 cards (as with as-nas), and sometimes played a form with no draws; just straight-up best hand wins, after rounds of betting and raising (again, as with as-nas).

This is also where they started playing poker-as-we-sort-of-know-it with the 52-card deck as well. Specifically, stud. Stud has fallen behind hold’em (we’ll get to that later) and Omaha in popularity, but if you’re a stud player, you can say you appreciate the classics. They’ve been playing stud for going on over 200 years.

The History of Poker Culture

That covers gameplay, but what about this “culture” I speak of? Put simply, it is in those 1800s Mississippi River regions that poker became about the money.

Let’s be honest; as rich, detailed, and lovely as poker strategy is, the reason we play it is to separate our opponents from their cash. That’s not necessarily true for other strategy card games, such a euchre or bridge.

Poker, at this point, started being played at gambling houses and what we know today as casinos, and were marketed as a way for you to use your wile and smarts as a way to win money and best your fellow man.

A lot of the same people attracted to the riverboats and gambling houses up and down the river were also attracted to the prospect of prospecting – that is, they were part of the gold rush. So poker spread out West, and that’s why it became such a staple of Western saloons, and is one of the most enduring elements of Old West culture that we recognize today.

The Origins of Poker as We Know It

Over the course of the late 1800s, new hands were introduced (like straights and flushes) and new variations on play were also introduced (low-ball, wild cards, community cards of one type or another). However, from the demise of the Old West to the advent of the World Series of Poker in 1970, the game entered something of a holding pattern, neither significantly rising nor falling in popularity. The WSOP, however, caused one huge uptick in poker popularity, and online poker caused another one.

That’s where we find ourselves today, but the game of choice for more poker players than any other game is, of course, No Limit Texas hold’em. So where did THAT come from?

Who Invented Texas Holdem Poker?

Well, you’re not gonna believe this, but it comes from…Texas. A little town outside of Corpus Christi called Robstown is where the game was invented, around 1925 or so. That’s official: the Texas state legislature has recognized Robstown as the birthplace of the Cadillac of poker. In spite of this, details of the EXACT origins within Robstown are hazy and hard to come by. Its popularity spread all over Texas in fairly short order, but no further than that, for over forty years.

Texas is home to the poker legends you probably already are familiar with, like Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, and Doyle Brunson. They were there for those hold’em games popping up all over Texas, and they took their hold’em skills to the national limelight when hold’em finally arrived in Las Vegas, and it brought them fame and fortune.

But they weren’t responsible (at least not primarily) for bringing hold’em to Las Vegas and then the world. Two other instead were responsible for that key moment in the history of Texas Holdem: Crandell Adderley, and Benny Binion.

Crandell Adderley was yet another Texan and gambler who occasionally ran with Brunson and company. But in addition to seeing hold’em as a promising game of skill in and of itself, Adderley also saw a business opportunity in hold’em, entrepreneur that he was (I should say “is” – he’s still alive).

So Adderley started pitching the game around Las Vegas, describing it as “a thinking man’s game” with more strategy than the other, more common forms of poker being played.

He essentially got one casino to give it a shot – The Golden Nugget, in 1967. Hold’em had landed in Las Vegas. That was the good news…

..but the bad news was, The Golden Nugget was downtown, not on the legendary strip, so word was difficult to get out. Second, the casino did not have the greatest reputation at the time.

Two years later, hold’em finally made its way on to the strip, for a tournament at the Dune. The tournament was a big success, and caught the attention of Benny Binion.

Binion was also from Texas and had a huge, huge stake in Las Vegas as we know it today. He was also a mob boss with a criminal record a mile long. Perhaps you have heard of him. Anyway, by 1967, Binion had lost his gaming licenses, but was still a de facto Las Vegas heavy, with his businesses being run through his son Jack. Jack remained in good standing in the casino industry, and father and son were hugely impressed by the hold’em tournament they saw go down at the Dune.

How, then, were the Binions going to profit on this new poker game that more and more people wanted a piece of? The answer came a year later, when the Binions bought the Gambling Fraternity Convention. They changed the name of the convention to something more catchy, more universal: something that would catch the eye of more people. They knew “Gambling Fraternity Convention” sounds like an intimidating insider’s get-together that would have no time or patience for average Joes.

binions history of poker origins

Famous Binion’s Casino in Las Vegas (Photo by Ken Lund, flickr CC 2.0)

So they changed the name of the convention, and announced that hold’em, now known as “Texas hold’em” due to its roots, would be the centerpiece of the renamed shindig.

That new name? The World Series Of Poker.

History of Poker Online

After 1970, poker took off and stayed at least on the periphery of a lot of people minds thanks to the WSOP coverage at first on CBS and then on ESPN during the Stu Ungar years. By the mid-nineties, the internet had become commonplace. But it wasn’t until 1998 that a site offered real money poker play (although some people had played via IRC chat in years previous).

That site was planetpoker.com. They had a pretty fantastic start, and they took it seriously, employing Mike Caro as their spokesperson. But after a few years, they were run over by other poker sites. Today, planetpoker.com just lists the rules of poker with a stern graphic stating it is not a gambling site.

history of online poker origins planet poker

This is the whole website

After awhile, partypoker.com asserted itself as the #1 online poker site, with close competition from PokerStars, Full Tilt, and others. PokerStars in particular can lay claim to ushering in this new poker era because it’s where Moneymaker won his seat in the WSOP that he took down. Today, Poker Stars is the most heavily-traffic poker site, in spite of no longer accepting US customers.

Indeed, the majority of online poker sites do not accept Americans, thanks largely to “Black Friday,” on April 15th, 2011, when a U.S. lawsuit forced Poker Stars and other big name online poker rooms out of the U.S. market. Today, only a handful of sites still accept Americans, such as Ignition Poker and America’s Cardroom.

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with the history of poker. Now, go put in some hands!

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