History of the Poker Game

The history of the Poker game is much debated and not all Poker historians agree. Hundreds of years ago we couldn’t have possibly known that our ancestors would want to know every single detail of why a Poker game was played in a particular way, why a Poker game evolved from 20 cards to 52 cards, when and why a Flush or Straight was added as a Poker hand.

Our Poker playing ancestors had no idea we’d want those details. For them it was simply a fun game of cards and somewhere along the way, someone decided to make a change much as you might in your own game room playing cards with friends. A couple of beers and the dealer says, “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we switch it up a bit and make the Jokers wild?” The rosy-faced card players all agree and the next thing you know, you’re playing Jokers Wild.

The variation catches on and the next thing you know everybody wants to play Jokers Wild. Nobody keeps a record of how a Poker variation comes into existence and centuries later, all we can do is try to piece together what might have happened and when. We can never know for sure.

Some credit the French for bringing the Poker game into what is now called New Orleans back in 1480. The French card game was called Poque (pronounced “Poke”), which as you can see is a word very similar in sound to Poker. The Poque card game was played with 20 cards from tens through aces and included betting and bluffing, just like the original New Orleans card game Poker.

Others believe that the French game Poque may have evolved from an even older German card game. The German game went by many names including Bock, Bocken, Boeckels, Bogel, Poch, Pochen (meaning to bluff or brag), and Pochspiel. You can see the similarities in names: Poque/Poker, Pochen/Poker, Pochen/Poque, Bock/Poque, Poch/Poque. It’s not a big stretch to see an evolution from Poch to Poque to Poker.

Poque is descended from an even older French card game called Glic which was virtually identical to the German card game of Pochen. The game of Pochen was played in the 1400s and included betting and bluffing. With the German card game having so many variations on the name it’s no wonder that the history of Poker is so hard to pin down.

Pochen was a game played with five cards in a hand. Pochen was played in three rounds and used a staking board. In the first round, the player with the highest card got paid. The second round was the betting round. The winner was revealed in the third round, which was won by the hand which was closest to 31. This sounds more like a cross between one-card Indian Poker and 21 Blackjack than it does to most games of Poker as we know it.

Maybe the act of betting links Pochen to a Poker game. Maybe the history of Poker is in the eye of the beholder where a Frenchman will tell you that France created Poker, an Irishman would attribute the history of Poker to his Irish ancestors and a German would surely put its root in Germany.

To confuse the history of Poker even more, there was a Persian card game called As Nas which also resembled Poker. As Nas was a five-player card game played with a 5-suited deck of 25 cards. Some believe that Persian sailors and merchants brought As Nas to the French settlers in New Orleans.

The 1937 edition of Foster’s Complete Hoyle claims As Nas as the origin of Poker. There is one problem with this theory: Poker was written about decades before As Nas was written about. The game of Poker was known prior to 1811 while the game of As Nas wasn’t written about until 1890. This would negate As Nas as the origin of Poker in the minds of many historians. In addition, “As” was not a Persian word. “As” was the French word for “Ace” leading one to believe that the French brought the card game to the Persians and not vice versa.

Poker was originally played with a 5-card hand using a 20-card deck of tens through Aces and it required four players much like today’s card game of Euchre. In those days the hands were fewer and consisted only of pairs, three of a kind (called Triplets), full house (called Full) and four of a kind. The best hand you could get in Poker was four aces with king high.

  • One Pair
  • Two Pair
  • Triplets (Three of a Kind)
  • Full (Full House)
  • Four of a Kind

The French also had a game called Gilet which was played with three cards, later renamed Brelan and renamed again as Bouillotte. This card game found its way to England and became Bragg (sometimes spelled Brag) and it included bluffing. Brelan was often played by the French settlers in New Orleans and could easily have contributed to the game of Poker as we know it. Bragg was played with three cards and ranking was as follows:

  • High card
  • Pair
  • Flush
  • Run (Straight)
  • Running Flush (Straight Flush)
  • Three of a Kind

Italy and Spain could also jump on the history of Poker bandwagon claiming that the card game Primero (aka Primiero, Primiera, Prime, Primus, Primavista and oddly enough, Ambigu) which originated in 1526, was the root of the game of Poker, but you’d first need to determine which of these countries Primero first hailed from.

Edmond Hoyle believed that Poker was a derivative of Bragg, which was thought to be a derivative of Post and Pair, which was believed to have evolved from Primero according to The Young Folks’ Cyclopedia of Games and Sports by John D. Champlin in 1890.

Primero was a card game unto itself with rules that were never written down and variants which differed from game to game. The Italian writer Berni said of Primero that “the game is played differently in different places.” By the 18th century, no one could tell you how the card game Primero should actually be played as there were so many variants of the game.

One of the more prominant variants of Primero was similar to Draw Poker where the players were dealt two cards, followed by a round of betting, and then two more cards followed by even more betting.

Players could Fold, Pass or Hold much like today’s Poker games. There were, however, major differences between the games of Poker and Primero. The card game Primero was played with a 40-card deck which was missing the eights, nines and tens. Both cards and combinations of cards had point values. The Primero hands were very different than Poker hands.

Primero hands were as follows:

  • Numerus: Two or Three cards of the same suit.
  • Primero (Prime): Four cards, one of each suit.
  • Supremus: Ace, Six and Seven of one suit.
  • Fluxus (Flush): Four cards of the same suit.
  • Chorus (Quartet): Four cards of the same denomination.

The following chart offers a comparison of the various card games showing Poque as the lead contender as the origin of Poker for similarity in both name and hands.

Poker Poque Pochen Primero
1 Pair
2 Pair
3 Kind
Full
4 Kind
1 Pair

3 Kind

4 Kind
Hi Trump
Q-K Trump
3 Kind

4 Kind
1 Pair
3 Kind
4 different suits
A-6-7 one suit
Flush
4 Kind

In conclusion, the definitive history of Poker cannot be 100% verified. The only true fact that can be claimed with any certainty is that the game of Poker was first written about in the New World as being played by the French in New Orleans, which leads us to take a look at the history of New Orleans for clues.

The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718 as the French city Nouvelle Orleans in the territory of New France. Four years later a hurricane destroyed most of the city. In a secret treaty, the French ceded the colony to the Spanish in 1763. The city was again destroyed, this time by a great fire known as the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 which destroyed 856 buildings. Another fire destroyed 212 buildings a few years later.

You’d think we’d have learned our lesson and left New Orleans to the ocean, not tempting the gods to send Katrina to destroy it yet again centuries later. First by hurricane, then by fire, then by flood, New Orleans has been obliterated. But we humans possess a stubbornness about places we hold dear and New Orleans is one of those places.

After its trial by fire, the Spanish rebuilt New Orleans into the beloved style as we know it today with iron balconies, bricks and courtyards, but the city did not remain under the Spanish flag. In 1800, New Orleans returned to French rule by another secret treaty but even the French didn’t hold ownership for long.

Napolean sold French Louisiana (which included parts of what is now Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota) to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Once the buck stopped passing from country to country, the territory was finally free to flourish and it did just that.

John Davis, a patron of the arts who rubbed elbows with the New Orleans elite, opened one of the first New World gambling casinos on Orleans Street near Bourbon Street in 1827. He also built a theater and a ballroom. Davis knew that high society wouldn’t want a cheap casino in the back room of a saloon so he built a different style of gambling house with fine furniture, lush carpeting, fancy artwork on the walls and the best food and drink. The food, drink and entertainment were free.

The game of Poker (which may not have been called Poker yet) was one of the primary games of the casino as were Faro, Roulette and other gambling games. Other casinos started popping up in the seedier parts of New Orleans but fell short of the high standards John Davis had set.

Cheap casinos sprouted in a waterfront area called the swamp, an area so notorious for its thieves and lawlessness that even the police stayed far away. Professional card cheats and gamblers flocked to the swamp where the pickings were easy. Even if you were lucky enough to win at a game of Poker, you’d end up losing your winnings to the thieves as soon as you set foot outside of the casino.

In the mid-1830s, Poker games adopted a full deck of 52-cards to accomodate more Poker players and incorporate a new type of Poker hand called a Flush. Where the earlier variations of Poker did not include drawing new cards into your hand, the new version did include the draw which turned Poker into a card game of skill rather than just the luck of the deal. Being able to add or swap out cards added excitement to Poker. Bad hands could be improved and additional rounds of betting were added to the game of Poker.

With the spread of gambling games such as Poker, nefarious card sharpers soon arrived on the scene. These card sharpers preyed on travelers who came to the New Frontier with their entire life savings. Card sharpers, con artists and confidence men flourished along the pioneer trails. Upright citizens became angry as the card sharpers were discovered to be cheating. It came to a head one fateful night in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1835 when an angry lynch mob hanged five card sharpers. This event spurred the anti-gambling reform movement that shut down all of the casinos in New Orleans.

One card sharper later became a crusader against gambling and wrote the book An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling in 1845. His name was Jonathan H. Green and he called the game of Poker “the cheating game.” Green exposed the various gambling tricks used by himself and his fellow card sharpers. Some historians believe that Jonathan Green was the first to use the name Poker in reference to this card game.

Reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, gamblers were becoming unpopular and many professional gamblers moved their card games to the Mississippi riverboats. New Orleans became famous for its riverboat saloons known as the Mississippi Steamers. While cities all along the Mississippi River were passing laws against gambling, the riverboats were immune to the prohibitions on land.

The gambling ban could not stem the flow of the popular Poker game. Once Poker gained a foothold, it spread like wildfire through the United States and evolved into several variants such as Jack Pots, Stud Horse Poker and Whiskey Poker. The game of Poker traveled up the Ohio and Mississippi rivers by steamboat, then made its way out into the Wild West by wagon train. A Poker game could be played in saloons across the country and disputes were settled by the fastest gun.

The status of Poker was elevated by inclusion into American Hoyles Games in 1845 which referred to the game as Poker (aka Bluff) played with a 52-card deck and Twenty-Deck Poker (played with 20 cards, not 20 decks, and also referred to as Twenty-Deck Poke). Hoyles denoted the hands for Bluff (aka Poker) as being:

  • One Pair
  • Two Pair
  • Three (Three of a Kind)
  • Flush
  • Full Hand (Full House)
  • Four (Four of a Kind)

During the great Gold Rush of 1849, gambling houses sprang up all over northern California. These casinos offered musicians, gambling and pretty women. San Francisco soon replaced New Orleans as gambling capital of the United States and variations of Poker abounded.

Draw Poker was mentioned in the 1851 publication The Literary World Volume VIII which showed Bohn’s New Handbook of Games as listing the game of Draw Poker.

Stud Poker (originally Stud Horse Poker) originated in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) as a Poker variant devised by cowboys. Stud Horse Poker first appeared in Hoyle in 1864 as Stud Poker.

In 1864, Hoyle listed the Poker hands as:

  • One Pair
  • Two Pairs
  • Straight, Sequence or Rotation
  • Triplets (Three of a Kind)
  • Flush
  • Full Hand (Full House)
  • Four (Four of a Kind)

Whiskey Poker appeared in Hoyle in 1868 and was described as a variation of Draw Poker with an extra hand laid on the table called the “Widow.” As game play went around the table, each player could draw a card from the Widow to improve his Poker hand, then discarding a card back into the Widow. Hoyle 1868 also mentioned Draw Poker, Straight Poker and Stud Poker.

In 1868, Hoyle listed the hands as:

  • High Card
  • One Pair
  • Two Pairs
  • Straight, Sequence or Rotation
  • Triplets (Three of a Kind)
  • Flush
  • Full Hand (Full House)
  • Four of a Kind
  • Straight Flush
  • Royal Flush

The Royal Flush and Straight Flush were not listed as official Poker hands. Hoyle stated that: “It is strongly urged by some players, that the strongest hand at Draw Poker should be a Straight, or Royal Flush, for the reason that it is more difficult to get than Four of a Kind and removes from the game the objectionable feature of a known invincible hand. It is impossible to tie four Aces or four Kings and an Ace, but it is possible for four Straight Flushes of the same value to be out in the same deal. No gentleman would care to bet on a sure thing, and we therefore think the Straight Flush should be adopted when gentlemen play at this game.”

A 53-card Poker variation called Mistigri (aka Mistigris aka Poker with a Joker) appeared in Hoyle 1907 and included a wild card which was either a Joker or a blank card. Hoyle 1909 referred to this game as Joker Poker. Some believe that the Joker card was added to card decks specifically for wild card Poker games but according to Hoyle 1880, the Joker was already being added for the card game Euchre.

Euchre (aka Uker) is believed to originate from the Alsatian card game of Juckerspiel (with the “J” pronounced as “Y”.) Juckerspiel referred to the two trump Jacks as “Bauers” (meaning “farmers” in German.) The word “Joker” is believed to derive from the word “Jucker.”

Jack Pots (Jacks Or Better) appears in Hoyle 1907 and required you to have a pair of jacks or better to open the game. Jack Pots was allegedly intended to eliminate Poker players who would bet on any hand, no matter how bad. While the game of Jack Pots was common out West, Jack Pots was not very popular in the East and it was virtually non-existant down South.

In 1872, Poker traveled from the New World of America to Britain on the coattails of General Schenck, the American ambassador to Britain, who referred to the game of Poker as a “peculiarly American game” and taught it to several eager card players one weekend. Schenk wrote a guide to the game which was later turned into a booklet.

Another gambling ban stemmed the flow when Nevada declared gambling illegal in 1909. Other states began to follow suit and betting games became a felony. California, however, declared Poker to be a card game of skill and not bound by anti-gambling laws.

In spite of the gambling bans popping up around the country, new variations were still coming into play. Wild Widow was known in 1922 as a Poker game which used a single community card and Wild Widow was considered to be a variant of the game Deuces Wild. Hoyle described Wild Widow as being practically the same as the game of Draw Poker except for a single card dealt face up becoming the wild card, with the three other cards of that denomation also becoming wild. Sometimes a Joker was included to allow four wild cards.

Nevada reversed its anti-gambling law in 1931 and legalized casino gambling, which allowed the Nevada casinos to flourish. Gambling then became regulated and the first gambling license was issued to a casino called the Northern Club. Other casinos followed suit paving the way for cities such as Las Vegas and Reno to become gambling meccas.

Once the Internet became a mainstay of virtually every household, online gambling became the next big casino boom. A no-money version of Poker was played online in the 1990s, and the first real-money online Poker game was played in 1998 at Planet Poker.

Online Poker games profit the internet casinos in four ways: tournament entry fees, the rake, side bets, and earning interest on player deposits. The rake can be as much as 10% of the Poker pot. Some casinos will collect a table charge known as a “timed rake” where you pay for the time you play, instead of charging a percentage. Timed rakes are usually reserved for high stakes Poker games.

Online Poker offers no place for a real-world card shark. With the game completely computerized, it’s impossible for a card player to trick the other players with anything but a Poker bluff.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what the next big Poker boom will be. Perhaps a Virtual Poker holodeck will find its way into the home of every Poker player, allowing us the feel of the Poker cards and the ability to see the other Poker players in 3D.

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