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May 2024
18min read

The very American career of the card game you can learn in
10 minutes and work on for the rest of your life

In 1875 a writer for the New York Times was “forced to the conclusion that the national game is not baseball, but poker.”

“Rich and poor, high and low, good and bad, male and female yield to the fascinations of Poker,” another observer wrote in 1889.

As you read this in 2006, nimble fingers are flicking aces onto emerald baize in card rooms from eastern Connecticut to southern California; friends are bluffing friends across kitchen tables; television viewers are gazing at “Celebrity Poker Showdown”; college students are neglecting political science for Texas Hold ’Em; and the Chicago Tribune offers readers a weekly poker column.

Americans are in love with poker, but it’s hardly a sudden infatuation. For more than 150 years we have glorified the game and condemned it, promoted it and banned it, played it for fun and for profit. We have found in poker hints of the American character and analogies to world events. It has been the game of Presidents and dockworkers, of immigrants, housewives, and professional gamblers.

Why has poker so consistently inveigled the American imagination? A perfect amalgam of skill and luck, the game has the virtues of simplicity and versatility. You can learn it in 10 minutes and spend a lifetime acquiring proficiency. To the analytical, it’s about math; to the social, it’s pure psychology; to the acquisitive, it promises gain. To everyone, it offers the absorbing prospect of staking something, whether a few pennies or a fortune, and waiting giddily for the cards to decide your fate.

A Vying Game

Paternity tests attempting to pinpoint poker’s immediate parents have come back inconclusive. Like most card games, poker evolved, incorporating elements from other games, modifying them according to the habits and whims of players. Nor can the exact time of its birth be pinpointed. The game emerged out of the French cultural milieu of New Orleans during the decades after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. We know it came to prominence in the 1820s, but its roots are lost in the hazy air of long-ago saloons.

Poker began as a simple, almost childish game in which 20 cards were distributed, 5 each to four players. Participants bet on who held the best combination of like cards: pairs; three or four of a kind. If two or more players backed their cards, a “showdown” determined the winner.

The new game added an American wrinkle to card playing, an activity that first appeared in Europe in the late fourteenth century (one of the earliest references to playing cards is a 1377 Florentine edict banning their use). The cost of early, hand-painted cards made them playthings of the aristocracy. In the fifteenth century the printing press put cards into the hands of commoners, but the activity long retained an association with the upper crust. In England, ordinary folk were permitted their games only during the 12 days of the Christmas holiday.

Poker is a vying game, one in which combinations of cards are ranked according to their rarity. It differs from games like bridge or rummy in that there is no actual “play” with the cards, no trick taking or scoring of melds. The participants simply wager on who has the best five-card hand. This vying element had a long history in European card games. One such game, called primero, was popular in the Tudor court; Shakespeare has Henry VIII himself playing it. Brag, a popular British vying game, was played in America and existed side by side with poker through much of the nineteenth century. Both bluffing and wild cards were elements of brag.

One influence on early poker was the ancient German game of Pochspiel . Pochen , meaning to knock, was used to announce bets: “ Ich poche eins [I bet one].” A French version was known as Poque . It’s likely that poker borrowed certain of its elements as well as its name from these games.

Whatever its origins, poker was born at a propitious time. In 1812 Robert Fulton’s New Orleans became the first steamboat to churn into the Crescent City. Eight years later, as poker was finding its legs, 69 paddle wheelers were plying the Western rivers. These watery corridors provided the ideal pathway for the spread of what would one day become America’s national game.

The Devil’s Picture Book

Poker is a contest in which the gambling element is integral; it cannot be played in any meaningful way without wagering. As such it has always been linked to Americans’ ambivalent attitude toward games of fortune.

America was founded on gambling; Jamestown was one of several colonies backed by the proceeds of English lotteries. But the gambling craze that swept Europe in the seventeenth century was sternly condemned by the Puritans who settled New England. To them, card playing was sinful idleness that smacked of the sacrilegious. To the devout, playing cards were “the devil’s picture book.” In 1633 authorities imposed a fine for card playing in Plymouth Colony.

In Europe the situation was different. Gambling was the prerogative of gentlemen, idleness a courtly virtue. The southern colonies of America, beyond the influence of Puritan moralizing, embraced this aristocratic view of gaming. If Americans did not have the cash or the insouciance to wager on the scale of European gentry, they still loved to bet. George Washington recorded his modest wins and losses in his daybook (but gave orders to squelch the rampant gambling among Continental Army soldiers).

These conflicting patterns persisted after the Revolution. Gambling remained subdued in New England but was pursued with abandon in the South and on the frontier. In 1827 a man named John Davis opened the nation’s first full-fledged casino in New Orleans, making the city a perfect incubator for the new game of poker.

Poker’s early days are closely linked to the riverboat gambler. This American fixture began as a cardsharp preying on the boat crews that emerged from the interior. He soon moved onto the river himself, or operated along its banks, relieving cotton traders, plantation scions, and incidental travelers of the wealth the frontier was generating. The games professionals preferred were mostly adopted from the French—roulette, vingtetun, and faro. They were banking games; players wagered against the house, which had a built-in advantage.

Poker was slower paced but acquired its own popularity. All the gambler needed was to induce a few men to sit down around a table and join in a friendly game of cards. If the play was leisurely, the stakes could grow enormous. One rash riverboat captain bet his entire interest in his vessel on four kings, only to watch his opponent lay down four aces.

Professional gamblers discarded the idea of wagering as an avocation only of aristocrats. Any man was as good as any other—as long as he had money in his pockets. Riverboat sharpers delivered poker into the age of democratic gambling, a phenomenon still on display in any Las Vegas poker room.

With his slim mustache, white hands, ruffled shirt, and dark frock coat, the professional gambler aped the manners of the gentleman even as he followed the calling of the swindler. For some, no amount of ostentation was too much. The cardsharp Jimmy Fitzgerald sported a gold watch chain 20 feet long (he looped it around his neck) and traveled with three slaves to lug his two dozen suits and custom-made Parisian boots.

“Advantage Tools”

The Mississippi riverboat provided an unmatched environment for these gamblers. The floating hotels carried men who were far from home and often flush with ready cash from business dealings. The long, slow journey demanded some activity to break the monotony. At every stop new players climbed aboard. By the 1830s at least 1,500 gamblers were plying the river.

The reformed cardsharp Jonathan H. Green, in an 1843 book entitled Exposure of the Arts & Miseries of Gambling , wrote about the early days of poker. Referring to the 20-card version, Green called poker a “cheating game.” Sharping was rampant, and primitive poker could be as much a con game as a card game.

Poker established itself along the Mississippi during the 1820s, but references to the game didn’t reach print until 1837. That year it was mentioned in James Hildreth’s Dragoon Cam paigns to the Rocky Mountains . In speaking of a man who “lost some cool hundreds last night at poker,” the author felt the need to explain in a footnote that poker was “a favorite game of cards at the south and west.”

Other references to poker appeared soon afterward, including a poignant and often reprinted 1838 account of a “colored fireman” on a Mississippi steamboat who was caught in a wicked losing streak and “ventured his full value as a slave” on the turn of a card. He lost, and the winner handed him over to a slave dealer. The incident was offered as an example of the “vile and pernicious practice of gaming.”

The staking of human lives was an ignoble facet of early poker playing. “It wasn’t at all uncommon to hear an old planter betting off his Negroes on a good hand,” recalled Tom Ellison, a riverboat professional. “I saw a little colored boy stand up to $300 to back his master’s faith in a little flush that wasn’t any good on earth.”

The English comic actor Joe Cowell remembered playing cards on a St. Louis–New Orleans riverboat in 1829. Poker, he noted in his memoir, was “a high-gambling Western game, founded on brag.” When the cards were dealt, “old players pack them in their hands, and peep at them as if they were afraid to trust even themselves to look.”

George Devol was a rogue who later wrote of his experiences in Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi . Starting as a riverboat cabin boy in 1839, Devol lived through the heyday when “there were five games of poker running at one time in the cabin.” On one trip he represented himself as a horse trader and used marked decks to win $4,300 before reaching New Orleans.

Secretly marking cards was only one of many techniques by which gamblers fleeced suckers. An expert “mechanic” could shuffle cards while palming another pack, deal specific cards to selected players, or hand out “seconds” and “bottoms” with moves that were virtually impossible to detect.

“I’ve seen fellows pick every card in a pack, and call it without missing once,” Tom Ellison noted. “A sucker had no more chance against those fellows than a snowball in a red-hot oven.”

Cheating did not end with the riverboat era. Later, more elaborate techniques emerged, including the use of tiny mirrors that allowed a look at cards as they were dealt, pins that left telltale pricks in specific cards, and “holdouts,” contrivances of clips and pulleys that helped a player stash valuable cards up a false sleeve or under the table for future use.

A commercial market grew up in these “advantage tools.” A New York City distributor advertised decks of marked cards at $1.25, or $10 a dozen. The company’s advertisements stated, “There is but one way to gamble successfully, and that is to get Tools to work with and have the best of every Game you get into .”

Cardsharping, though, was a precarious profession. Suckers from the backcountry might be naive, but they could also hand out frontier justice to someone they suspected of cheating. Professional gamblers were sometimes tossed off riverboats into a swampy wilderness.

A bad streak of cards pushed some losers to extremes. In 1858 John Powell, who had a reputation as one of the few honest professionals on the Mississippi, took an English traveler in a game of poker for $8,000 and his luggage. The next day the Englishmen shook hands with the other passengers and shot himself dead. Powell sent the money and luggage to the man’s family and stopped gambling for a year.

Draw and Stud

Late in its riverboat phase, poker underwent two important modifications. One was the introduction of the standard 52-card deck. This allowed more than four players to participate and opened the way to the next modification, the draw. In Draw poker, players were given a chance to exchange some or all of their cards for others. With one round of betting before the draw and one after, games grew more exciting and required a good deal more skill. Draw poker spread rapidly in the late 1840s, and by 1850 play with a full deck had largely replaced the original 20-card game.

These innovations enhanced the practice of bluffing, a central feature of poker. By betting big and drawing no cards, a player could give the impression of holding a superior hand. If the others did not match his wager, the bluffer won the pot. Bluffing gave poker a psychological dimension and an enduring fascination. Early writers refer to bluff as another name for poker.

If poker grew up on the Mississippi, it came to maturity during the Civil War. Gambling was a welcome diversion for soldiers on both sides, and poker was a convenient, easy, and spirited game. When Sherman was advancing on Atlanta, word reached his headquarters that John Bell Hood had been appointed the new Confederate commander opposite him. The story circulated among Union ranks that a Kentucky colonel who had known Hood approached Sherman to inform him that in a poker game Hood had “bet $2,500 with nary a pair in his hand.” Reading Hood’s aggressive, bluffing style, Sherman prepared for the defensive. The Confederate attack came the next day, and Hood’s gamble was soundly defeated.

A new version of the game emerged during the war. Stud or Studhorse poker was first mentioned in The American Hoyle of 1864. (Edmond Hoyle, the eighteenth-century English barrister whose name became so closely linked to the rules of card games, died before poker was invented.) In Stud, a player received one card down and four cards up, with a betting round after each card. A seven-card version came into vogue later. Because of its complex and shifting permutations of hand values, the game made for suspense and encouraged liberal betting.

With peace, returning soldiers brought poker to every corner of the country. Veterans seeking opportunity on the frontier firmly established the game in the West. The saloons of cowtowns and mining camps replaced the riverboats as the nation’s wide-open gambling venues. The cowhands who brought the longhorns to Kansas railheads in Abilene or Dodge City sat down at the towns’ gambling tables with four months of tedium behind them and perhaps $120 pay in their pockets. Miners whose luck had paid off were eager to test it at cards. Serious gamblers were always on hand to oblige.

Banking games like faro and blackjack remained the preferred forms of action in commercial establishments, but poker became increasingly popular during the late 1860s. Stakes could be astronomical. Sen. William Sharon, of Nevada, once played a game with William Ralston, president of the Bank of California. With the pot already at $150,000, Sharon, holding a pair of jacks, raised $50,000. Ralston re-raised $150,000. With more than $350,000 on the table Sharon lost his nerve and folded. Ralston showed a pair of tens and raked in the cash. Sharon had been bluffed out of a fortune.

Jackpots and Jokers

The rules of poker continued to evolve. The flush, five cards of the same suit, entered the hierarchy of hands during the 1840s. Soon afterward five cards in sequence, a straight, came along, although it was listed as a regional variation in 1864 and its inclusion was optional even in the 1890s.

The variation of Draw poker known as Jackpots began to spread during the 1870s. Rules required that a player hold at least a pair of jacks to make the first bet and thereby helped dampen reckless bluffing. If no player held openers, the antes were left in the center, causing the “jackpot” to grow. The wild card, known first as a mistigris, later as a joker, entered the game. Wild cards livened the play of many later poker variations.

In 1872 Robert C. Schenck, who had been an Ohio congressman and a brigadier general in the Civil War, was serving as the U.S. minister to Britain. Informal and chatty, he became a welcome guest at English country houses, where he frequently played cards. A lady of quality asked him to explain this game that was so popular in America. He obliged by writing down the rules of draw poker, along with some advice on how to play. Friends had the pages published without his knowledge. According to Schenck, the booklet brought down “the wrath and reprehension of so many good people in America” who were scandalized that he had lowered himself to discuss the frontier game with refined foreigners.

His treatise, which is the earliest rule book devoted to draw poker, notes that “it is a great object to mystify your adversaries.” It lists the main elements of the game as “(1) good luck; (2) good cards; (3) plenty of cheek; (4) and good temper.”

By the 1870s increasingly stringent laws were eradicating commercial gambling. California passed a state ban as early as 1854 making operating a gambling house a felony. By 1873 the great gambling halls that had enchanted San Francisco during the gold rush were throwing in their cards. Dodge City, once the national capital of sin, outlawed gambling in 1878. States followed suit, forbidding not only commercial casinos but virtually all games of chance. The laws became a badge of respectability for regions that had moved beyond the anarchic frontier ethos. Nevada was the last state to crack down. On October 1, 1910, public gambling there was, as the Nevada State Journal put it, “stilled forever.”

Pass the Garbage

Poker continued to be played in informal games and at private clubs. The lawyer John Blackbridge wrote in the 1880s that “so many cultivated men love this game, that it is impossible for me to do otherwise than respect it.”

After the turn of the century, games among friends for low stakes were found to grow monotonous if the play never changed. Players jazzed up the action with the concept of “dealer’s choice”; the dealer for each hand could choose from any of a growing array of poker variations.

The game now entered a baroque period. Around 1903 players added a version in which the holders of the lowest and highest hands split the pot. Hi-lo poker was followed by Lowball, in which the lowest hand won outright. These innovations made the strategy of the game more slippery, the odds harder to calculate.

Many of the new mutations involved wild cards. In Woolworth, for example, fives and tens were wild, in Baseball, threes and nines. Games began to proliferate. There was Mexican Stud, otherwise known as Flip. Players could choose English Stud, Sweat and Push, Kick Me Down, Hurricane, or Pass the Garbage. Cincinnati was sometimes known as Lame Brains. Twin Beds was another variation, as were Crisscross, Butcher Boy, Screwy Louie, and Name Your Poison. Wild Widow, later known as Spit in the Ocean, started a trend toward the use of communal cards laid face-up in the center and included in each player’s hand.

Purists pointed out that wild cards so skewed poker’s probabilities that winning became largely a matter of luck. James Thurber captured this spirit in his 1935 story “Everything Is Wild.” A wife drags her reluctant husband to a party where they play poker with two other couples. Fed up with games like Poison Ivy and Duck-in-the-Pond, the hero suggests his own variation, which he calls Soap-in-Your-Eye. The absurdly convoluted rules leave all players with royal flushes.

30 Million Decks

If poker swept the country during the Civil War, it reached around the globe during World War II. The armed forces distributed more than 30 million decks of cards to GIs, who popularized the game wherever they went. The rules had already been translated into Chinese, with a million copies floating around Asia by 1937.

One of those who whiled away the slow hours of the Pacific campaign playing poker was a young lieutenant named Richard Nixon. Picking up the game quickly, he managed to amass several thousand dollars in winnings before V-J Day, a bankroll that helped finance his first election campaign against the California congressman Jerry Voorhis. One of Nixon’s Whittier College professors later asserted that a man who couldn’t “hold a hand in a first-class poker game” was not fit for the Presidency.

Nixon joined a long line of poker-playing politicans (see sidebar on page 45). President Truman was an inveterate, low-stakespoker aficionado. His aide Clark Clifford remembered a game in 1946 in which Winston Churchill, who was preparing to give his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, sat in with Truman and a few others. Churchill, an accomplished rummy player, was a lamb among wolves when it came to poker, wrote Clifford. Truman diplomatically suggested they go easy on the prime minister. Nevertheless, the Americans made sure they took Churchill for a modest $250 so that he couldn’t boast that he had bested the Yanks at their national game.

By mid-century, poker was the nation’s most popular card game among men and followed only rummy and bridge among women. Players could choose from more than 150 variations.

The Apocalyptic Pot

While friendly games were the norm, professional poker continued on the margins of society. The attorney general of California had mysteriously decided that although the legislature had banned Stud poker as a game of chance, the antigambling law did not apply to Draw poker. Localities were left to make their own rules. In 1936 the town of Gardena, south of Los Angeles, allowed commercial Draw-poker rooms to operate around the clock, the house charging a fee every half-hour. For decades the town reigned as a somewhat down-at-the-heel mecca for poker players, but the parlors’ drab cleanliness attracted few high rollers. Many more games were carried on illegally in clandestine locations.

In 1931 the state of Nevada had repealed its antiwagering laws altogether. Las Vegas town fathers found in gambling a potent way to lure Southern California tourists into the desert. The trend took off after the war, and Las Vegas soon passed Reno as the nation’s most popular gambling haven.

Casino operators, like earlier professionals, did not care for the rather plodding pace of poker. They could make more money from blackjack, keno, and other banking games. Gamblers, though, liked the fact that this was the only game where they could play against each other rather than against the house and where skill was a genuine factor. To accommodate them, most casinos ran a poker room off the main floor and took a small rake from each pot.

Having become a fixture of American popular culture, poker inevitably attracted the interest of eggheads. John Von Neumann, a brilliantly eccentric mathematician and mediocre poker player, wrote a 1928 article, “Theory of Parlor Games,” in which he analyzed games like poker that did not follow strict probabilities but depended on interactions among players. He wanted to quantify how bluffing and deliberate deception affected the dynamics of play. In 1944 he collaborated with the economist Oskar Morgenstern on an influential book titled Theory of Games and Economic Behavior . Game theory had a resounding impact on economic analysis, and the authors went on to apply it to military and political concepts as well.

During the Cold War, with the Americans and Soviets glaring at each other across the table and alternately tossing new ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs into the apocalyptic pot, poker analogies became a commonplace way of making sense of what some insisted was madness. Who was bluffing? Who had the better hand? Who was willing to raise the stakes?

“Today a new hand is being dealt in the cold war that is a game of cold poker between the Kremlin and the new Administration in Washington,” Morgenstern wrote in 1961. “Something substantial can be learned from good poker principles.”

If poker offered insight into politics, the notion that it also probed a man’s character went back at least to 1889, when the author of a book on the game wrote: “Draw Poker is insatiable in its exposure of human weakness. It tears the mask of bravery from the face of the coward; it exposes the hypocrite … and it continually unearths unsuspected vices or develops astonishing virtues.”

Some have been ready to elevate poker’s significance even higher. The historian John Lukacs wrote in 1963 that “poker is the game closest to the Western conception of life … where free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance… .” But Lukacs didn’t like Stud poker: “In this development I see reflected the erosion of the American national character.”

The Return of the Pros

Professional poker in the postwar era became the domain of “road gamblers.” These men, mostly from Texas and the Southern states, traveled around the country, searching for high-stakes games wherever they could find them. They were the modern version of the riverboat professionals, skilled at every nuance of the game and fearless in laying down colossal wagers.

Typical of them was Johnny Moss. Having learned poker as a child in Odessa, Texas, he survived the Depression playing the game in juke joints and poolrooms.

In 1949 Moss was matched in a fabled poker game with Nick “the Greek” Dandolos, whose high-rolling credentials went back to the Roaring Twenties. Nick and Johnny played for big money in the lobby of the Horseshoe, a casino in downtown Las Vegas run by an ex-con named Benny Binion. The game was a curiosity; normally the Horseshoe didn’t even offer poker. But with two sharks going head to head, spectators crowded six deep to watch. The casino profited from the influx as the game dragged on for five months with only occasional breaks. Dandalos finally threw in the towel.

In 1970 Binion again decided to boost business by sponsoring a poker tournament. The first version of what he called the World Series of Poker drew scant attention. Over the next two years, though, Binion reconfigured the event to focus on a version of the game known as Texas Hold ’Em. This was a fast-paced variant of Seven-Card Stud in which players received two down cards and shared five cards turned up in the center.

Hold ’Em is rumored to have emerged in the Corpus Christi area during the Depression and may have had roots back to the turn of the century. Also known as Hold Me Darlin’ or Tennessee Hold Me, it hit Las Vegas casinos in the early 1960s. The game encouraged healthy wagering, and its simplicity appealed to players. With few cards hidden, it was a good game for spectators.

Eight professionals played in the 1972 tournament, with Amarillo Slim Preston, another hard-bitten road player, taking home the prize. The contest became an instant success and has been a fixture of the poker scene ever since.

The current national obsession with poker has its roots in the success of these early tournaments. Professional poker emerged from smoke-filled rooms and began to acquire respectability. The top players found their pictures in the paper and their autographs in demand. They beguiled fans with stories of bygone contests in which the threat of violence and astonishing quantities of greenbacks played equal roles.

Poker playing has in recent years received two injections of anabolic steroids. The first was the advent of a series on cable television called the “World Poker Tour.” Its creator, Steve Lipscomb, was inspired to use cameras that could glimpse players’ hole cards. With viewers privy to participants’ cards and the dull parts of the game edited out, the programs were a hit. Celebrity versions along the same lines drew thousands of new players to the game.

The second boost was provided by the Internet. Online poker has attracted an increasing number of players since its advent in the late 1990s. Scores of poker “rooms” operated by off-shore companies let enthusiasts from around the world meet online and play for real money.

Despite poker’s position as an American institution, the nation has continued to equivocate about gambling. Through the twentieth century police regularly descended on organized poker games, hauling players to jail. Even private games were subject to raids. In 1936 The New York Times reported that New York City police broke down the door of a West Seventyninth Street apartment and arrested 20 women who were playing poker amid “a light fog of cigarette smoke.”

Today celebrities may bet with impunity on television, but games of chance remain forbidden in most states. Internet gambling, available on any computer, is illegal nationwide.

Betting on Tomorrow

Yet the game’s momentum continues. Current trends merged in 2003, when a Nashville accountant named Chris Moneymaker entered one of many online “satellite” tournaments. For a $40 fee he won a $10,000 buy-in to the World Series of Poker. In Vegas, Moneymaker bested 838 other entrants to be declared the poker champion of the world and to win $2.5 million.

Moneymaker’s story fueled the fantasies of tens of thousands of casual players. This most democratic of games, at which a truck driver can sit down with an executive and an amateur can beat a professional, struck a resonant chord in American culture. Three years later the tournament drew more than 8,000 players, and the winner took home $12 million. As the actor Walter Matthau said of poker, “The game exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”

Jack Kelly is the author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World (Basic Books).

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