The History of Poker

Guesses to when the very first form of poker was invented are about as spread out as it can be. In early Chinese documents the emperor of China, Mu-tsung, played a game with his wife called “domino cards” on a particular New Year’s Eve sometime in the middle of 950 A.D. There isn’t much more information about “domino cards,” but it’s the first reference to a game that was played with numbers and cards.

Next is a theory that doesn’t show up until the 16th century. The Persians played a game called “As Nas.” As Nas was a game played with five people. The deck was very different than the modern deck. It only had 25 cards in five different suits. No set of definite rules have ever been found, but it is suggested that As Nas required a certain amount of bluffing, one of the biggest factors in today’s game of poker. Some fragments of cards also have been found in Egypt. These cards date back to somewhere between the 13th and 14th century. Much like the Chinese version of “domino cards,” little is knows about the rules the Egyptians would have played under. Finally, around the same time the Egyptians were playing cards, the Indians were playing a card game named “Ganjifa.” Once again, little is known about how the game was played.

The origin of the name “poker” is also open to debate. Around the middle of the 17th century both the French and the Germans began playing a card game that is getting closer and closer to the way it is played now. The French called the game “poque” and the Germans called it “pochen.” The Spaniards, however, lay claim to “Primero” which can be dated back to the year 1526. Primero has been called “poker’s mother.” In all these games, players were dealt cards and forced to make bluffs while holding weak cards, and hope nobody would catch them. They still used a deck of 20 cards, but different variations of the game were starting to show up, much like we have today. Finally this card game made its way to America.
I
n the mid-1800s, the French brought this card game to New Orleans. This is also around the time poker began to receive the bad reputation it still holds today. Author Jonathan H. Green, who wrote a history of poker book, also around the mid-1800’s, suggests that the word “Poker” derived from a term pickpockets used, called “poke.” “Your poke” was another way of saying the money you have. If you were a victim of a pickpocket, you were relieved of your poke. Green suggests that pickpockets added the r to the end of “poke” so potential victims wouldn’t be wise to what was about to happen to them. So Green, who affectionately called poker “The Cheating Game,” gave us the idea of the type of people who were playing this game early in its American history.

Eventually, in America, the game deck expanded from 20 to 32 cards. Finally-some say it was close to the beginning of the 1900s- the deck grew to the 52 cards it is today. The heyday of poker was soon to follow. Eventually the game that was brought to New Orleans made its way up and down the East Coast and into the west, or “Wild West.” There wasn’t a bar or saloon to be found that didn’t have at least one poker table in it. Gambling boats in the Mississippi also started featuring this fairly new game to the locals. All this, of course, was before there were the thousands of laws that now regulate poker. If you read about some of the living legends of the games, such as Doyle Brunson, it says how he would travel hundreds of miles just for a game back in the 1950’s. And once you got there, you weren’t sure of your safety. I guess all the regulations weren’t bad.

During this time Poker was indeed a back-room game and had very little fanfare left. It wasn’t until 1969 when a casino room manager by the name of Benny Binnion decided he wanted to invite the best poker players in the world to play in a winner-take-all tournament. It started small, around 12 players, but it was just the beginning of what was to come. Through sponsorships, the invention of the “lip-stick camera” (which shows the players’ hole cards for TV viewers), and online poker, it has grown to what it is today. For example, the Main Event of this year’s tournament will have 8,000 entrants. There isn’t a bar in America that doesn’t host poker events. Just walk around town. You’ll probably hear one or two people talking about where they are playing poker tonight.

The history of poker surely is a unique one. But, it is only fitting for a game as unique as poker.

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