Poker has been around for hundreds of years, and its popularity is showing no signs of abating. A game which has evolved throughout history to stay relevant and current, there are a number of different poker variants on the market including Draw poker, Stud Poker, and Community Card Poker.
According to the World Poker Tour, there are over 60 million online poker players in the US alone, and around 100 million worldwide, and Poker itself accounts for around 16.5% of the global gambling market; not bad for a humble card game!
The history of poker is fascinating, with many twists and turns, resistance from the establishment, and links to high society making it glamorous and exciting.
Poker: The Early Years
The origins of poker are hotly disputed. Some game historians believe that poker was derived from the Persian As-Nas, a 17th Century card game consisting of 20-25 cards with different colours and pictures of people on.
However, this has been challenged in the last 30 years or so, in particular by gaming historian David Parlett, as other games from a range of similar European games in the 18th Century which include Poque and Brelan (French), Pochen (German), Primero (Spanish), and Bragg (English). All these games are variations on a theme, including different numbers of cards, and elements of bluffing and betting.
On the other hand, many historians challenge this assessment, and argue that the game of poker as we know it appeared much later in the 18th Century in the US, and spread along the Mississippi on River Boats, and was strongly linked to the invention of commercial gambling.
These riverboats did not always have the best of reputations, and often games were rigged, with operators and their helpers colluding and cheating to take money off a traveller. Mark Twain, famous author, engaged in the past time and wrote several warning to those tempted to play.
American Civil War and the Wild West
During the Civil War, both union and Confederate soldiers were known to gamble in between battles. Further additions were made to the game during this period, including stud poker and the straight.
Saloons and gambling joints popped up to service the needs of those heading west due to the gold rush, as miners, entrepreneurs and even cowboys enjoyed mixing together at the card tables. However, playing cards were hard to come by and many of the cards used were old and tatty, many having been marked by unscrupulous players.
The story of Wild Bill remains legendary to this day. When playing poker at the Number Ten Saloon in South Dakota, Wild Bill was shot in the back and killed, and the hand he was holding, Aces and Eights, has passed into poker legend as ‘the dead man’s hand’. How much of this is real and how much is myth is open for debate, but the legend surrounding Wil Bill persists to this day.
The most popular variant of Poker, Texas Hold ‘Em, came about in the early 1900s as a version of Seven Card Stud. It was the first time that community card poker was introduced to the game. It is widely accepted that this type of poker came about in Texas, hence its name.
Wild cards, low-ball, and split-pot poker were introduced over the subsequent years, some more successful than others, but all adding a new and interesting element to the game. For example, Texas Hold ‘Em was not to become popular for almost 50 years!
Poker grew in popularity in the second half of the 20th Century. Soldiers returning from World War II engaged in regular poker nights, and poker was becoming increasingly mainstream, appearing in popular sitcoms such as The Odd Couple. 1965 film the Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen showcased poker, and even presidents were showcasing the power of poker, with Nixon financing his first campaign with poker winnings.
The mid-20th Century was an era of glamorous casinos, with Monte Carlo in Europe and Las Vegas in the US showcasing the biggest and the best of the industry. Big celebrities were often seen at the poker tables in Europe; Grace Kelly, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor were frequent visitors to Monaco and the Riviera, as was magnate Aristotle Onassis. Even James Bond was seen at the poker table in Monaco!
The World Series of Poker began in the 1970s, and heralded a boom in poker playing. Strategy books started to appear, and poker was becoming increasingly mainstream.
In the late 1980s California legalised flop games (Texas Hold ‘Em and Omaha) and stud games, and Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) legalising casinos on Indian Lands. By the 1990s, Atlantic City, New Jersey was the East Coast gambling counterpart to Las Vegas, the first online poker game for money had been played, and in the UK, Late night Poker debuted.
Poker experienced a huge spike in popularity following technological developments that led to online gambling becoming the norm. Players are able to play poker anytime, and from anywhere. This has greatly increased the demographic of poker players, and the number of players.
In 2019, the online gambling industry was worth approximately US$60 billion. By 2023 it is expected that this will increase to US$90 billion. Poker accounts for around 16.5% of this, and is mirroring the overall industry growth trends.
Another aspect of poker that has come about is that poker has become a spectator sport, with televised and streamed tournaments allowing players to rub virtual shoulders with the greats of the poker world.
Additionally, increased connectivity means anyone can enter a tournament; Chris Moneymaker made history when he became with first World Series of Poker Champion in 2003 having qualified through an online poker site.
Poker is now a fun and safe hobby; legislation and regulation protects players and operators, and its enduring popularity shows no signs of slowing down!