Game changer: Six times poker has changed

The introduction of 6+ hold'em and its immediate popularity among players highlights how incredibly adaptable the game of poker is. In fact, throughout the game's history there have been several instances where a change in the way poker is played significantly altered poker's development and growth.

Here are six of the most significant changes affecting the path poker has taken over the two centuries it has been played.

1. Using the full 52-card deck

Many fans of "short deck" or 6+ hold'em may not be aware of the fact that when poker was first introduced in America in the early 19th century, the earliest version of the game was in fact played with a smaller deck of 20 cards, not 52.

Games such as Poch (from Germany), primiera (Italy), mus (Spain), and poque (France) from which poker was ultimately derived were all played with "short" decks that ranged from 20 to 40 cards. (Another poker precursor, the English game brag, used the full 52.)


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Sort of like 6+ hold'em, the initial 20-card version of poker -- called "Twenty-Deck Poker" in an early reference to poker in Hoyle's -- tossed out the low cards, using only aces, kings, queens, jacks, and tens.

With just 20 cards and everyone receiving five-card hands, only four players could play "Twenty-Deck Poker" -- one obvious encouragement to start using the full 52-card deck.

More cards, more fun!

2. Adding the draw

There was another important rule change early in poker's history, one that made poker much more of a skill game than had been the case before -- the introduction of the draw.

The earliest poker games involved players being dealt five-card hands and then betting on them, with no chance for players to discard and draw cards in order to improve their holdings. While they could always bluff with their bets during the single betting round, there wasn't much additional strategy to learn or employ.

The 1850 Bohn's New Hand-Book of Games included a mention of "Draw Poker" explaining how a player could "draw from the pack as many cards as he may wish, -- not exceeding five, -- which must be given him by the dealer; but previous to drawing he must take from his original hand the same number as he may wish to draw." There's no reference to a second betting round after the draw, although that was likely already the practice in games of "five-card draw."

As you might imagine, this innovation suddenly made poker a much more intriguing game, and a few years later -- starting in the 1870s -- strategy books discussing odds and probabilities and other things to consider when playing draw poker began to appear.

3. Counting straights

It took a while for today's standard list of hand rankings to fall into place, with straights not always counting in the earliest poker games.

The 1864 American Hoyle mentions how a "straight sequence" -- beating three of a kind, and beaten by a flush or better -- wasn't yet the norm. "Straights are not considered in the game, although they are played in some localities," goes the explanation. The reference also points out how those wishing for straights to count in their games needed to make that clear at the start.

That latter rule comes up in a funny episode of the old TV series Maverick (1957-62), one titled "According to Hoyle." In a steamboat poker game, Bret Maverick, played by James Garner, shows down a straight and thinks he's beaten an opponent's three of kind. That's when she cites the rule from Hoyle that straights only count if it is determined they "be admitted at the commencement of the game." Quite an angle!

By the way, there were other odd hands sometimes included in early versions of five-card draw -- hands like "blazes" (five court cards) and "skips" (a hand like 4-6-8-10-Q). Those hands fell away, but straights stuck.

4. Using jackpots

Another important innovation affecting the way five-card draw was played was the introduction of "jackpots."

When we hear that term, we're more apt to think of "bad beat jackpots" and the like, but in five-card draw the term had a different and specific meaning, referring to a rule that said no player was allowed to open a hand without being dealt a pair of jacks or better, and that if you were dealt jacks or better you in fact had to open with a raise.

The idea was to keep the crazies from playing any old hand and thereby introduce some discipline into the game, but strategy writers debated over whether the rule did more damage than good by skewing hand values and driving out bluffing.

Even so, different versions of "jacks or better" draw poker continued to be played well into the 20th century.

5. Introducing stud

The first reference to stud poker -- initially five-card stud, then later seven-card stud -- appears in that same 1864 edition of the American Hoyle, although without much explanation of how the game is played.

Although the precise origin of stud is hard to pin down, the new variant was certainly played by the middle decades of the 19th century and became quite popular after the Civil War.

It's also obvious that stud evolved somehow from draw poker, adding the interesting innovation of revealing some of the cards in a player's hand along the way before the showdown. Thus is draw sometimes called a "closed" game (in which all cards are face down) while stud as well as later games with community cards gets referred to as an "open" game (in which some cards are face up).

6. Inventing Texas hold'em

Texas hold'em also obviously evolved from seven-card stud in some fashion, given how both games involve players making their best five-card hands out of seven available cards. Even so, the introduction of hold'em, despite being more recent, is even harder to pin down than the origin of stud.

Some poker historians have made claims about hold'em turning up by the end of the 19th century, although there is no evidence to support such assertions. Poker Hall of Famer Johnny Moss once told a biographer he first played fixed-limit and no-limit versions of hold'em "around 1930," although there aren't really any hold'em stories dating before the middle of the 20th century. In The Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson mentions first encountering hold'em "'Round about 1958" when it was called "hold me darling," and he thinks "the game must have started right about that time."

Of course, hold'em -- especially the no-limit version -- wouldn't become the most popular poker variant until much later. Indeed, poker players who played before the "boom" in the 2000s remember when NLHE wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is today.

Will 6+ hold'em become a seventh big change to affect how poker is played in the future? Who knows? If it does, it will only continue a tradition already prevalent throughout poker's history, where change has been the only constant.

Martin Harris
@hardboiledpoker in News