The exact origins of poker are something of a mystery. And that actually makes a lot of sense. Because what exactly defines the birth of the game?
We could start with the invention of playing cards. Evidence conclusively shows that they were used in 13th Century China, and likely for centuries before in various countries and cultures across the world.
But that’s not very satisfying. We’re looking for a more specific definition of poker’s history and evolution.
Here we take you on a journey through poker’s complex lineage, starting with early vying games and building to Texas Hold’em, the most popular form of poker played today.
Poker belongs to an ancestral line of “vying” games – card games in which players can win either by having the highest value holding, or by bluffing and betting (vying) their way to victory.
One of the earliest games attributed to poker’s evolution is the 16th Century Persian game As-Nas, which shares some similarities with five card Stud. As-Nas utilizes a deck of five suits and 20-25 cards. Players made simple combinations such as pairs, two pairs, trips and full houses, and had to match or raise bets to stay in the hand.
Several European games are also thought to have influenced the development of poker, including the 17th Century French card game poque, and the German equivalent pochen. Poque and pochen evolved from the 16th Century Renaissance game primero, a game in were each dealt three cards to bet on.
The French game Brelan, and English version Brag, also belong to the “poker family”. Both emphasize the art of bluffing.
The evolution of poker is a synergy of these (and other) earlier games which share commonalities – namely vying over cards.
From the first decade or two of the 19th Century, the history of poker, in America at least, becomes much clearer. The game quickly evolves, and we see direct references to the anglicized name, “poker”.
The earliest contemporary reference to poker can be found in J. Hildreth’s Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains, 1836, and later references show that poker was played in America at least as early as 1829.
By the early 1830s, poker was gaining popularity across Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans, where it was introduced by French colonists.
At this time, poker utilized a 20 card deck (Tens to Aces). Each player was dealt five cards and could hit pairs, two pair, trips, full houses, and four of a kind. The top hand was four Aces. There were no flushes, straights, or draws, and the action was dictated by a single round of betting.
Poker was played in saloons and, perhaps most significantly for the game’s evolution, on the Mississippi riverboats. These giant steamboats were used for transporting goods up and down the river, and crew and passengers relieved boredom by gambling. 20 card poker was the game of choice, and so the boats doubled as giant floating gaming houses.
Poker traveled with these boats, spreading to ports and towns along the Mississippi and picking up new rules and variations along the way.
By the mid-1830s, 52 card poker began to challenge the 20 card version for dominance. The larger deck could accommodate more players, which incidentally meant greater action and juicer pots.
The use of 52 cards also brought new dynamics to the game, such as the introduction of the flush as an accepted poker hand. Most significantly, having cards “spare” in the deck paved the way for drawing on cards.
And the significance of drawing to poker’s evolution cannot be understated.
First referenced in Bohn’s New Handbook of Games in 1850, Draw poker added the exciting possibility of improving a weaker hand by staying in the pot. The variation included an additional round of betting; players could now continue the action to see if their hand would hit.
Although a gradual shift, by the late 1850s the 20-card version of the game was becoming obsolete, and Draw had transformed poker into a game of skill.
Poker became much more widespread during the American Civil War years (1861-1865), developing in multiple directions within a short space of time.
Stud poker is first referenced in 1864. In the five card version, players are dealt one hole card face down, followed by three cards face-up, and one more face down. Five card Stud remained popular well into the 1920s and 1930s when, according to Britannica, it made up around two-thirds of professional and high stakes games, before dropping off the scene in the 1950s. Seven card Stud gained traction in the early 1900s, and remains a popular choice today.
Other developments during the Civil War years include the introduction of the straight as a valid poker hand. Interestingly, the straight was initially undervalued as being below trips in the hand rankings – a sign of resistance to its inclusion in the game. The straight flush was also undervalued compared to its true mathematical rank. Traditional players couldn’t accept that anything could beat four Aces!
In the late 1800s, Jack Pot was introduced, mainly in the West of America. This concept had a very different meaning back then. It originally implied that you could only bet with a pair of Jacks or better and, depending on the variation, players were also obliged to bet with Jacks or better (in Stud, a pair of Jacks or better is not too uncommon). This was to encourage timid players to bet, and to stop wild players betting with nothing. The Jack Pot rule faced stern opposition at the time and didn’t make it into modern poker. However, it has been accredited with making poker players less cautious.
High-Low (Split) poker is referenced in 1903 and became popular in the 1930s. In this variation, both the highest and lowest hand are paid. This evolved into Lowball poker, in which only the lowest hand is paid, the most popular of which is Razz.
Although an innovative time in poker history, the 1800s wasn’t exactly a golden era for the game’s reputation. Poker was mostly played in saloons, where corruption, hustling and cheating were rife. To protect against cheating, players would frequent the tables with guns and knives, which (totally predictably) led to violent outcomes.
It wasn’t until later that poker became the sanitized pastime that it is today.
The use of the 52 card deck led to Draw poker, which in turn evolved into Stud. But there was still one more major branch of poker to come that would change the dynamics of the game forever.
By 1926, we start to see references to community cards. Players would still be dealt individual hole cards like before, but now they would share one or more cards on the board – the community cards – which they could use to make their poker hand.
The first of these on record was called Spit in the Ocean. But the community card game that took the world by storm was, of course, the one and only Texas Hold ‘em.
Little is known about the invention of Texas Hold ‘em, but according to the Texas Legislature the game’s official birthplace is a small town called Robstown, Texas, where it was played from the early 1900s. From here, it quickly spread to surrounding areas.
It was only later that Texas Hold ’em found its way to Las Vegas, where it was first at the California Club in 1963.
Several casinos on the Strip were quick to adopt Texas Hold’em, including the Golden Nugget, Stardust, and Dunes. Dunes in particular provided the luxurious experience that high rollers and professionals were looking for. By 1967, the Vegas casinos were frequented by now famous Texan players like Doyle Brunson, Crandell Addington, and Amarillo Slim.
The first World Series of Poker (WSOP) was held in 1970, and in 1971 the main event was Texas Hold’em. It has been ever since. The inception of the WSOP and its subsequent rise in popularity set the standard for the modern poker tournament.
In the 1980s, poker’s popularity grew outside of Nevada, especially in California, where Texas Hold ’em was deemed legal in 1988. Texas Hold’em was introduced to European players in the early 1980s, apparently by a couple of bookmakers after they returned from a trip to Vegas. Romantic.
Omaha, another community card game, also proved popular in casinos (although never as popular as Hold’em). The exact origins of the game are unknown, but casino executive Robert Turner introduced the format to the owner of the Golden Nugget in 1982.
H.O.R.S.E, a combination of Hold’em, Omaha, Razz, Stud, and Eights or better Stud, made its debut at the 2002 WSOP.
Many people play Omaha, Stud, Razz, Draw and other variations of poker, but Texas Hold ’em has remained the game of choice for players around the world to this day.
In the early 2000s, there was a huge surge in the popularity of poker in general, and Texas Hold’em in particular.
This has been attributed to five intertwining factors:
These factors came together to create what became known as the “poker boom”. Online poker really took off. The first online poker site was up and running in 1998, and the industry had already been growing steadily. In 2004 (one year following Moneymaker’s WSOP victory), online poker industry revenues tripled.
The rise of online poker brought with it a fresh kind of evolution. Players can now enjoy poker from the comfort of their homes or on the move using mobile devices. Online poker sites expanded their offerings with innovative formats, such as PKOs and Spin N Gos, making poker faster and more intense. International fields comprising of hundreds of thousands of players increased prize pools of MTTs, making possible weekly tournaments like the Sunday Million.
There’s no doubt that the online boom marked a new chapter in poker history. And we’re still living through it.
Read next: You’ve just unraveled the mystery of poker’s origins and evolution. Now it’s time to investigate the current trends and future of online poker.