Poker’s future (found in the past)

August 06, 2019inPoker

Have you ever read any old science fiction? I mean really old like The War of the Worlds or A Princess of Mars?

There’s something uncanny about reading books written so long ago that imaginatively reach far into a future that reminds us of our past. Take Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, for example, a book published in 1870 that presents the idea of electrically-powered submarine at a time when experiments with “submersibles” had only just begun — many decades before the real thing.

When researching old poker strategy books for Poker & Pop Culture, I experienced something similar when coming across a tiny, pocket-sized publication published by Dick & Fitzgerald, the popular 19th-century house that produced a number of books about various games, including poker. One of the partners, William Brisbane Dick, compiled the first American edition of Hoyle’s Games, published as The American Hoyle in 1864, one of several books about card games for which he was responsible.

A little later in 1887, Dick put together another little book, the one I want to tell you about. It’s called Dick’s Progressive Poker. Tell me if you think it might be predicting something about the future, kind of like those old sci-fi stories.

Introducing “progressive poker”

To give a little context, by the 1880s both five-card draw and five-card stud were being played, with there even being some seven-card stud popping up here and there although the five-card version appears to have been more popular.

“Progressive poker” as described by Dick presents players a different way to play five-card draw — not just at one table, but several of them at once.

Dick begins by explaining “the game may be played by any number of persons sufficient to fill at least four or five tables, it not being necessary that there should be the same number at each table.” Playing four-handed sounds ideal, from the way Dick describes it, although that’s not required.

Dick also recommends that “the numbers of the tables… may be indicated by cards hung over or near them.” Imagining  such a scene might make us think of what we’re used to seeing at a poker tournament, where we’ll often see such numbers hanging aloft above the tables.

“The numbers of the tables… may be indicated by cards hung over or near them”

In progressive poker, those table numbers have significance. The “head table” should be No. 1, with the lowest-numbered table — also called the “booby” table — being the one where late arrivers can sit down to play. There’s also a suggestion that the betting limits can be different at different tables, with the stakes also noted on the hanging card.

Dick additionally recommends a bell be provided at the head table that when rung will let everyone know it is time to stop playing and change tables. The prompt for ringing the bell is someone winning a “jack-pot” at the head table, the only table at which jack-pots are part of the game.

He goes on to describe how one player at each table should play the role of “banker” who furnishes each player the same amount of chips with which to start. There’s also a recommendation for the seating of players to be arranged in such a way that an equal number of men and women are seated at each table, if possible.

Reading about the past, thinking about the future

The game then begins — “played under the ordinary rules of Draw Poker, as laid down in the ‘American Hoyle’ — with the games going on at each table until the bell is rung and play stops. If a player happens to lose all of his or her chips before the bell rings, the banker gives the player a new “starting stack” (so to speak) while “keeping a memorandum of the amount.”

After the bell rings, all the chips are counted. Going around the room, “the two ladies who have won the highest and next highest amount in chips… should receive a first and second prize respectively, and a first and second prize should likewise be awarded to the two gentlemen who have the highest and next highest amounts among the gentlemen.”

Now it’s time for the “progressive” part of the poker game, a kind of “redraw” that requires all the players to get up and be seated elsewhere to play against different opponents.

Players at the head table cut cards in turn, “and the two lowest one shall ‘progress’ downward to the ‘booby’ table.” Meanwhile at all the other tables, the two players who won the last two hands played “progress” upward (i.e., from No. 4 to No. 3, from No. 3 to No. 2, etc.). If the same player won the last two hands, the others cut cards to see who moves up.

Once seated at a new table, everyone starts over with a new stack of chips and the game begins anew. Dick includes a few other details about the order of play, but you get the general idea.

Any of this sound familiar?

A kind of proto-tournament poker?

When I first read through the rules of “progressive poker,” I couldn’t help but think about so-called “fast-fold” games like Zoom Poker that only began to appear less than a decade ago. (Rush Poker first launched on Full Tilt Poker in 2010.)

Zoom poker, a modern-day “progressive” variant

Such games where players at multiple tables formed a larger “pool” of players who were reseated at different tables in order to play different opponents seemed as though they could only be played online.

But here’s a version of poker from more than a century before that seems to demonstrate a similar idea! An example of “live poker” in which players also “zoom” around or “progress” from table to table to play different opponents.

You could say that “progressive poker” is kind of a primitive precursor to tournament poker, too, though. Indeed, all you’d have to do would be to change the way the schedule of prizes was handled and tinker with the format in a couple of other ways, and you’d almost be there.

Okay, everybody… when you hear the bell ring, finish the hand you’re on…

In truth, progressive poker was not itself an entirely new innovation when Dick wrote about it in 1887, but rather was based on similar variations already used in other games like bridge and whist. In fact Dick brings up “progressive euchre” when describing his game in order to refer the reader to an analogous game to the one he’s describing.

“Progressive poker” as Dick describes it never really caught on, and indeed there would later be other poker variants called “progressive” (including video poker games with progressive jackpots) that are unrelated to the version he describes.

Even so, like an old H.G. Wells or Jules Verne novel, the game described in Dick’s Progressive Poker seems ahead of its time. It certainly could provide some evidence for anyone wanting to argue that elements of tournament poker were around well before the early 1970s when poker tournaments started to appear in earnest.

And not just in fantastic fiction, either!

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