Boats, betting and Bond: The incredible history of poker

History of poker

There are few card games nor gambling activities which have evolved with quite such pace and character as poker. Its game terminology has worked its way into everyday language, its popularity transcends social class, and its game play has been adapted for the digital age.

The fact that poker has experienced such enduring popularity is not so surprising.  Its competitive quality induces a thrill just like any other gambling activity, yet unlike roulette or slot machines – the odds of winning can be increased through an understanding of mathematical strategy. Beyond that there is of course a unique element of psychology; the elusive ability to read and conceal one’s emotions.

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From boats to Bond

Nowadays, poker is a game with connotations of luxury and sophistication. It conjures images of glitzy casinos on the Riviera, where stylishly clad couples go for a night of cocktails and frivolous gambles. Regardless of how misleading the media’s portrayal of poker may be, there’s no doubt the game attracts a crowd of affluent individuals. At the same time, poker has traditionally been played just as commonly amongst lower classes; a pass time for sailors, vagabonds and down-on-your-luck family men.

In whatever form and for whatever purpose, the game has become both well loved and well established in numerous cultures across the world. From being the primary form of entertainment upon 18th century Mississippi river boats to featuring as a main plot component in a multi-million dollar Bond movie – poker’s influence spans far and wide.

Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry playing cards in front of tents. Petersburg, Virginia, August 1864

Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry playing cards in front of tents. Petersburg, Virginia, August 1864

Bet on it being older than you think 

When we think of the game’s origins, images of cowboys and saloon bars are invariably conjured. The game’s roots are in reality a lot more obscure. One of the first recorded instances of a game resembling poker did indeed come from America, yet there are those who believe that poker, as developed in the States, descended directly from As-Nas; a Persian-derived card game played across Asia.

Several historians have come to contest this theory, pointing out that it is far likelier that modern day poker was formed from an amalgamation of numerous popular card games in 18th century Europe (France’s ‘poque’ and England’s ‘brag’, for example), or general card game principles of forming hands, concealing your cards from other players and attributing the greatest value to high cards.

What in fact makes poker unique and different from other card games, such scholars argue, is its element of betting. The time at which betting was introduced into the game would therefore mark the true birth of poker as we know it today. In this case, there is indeed evidence that the trend of betting on cards arises from mid-18th century Mississippi, where gambling was a common pass time on riverboats. Coinciding with America’s gold rush and the commercialization of gambling, poker’s spread in popularity gained considerable momentum.

Mississippi poker players

Poker players in Mississippi, 1930s.

Thank the French for a great hand 

By the 20th century, casinos could be found dotted throughout the states. In Vegas, a mobster by the name of Benny Binion opened the highly successful ‘Binion’s Horseshoe Casino’. The establishment revolutionized the modern casino, as Binion offered gamblers a wide range of games along with perks such as free drinks for high-stake players. The Binion Horseshoe Casino would eventually become the location of the first ever World Series of Poker tournament in 1970.  

We can trace the etymological origin of the name ‘poker’ to the German word ‘pochen’, meaning roughly ‘to brag as a bluff’. Poker’s terminology lends us many every-day idioms, from ‘chipping in’ to ‘playing the cards you’re dealt’ or ‘keeping a poker face’. Other phrases derived from poker are less obvious, such as ‘passing the buck’. Before dealer buttons were commonly used in poker, a buckhorn-handle knife was often used to indicate ‘dealer duty’. When a player finished his turn dealing the cards, he would ‘pass the buck’ on to the next player. The phrase is now used in politics as a term to describe the act of placing blame on another state or body to avoid responsibility. President Truman famously kept a sign on his Oval Office desk, reading simply; ‘the buck stops here’.

It is also worth noting that we should thank the French for the 52 card deck with which poker is played  – although the French merely adapted what were already four standardized suits in German and Italian cards  It is thought that the suits, originating from the 14th century, were designed to reflect Medieval feudalism. Hearts represented ‘virtuous’ clergy, spades (originally swords) represented the safeguarding of nobility, diamonds represented the wealth of merchants and clubs (one can only assume as a symbol of hard work and agriculture) represented the peasants.

Evidently, there are many different elements of poker which have been formed from a combination of factors, of which some were economic-based. From Caravaggio’s ‘Cardsharps’ to Dylan’s ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, the arts have entrenched the game’s significance in modern history and culture. Today, we are undergoing yet another pivotal shift in poker’s development.

"A Waterloo" by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 1906.

“A Waterloo” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 1906.

iGaming in the 21st century 

The first ever real-money online poker room launched in 1998, under the name ‘Planet Poker’. That same year, Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich co-starred in ‘Rounders’, a popular movie which portrayed poker as an exhilarating means of getting rich for the daring. Today, footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr have become Brand Ambassadors for PokerStars, whilst pop icon Katy Perry glamorized poker in her video ‘Waking Up in Vegas’. Despite the hardening of US iGaming laws following United States vs. Scheinberg, poker is as popular as ever.

Unlike the origin of poker, the cause of the online poker boom is somewhat easier to pinpoint. In 2003, a young Tennessee accountant qualified for an entry to the World Series of Poker through a $40 buy-in satellite tournament on Against all odds, the amateur Chris Moneymaker ( as he is so appropriately called ) knocked hundreds of poker professionals out of the game, taking home $2.5 million and the title of 20013 World Poker Champion. Though internet poker rooms had existed years before Moneymaker’s debut, his story prompted millions to try out their own luck at online poker.

An endless stream of companies, looking to profit from the intense popularisation, had begun to emerge. They created sites and software that invited people to play from their own living room, subsequently attracting people who may have otherwise not have had the time or interest to play. The businesses sought registration in the tax-lenient lands of Malta, Mauritius, Gibraltar and Isle of Man. Each ‘iGaming hub’ subsequently experienced an influx of industry recruits and expat communities became commonplace.

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Is online poker a natural ‘next step’ in the game’s unique history, or has the internet poker boom only worked to diminish the charmingly intimate nature of the once casual home game?  Is iGaming here to stay, or is the online card room a mere fad which won’t quite ever replace the romantic allure of a few whiskey-fuelled rounds at the back of the bar? Whatever the future of poker might be, there’s no doubt the game’s impact has until this point been profound. For better or worse, our unyielding attraction to poker’s logistics, test of character and sometimes treacherous promise of fortune will no doubt find the game a place in Western society for a good few centuries to come.

Sophie Joyce is a freelance writer. She writes about history, politics and culture.

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