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Poker Origins

There is nothing particularly original about the card play aspect of the game of Poker. Card games in Europe had for centuries featured all of the different scoring combinations and much of the similar principles of betting too. Poker is without doubt the most successful and popular betting and bluffing game in existence today but this is probably more due to the over-riding influence of American culture on the world than any inherent superiority within the game. Here are some of the more important national betting/bluffing games:

  • England - Brag
  • France - Bouillotte
  • Germany - Poch
  • Italy - Primiera
  • Spain - Mus
  • USA - Poker

 

Theory 1 -French Poque

The earliest known ancestor of Poker was a German game, called Boeckels, Bocken, Bogel or Bockspiel. This game is one of the very earliest card games known. The French derivative of this, virtually the same game, was called "Glic" and although Glic had died out by 1600, the 1718 edition of the French "Academie des Jeux" featured a game called "Poque", which was obviously a direct descendent from Glic. All these old versions of the game featured 3 quite different phases - and only the second phase was equivalent to the betting & bluffing game that is now Poker. The allowed combinations to be betted on were only 3 - a Pair, a Triplet and a Quartet.

Coming full circle, the modern German version of the game is called Poch or Pochen, presumably from the French Poque. This word is also overwhelmingly the most likely etymological source for the term "Poker" which appeared in the first half of the nineteenth century and so the first and most obvious theory for the link from the old card games to the new is simply that Poker, invented in French America, was derived directly from the French game of Poque.

 

Theory 2 - Italian Primiera

Sometimes, the sixteenth century Italian card game of Primiera is referred to as the "ancestor of Poker". The game was very fashionable and had equivalents in other countries at the time: France - Prime, Spain - Primera and in England, Primero was definitely played by Elizabeth I. Primiera is unlikely to have been a direct ancestor but Primiera was probably the first game that featured the idea of betting based on different kinds of combination being ranked in order - so it seems entirely possible that this concept did eventually filter into whichever game directly spawned Poker. Primiera was played with a 40 card deck (sans 8s, 9s & 10s) wherein 2 cards were dealt, following by betting and then 2 more cards for a four card hand. The different combinations are interesting:

  • Numerus - Two or Three cards of the same suit
  • Primiera (Prime) - Four cards, one of each suit
  • Supremus - The highest value three-Flush (Ace, Six & Seven)
  • Fluxus (Flush) - Four of the same suit
  • Chorus (Quartet) - Four of the same value

 

Theory 3 - Persian As Nas

The third theory worthy of mention for the direct ancestor of Poker is the old Persian game of "As-Nas". This is a game for which all sorts of piffle has been written over the years including such incorrect assertions that it was played by Christopher Columbus' sailors and has an ancient history going back numerous centuries. In fact, the earliest evidence that has been found for the game is in the form of actual As-Nas cards that have been dated as seventeenth century. Since the game itself featured only meld combinations like earlier European games and since "As" is not a Persian word but is in fact the French for "Ace", the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that As-Nas is simply a Persian interpretation of the European game.

 

Conclusion

The facts in favour of the As-Nas theory are that it seems to be the first game to feature the Full House combination, it was played with a 20 card pack and the hands were of 5 cards. So it is a feasible hypothesis because Iranian sailors visited the port and Frenchmen were found in Persia too, at the time. But Poque was played with 5 card hands and its nineteenth century descendent 4-card Bouillotte was played with a 20 card pack. Plus the invention of the Full House is not really a very radical thing if one is playing melds with 5 cards. So, of the 2 primary competing theories, the most likely seems to be that original 20 card Poker came from some variant of the French card game Poque/Bouillotte being played in French America at the time.

 

Birth of Poker

Poker was invented in New Orleans, part of the old French territory of what is now the USA. New Orleans is famous for its Mississippi leisure steamers and the game first appears to have become popular in the smokey saloons of those notorious boats.

The first documentary evidence for the game is from a piece called "Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains" of 1836 but two former gamblers have described the game in their autobiographies as existing at least as early as 1829.

The early pioneers described the game as it was then - we can call it "20 Card Poker". It was a four player game played with a 20-card pack (Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks and Tens only), so that all the cards were dealt out. There was no draw and the five scoring combinations were melds only - i.e. no flushes or straights (runs). So the game was quite a different affair to modern Poker games.

  • One Pair
  • Two Pair
  • Triplets
  • Full - meaning a Triplet and a Pair
  • Four of a Kind

So the best hand - four Aces was unbeatable.

 

The Rapid Evolution of Poker after 1850

The first reasonable description of the 52 card version of the game turned up in an 1850 version of "Hoyles book of Games" and within a decade the 20 Card game was evolved out of history and virtually disappeared. Like American Pool, this has happened a lot to different Poker versions to this day - the most recent example being that of Texas Hold'Em completely eclipsing the formerly popular game of Stud Poker.

The version played with 52 cards allowed some creative thinking in terms of the rules and permitted a variety of new additions to the rules after around 1850 including:

  • The Draw
  • The Flush - which turned up around the same time as 52 card Poker.
  • The Joker
  • The Straight
  • The Jackpot

None of these concepts, except the Jackpot was original to Poker and so it is clear that Poker mainly evolved by borrowing useful concepts from other games.

Stud Poker, formerly "Stud Horse Poker" is supposedly a cowboy invention that occurred around Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In this new variant, the Draw which had previously been a single one-off affair of 1, 2 or 3 cards for each player each hand, was stretched out to 4 draws of a single card for each player each hand. The reason for this is readily apparent - more draws means more rounds of betting and since betting and bluffing have always been the primary motivation for Poker, this must have appealed. The first documentary evidence for the game is an 1864 Hoyle.

 

The Straight

"Straights" and "Straight Flushes" also appeared in the 1864 Hoyle although to begin with they ranked below Triplets and Four of a Kind respectively despite the fact that mathematically, this was an incorrect placement. There was a traditionalist movement that fought against the introduction of the Straight for some decades but eventually, around the turn of the century, the Straight and the Straight Flush became irrevocably established. Here is how the new combinations were placed in 1864:

  • One Pair
  • Two Pair
  • Straight Sequence or Rotation
  • Triplets
  • Flush
  • Full House
  • Straight Flush
  • Fours

It is interesting to note the subtle change of principle in the game which the flush engendered. Prior to this change, a player holding the top hand, Four Aces, would actually be betting on a dead cert. The important question being - is it the act of a gentleman to bet against another when he knows very well he cannot lose? With the introduction of the new best hand, the "Royal Flush", there was an almost impossibly small chance that a player holding such a hand still might not win outright because another player might also hold a Royal Flush. This minutely small change in the odds therefore meant that a gentleman could no longer be labelled a Cad for fleecing another player when holding the top hand!

 

The Jack-Pot

Another controversial new rule was the imposition that a player cannot open the betting unless he holds at least a pair of Jacks. Thus the "Jack-Pot" was born and a standard game of "Draw Poker" still includes it, today. Originally, it was compulsory for such a player to bet, although that is not normally true now. The idea of the rule was to prevent the kind of out and out bluffing where a player bets big on a totally worthless hand and also to force overly-cautious players to bid when they might otherwise not have done so. The problem was that many considered the bare-faced cheek of the total bluff a vital and enjoyable part of the game - an opponent of this upstart regime called Foster wrote towards the end of the nineteenth century "The jack-pot, with its accompanying small-limit game, has completely killed bluffing - that pride and joy of the old-timer...". Inevitably, the traditionalists once again lost the battle.

 

The Joker

The first time that the use of "wild" cards is recorded in Poker was in a form of the game called "Mistigris" using the 53rd blank card that was included with every pack. Mistigris is first documented in an 1875 Hoyle. This is sometimes used as evidence of a claim that the Joker was invented by Poker players but this is not true. A special Joker card was already being included in some packs for use in the game of Euchre at the same time. In fact it is thought that the term "Joker" comes from the word Jucker, the Alsation name for Euchre - and this makes sense because the Joker is the most important card in that game.

The Joker is often compared to the special card 'The Fool' in the Tarot deck. In fact, although the appearance and sometimes functionality is often very similar, the link is probably a false one.

 

Rules of Poker

Free printable rules of Poker here.

 

Where to buy

You can buy cheap Poker chip sets from many toy and games shops. There aren't really any High street stores that specialise in the game but but there are several Internet Poker shops.

Masters Traditional Games which has some higher quality Poker sets and Poker Tables.

 

Where to Play

Poker is a fashionable game and so there are a plethora of Poker websites on the Internet. Poker is also a multi-million dollar Internet gambling industry and it is difficult to avoid gambling and casino websites when searching for Poker information.

The 2 biggest Poker tournaments are the Official World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker both held in Las Vegas.

 

 

 

 

Email to jm at tradgames.org.uk

Copyright 1997 - now by James Masters.