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The History of Poker

Aug 17, 2007
Poker is called the American national game. (It shares this distinction with baseball.) Actually, poker comes as close to being international as any card game possibly could. It probably originated in Persia; it developed in Europe; it did attain its present form in the United States - probably in the 1830s - but today it is played in every country in which playing cards are known.

Nevertheless, since poker reached those countries from the United States and since it is internationally known as our national game, every American as a point of patriotic pride should know how to play an acceptable game of poker.

No one knows surely where poker originated, when it originated, or how it got its name. The basic principle of poker is that the most unusual combination of cards is the winning hand.

This is such an obvious basis for a game that there may have been ancestors of poker stretching back to the year 894 A.D., when playing cards were invented. (They were invented by the Chinese.)

At least four hundred years ago the Persians had a game called As Nas in which there was a twenty-card deck, four players, and five cards dealt to each, and betting on which player had the best hand. Since no cards were left over, there could be no draw; and the idea of stud poker had not yet been thought of.

As early as the late 1600s, the Germans had a game that they called pochen, their word meaning to "bluff," or "to brag," and from this game developed the early English game brag and the French game poque. It cannot be proved but it is irresistibly plausible that our name poker derived from this French name poque.

Until the Louisiana Purchase, in the year 1803, New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River and its valley were French territory. We are all familiar with the prototype (and stereotype) of the Mississippi River steamboat game that arose sometime in the 1830s and prevailed at least until the Civil War.

The rules were very simple. Each player was dealt five cards face down, and after the deal was finished everyone bet on whether or not he had the best hand. There was no limit and either of two customs governed the betting (it is hard, here, to differentiate between fact and legend): A man could bet anything he wanted to. His opponent, according to some stories, could always call ("have a sight") for as much money as he had with him; or, according to other stories, his opponent was always given twenty-four hours to raise the money required to call.

The entire history of poker since that time is the history of repeated efforts to pep up the game, to encourage players to stay in and to bet. Mathematically, a man playing straight poker (no draw) in a two-handed game should bet against his one opponent if he has some such hand as a pair of fives.

Psychologically it doesn't work out that way. The hand just doesn't look good enough. So first the element of the draw was added, giving a venturesome player hope of improving when he wasn't dealt a good hand originally; then a few extra winning hands, such as the straight, were added; then the ante was added, so that there would always be something in the pot for a player to shoot for; then came wild cards, and then stud poker, and then freak games of all kinds, and now it has reached a point at which there are probably thousands of different games called poker.

These games are all related yet no two are exactly alike. Therefore you can make few general statements that apply to all games; in fact, you can make few general statements that apply to even two or three games.
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