Poker Games Through the Ages

Poker Cards, Casino Chips, Poker Gold Text
As you’re sitting at the table, drawing to an inside straight with half your pot pushed to the middle of the table, have you stopped to wonder how the great game of poker was started? Hopefully not, because that’s really no time to lose your focus.

Still, there are lots of good times when you can pause for a moment to wonder about the origin of poker and how it became the phenomenon that it is today. Unfortunately, the exact beginnings of poker are up to some amount of debate before it arrives on the shores on the US. After that, things are a lot more clear in how it progresses from a 20 card game to the 52 card game we know and love today.

Poker’s Clouded Origins

As I said, the seed that grows into poker is unclear. Most scholars believe that the game made it to Europe from Persia.

However, how the game got to Persia is still up for some debate. Frankly, how poker grew once it hit American shores is also up for debate.

Still, to understand the full history of poker, one must pay homage to the Chinese empire. Let’s start our exploration of the history of poker in China about 1100 years ago.

Chinese Dominos

One of the earliest references to a game that resembles our poker comes from 10th century China. In China, the Emperor would play a domino game with his concubines that used dominoes as playing pieces. This game may have been similar to today’s Mahjong.

Chinese Dominos, Emperor Muzong of Tang

Also of note, as early as the 7th century, the Chinese invented card games, though it would not be for another 200 years before we have recorded history of a card player going on a bender and playing a marathon card game set (read about emperor Muzong for more details).

Last, and interestingly enough, by the 7th century card games were known as “leaf games.” Some have suggested that this is because Chinese cards were printed onto leaves. Whether or not this is true is up to some debate.

As-Nas

Either way, by the 10th century card and domino games were being played in China. At the same time, the Silk Road connected the Chinese empire to Persian empire and it appears likely that traders brought leaf games along with their silk and other trade goods.

That last part is up for debate, though what is certain is that by the 16th century, Persian literature is making references to a card game called Ganjifa. Some have suggested that Ganjifa may be derived from the Chinese word for playing cards. Either way, if you look at a set of Ganjifa cards, you don’t have to squint too hard to see modern day playing cards.

Still, Ganjifa was incredibly popular in India and Persia, both of which had at least some cultural exchange routes with parts of Europe.

Ganjifa decks were actively printed until recently, but most importantly, the game spawned a number of variants.

This includes the game As-Nas, a more modern variant of Ganjifa (by 17th century Persian standards anyway), which uses decks of twenty or twenty-five cards. While As-Nas is never played in the United States, its effects will be felt by modern gamblers everywhere, but we’re still stuck in the 17th century. But hey, we’re having fun.

Primero (or Maybe Poque or Even Pochen)

Around the 16th century, a game called primero appears in Spain which is a three-card game of bluffing using a forty-card deck. Primero spreads across Europe and it’s at this point, that we can start to see more games that may well establish a family tree for games that will turn into poker.

Flag of Spain, 16th Century Photo of Group Playing Poker

Primero gives birth to the French game poque (which sounds like poker, doesn’t) and the German game pochen (which sort of sounds like poker.) Both games use decks of cards and involve skill and bluffing to win the game. Still, despite the similar sounding name, we don’t have a game that quite resembles the modern game.

Don’t Forget John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich

Since we’re talking about the history of poker, I wanted to stop for a moment and give thanks to John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. A fair amount about the Earl has been recorded in history including the fact that he was an avid (some would say degenerate) gambler who did not like to be bothered when the chips were on the table (or however they kept score.)

For the most part, it appears to be historically accurate that Montagu did, in fact, ask for slices of meat to be served between slices of bread so that he could eat and not make a mess while gambling. Some believe this was merely a story made up by his enemies, but it appeared to have backfired.

We know this because today we still call things “sandwiches” while referring to those would discredit him merely as “his enemies.” Anyway, hooray for gambling. It brings such wonderful unintended benefits sometimes.

The 18th Century

Sadly, the exact roots of poker are still a little unclear at this point. According to some sources, the first game to be played in America was none other than As-Nas, our Persian game that’s been flourishing half a world away. Other sources claim that someone took the principals of primero (or poque or pochen), mixed in some betting and thus begins poker.

Poker Cards Spread OutA third school of thought is that along with McDonalds and democracy, poker may well be an American import. This school argues that what makes poker unique is the betting, not the cards or bluffing. This would mean that we didn’t have poker until we had betting and we don’t get that until the mid-1700s.

Either way, it’s clear that we can thank the riverboat crews for spreading the game far and wide. No matter how the game was invented. It’s also during this time that poker becomes a business.

In other words, the city of Las Vegas owes a big debt to the 1700s and to riverboats, too, because they sowed the seeds for what would become the casino.

52 Card Decks, and Betting, and the Flush

One argument for the influence of As-Nas if nothing else is that it’s not until 1834 that American poker deck goes from twenty cards per deck to fifty-two, the number used today.

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Also, strangely enough, it’s not until we get fifty-two card decks that we introduce the flush as a possible hand.

Five-Card Stud Poker and the Straight

The American Civil War changed a lot about America in a few short years. During this time, poker also changed. Draw variants (in other words, games where a hand is improved by drawing additional cards) started to become popular around 1850 and it wasn’t until the Civil War that we saw the introduction of five-card stud and the straight being a winning hand.

Can you imagine what poker would be like without a straight? There’d be almost no good bad beat stories.

Texas Holdem Was Born

Anyway, by the 1900s, the nation is starting to come together and most of the modern games of poker we know and play today are around in some form. While poker and gambling continued to evolve and will continue to adapt to modern times, one of the more recent major changes to the game happens at the turn of the 20th century.

Casino Table with Poker Cards and Casino Chips, Texas Holdem Text

One of the most notable changes is the introduction of community card poker games like Texas Holdem, Omaha Holdem and Pineapple. Really, the community card style of poker game is introduced in the 1900s, but the game of Texas Holdem doesn’t come into existence until the 1920s and doesn’t gain popularity for some time.

Conclusion

At some level, it feels a little strange to end our tour of poker in the 1920s. There were other games introduced to casinos (like pai gow poker in the late 1980s). Then again, ending on a game like Texas Holdem doesn’t seem so bad, either. Texas Holdem is by far and away the most popular poker game played today, but it wouldn’t exist or have a place to play if not for all of the games that came before it.

It is strange how something with worldwide appeal like poker has a history that is shrouded in mystery. Still, whether the game was created by Chinese leaf game player or emperors, Persian and Indian card players, European bluff-game-players, or American gamblers looking to bet, it has still turned into the pastime we know and love today.

One does not need to know the history of the game to enjoy it. Still, it does make one wonder if today’s Texas Holdem is tomorrow’s primero or As-Nas and what the future holds for this incredibly popular game.