From Origins to Today: The Complete History of Poker
While there were many ‘poker like’ games through history, the game proper started in the Southern States in the 19th century. The journey of poker since then has been a rollercoaster. Booms have been followed by busts, especially in relation to the online game.
Poker continues to be as popular as ever – and its reach has now spread around the world. This page gives you a complete history of poker. Here are how things are covered below:
There is a lot of dispute about where poker began. If you look back through ancient history, there are plenty of games which poker-like qualities. The earliest played in China around 900AD. This game used dominoes, not cards. Though ranks were used.
The renaissance saw ‘poquer’ played, with bluffing introduced for the first time in France. Meanwhile a German game also had a bluffing element, along with ‘Brag’ a game played in the UK.
Other suggested origins include As-Nas, which was played in Ancient Persia.
While these games used cards, ranks and an element of bluffing – they were not really poker as we know it today. One key thing was missing – betting. Without the betting element, bluffs and ranks were simply elements of the many card games around at the time. When money is on the line, there is more than pride involved in your bluffs.
The earliest record of poker in close to modern-day format comes from New Orleans in 1829. This game involved betting and bluffing. It was closest to what we know as 5-card draw today. Games in those days could be played with a 20-card short deck, as well as the full 52 card deck.
At that time, New Orleans was a major hub. It connects the Mississippi river with the Gulf of Mexico – a major trading port. The Mississippi allowed the spread of the game to many states. During this period steamboat casinos made their way up and down the river. These times were dangerous – with ‘card sharps’ taking the bankrolls of unsuspecting gamblers.
While the civil war brought and end to the era of Steamboats, it did not stop poker from spreading. Stud poker games got their start at around this time. This was popular among soldiers while camped.
Meanwhile, poker was spreading to the west. Deadwood’s famous casinos thrived around this time. Those poker games you see in old Western movies were happening all over the West in smoky saloons and around campfires. These games were mostly draw poker, with 5-card and 7-card stud getting started too.
In 1970, casino owner Benny Binion invited the best gamblers to play in the inaugural World Series of Poker. This was held at the Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas. Those invited were professional ‘road gamblers’. Hardened players who travelled to where the (often illegal) games were being played.
Big names included Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Johnny Moss. At that time, flop games like Texas Hold’em were played with fixed betting limits. The first WSOP use No-Limit Hold’em. At this first event, the winner was decided by popular vote. This accolade went to Johnny Moss.
It took another 10 years before the WSOP started to take off. By 1980 the Main Event had reached triple figures. While the popularity of poker was growing, it was at a steady rate, and not even on the radar of the average person.
At the end of the 1990’s, poker got some much-needed publicity. A TV show which showing player’s hole-cards got started in the UK. Late Night Poker proved a winning formula. With viewers able to follow the action, the big bluffs and winning hands were suddenly available to average players. The format moved to the US with High Stakes Poker and Poker Night in America attracting big audiences.
Poker also became available online at the end of the 1990’s. Sites like Party Poker and Paradise Poker (now called 888) were among the early movers. At this point Fixed Limit games were the main option – online tournaments (and other variations) being added later.
By the early 2000’s the World Series of Poker had reached triple figures – and was becoming a bigger event with many side-tournaments. Things really took off after Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event in 2003.
The reason was that Moneymaker was not a pro. In fact, he was an accountant, who won his seat in the big event in an online satellite qualifier. His rags to riches story inspired millions to give online poker a try. PokerStars was the biggest site at this point, and soon introduced their ‘Sunday Million’.
Combined with TV poker, the World Poker Tour and European Poker Tour – poker boomed like never before. New sites sprang up, and new formats were developed online. With recreational players the main types attracted online – a new breed of online poker pros was born. People started multi-tabling, taking advantage of the soft online action. The poker rooms were competing to send as many players as possible to the WSOP. By 2006, record fields for the Main Event were being recorded. This allowed the winner that year (Jamie Gold) to take home a staggering $12 million.
At the time the ‘Unlawful Internet Gambling Act’ of 2006 seemed like a terminal blow to online poker. In hindsight, this merely shifted the online action to different (less regulated) sites.
This act made financial transactions between banks and online poker rooms illegal. It did not ever make playing real money poker illegal. The result was that the major regulated poker rooms closed to US players. Party Poker, 888 and iPoker rooms left quickly.
They were replaced by PokerStars, Ultimate Bet, Full Tilt Poker and others. These rooms stood by the fact that they were not under US jurisdiction – and boomed as a result.
The following years saw online poker move from its recreational roots to become more professional. Training sites, rakeback deals and online forums sprang up – and many players became pro-grinders. These new giants of the online poker world quickly overtook the old guard. They also expanded around the world. Further booms happened in Europe, Russia and Australia.
A pivotal moment in online poker history happened on April 15th, 2011. This is when the Feds, in conjunction with the State of New York’s attorney general, decided to crack down on the new generation of online poker sites.
Players woke up to find the site’s domain’s seized – with a law enforcement message on the homepages. Suddenly, players could not access their bankrolls as site after site pulled out. Some sites (Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker in particular), quickly folded – taking player bankrolls with them. Others made good with player funds. PokerStars later paid a fine and is now back in the US via their New Jersey site.
Full Tilt poker was another casualty. This site closed later than the others. Eventually, players were paid back via the US government – and PokerStars bought their one-time rival.
Online poker in the US did not stop completely. To this day there are offshore poker rooms that welcome US players. These include Bovada and BetOnline. Located in the Caribbean and Central America, these sites maintain their rights to welcome US players under international trade laws.
Elsewhere, the bigger online poker sites thrived. Poker has become regulated throughout Europe, and now reaches Latin America too.
The clarification of the Wire Act, an old law covering betting across state borders has allowed individual States to regulate online poker. So far, only Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey have online poker rooms – which can only be visited from within the State borders. Initial optimism about new states also regulating has been slow to become reality – though there is movement is several states.
Offshore poker has been a success. Bovada, who welcome US players, are now one of the biggest poker rooms worldwide. Internationally, PokerStars did not suffer too much from exiting the US. They maintain a huge lead in terms of the number of players worldwide.
Though poker is very much the realm of ‘serious’ players and pro-grinders around the world, new formats are currently adding a more recreational element to the game. These include ‘Lottery Sit N Goes’ which have random prize pools. You will also find fast-fold poker and entertaining tournament variations at online poker rooms.
As you will see from the history of the game, it is hard to predict the ups and downs of poker. The game remains hugely popular, and new innovations are cropping up all the time.
Recently, PokerStars trialled a VR poker game. The aim is to recreate the live experience ‘virtually’. There are also new live poker streaming services coming online. Poker Go have a paid service to watch high stakes games and tournaments (including the WSOP). Finally, online poker could yet return to the US. Several states are in various stages of regulating poker – and if the benefits (tax revenues) work out, this could easily spread.
Meanwhile the WSOP is still booming, with 6500+ players entering the Main Event each year. Let’s hope for an amateur (or better still, female) winner and see if the public’s imagination can be caught again.