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The History of Poker and Its Evolution

Jordan C

Jan 16, 2023

Renaissance Picture of Poker

Poker, as we know it in 2022, has come a long way since its origins as a card game played in the South of the United States. Much has been changed in the way of the rules, the number of playing cards, and even the way we play, and it’s safe to say that poker has greatly evolved from its humble origins. While the history of poker is a long and storied one, it’s always best to start at the beginning.

First Beginnings

While no one knows for certain the true origin of the game of poker, many historians believe it to have originated in the Southern United States, with the earliest recorded mention of the gaming coming in a work by R. F. Foster in 1837. In this work, Foster described the game like this, “the game of poker, as first played in the United States, five cards to each player from a 20 card pack” - a lot different to the game we know today! This describes the Persian card game “As-Nas”, which originated in the 16th century. It’s believed that poker is a descendant of this game, along with inspiration from the French card game “poque” from where poker gets its name.

However, some people dispute this poker origin story, as they believe what makes the game of poker unique is the betting rounds, which weren’t popularised until the mid to late 18th century. This variety of the game was played with 52 cards, included stud and straight poker, and spread throughout the Mississippi region by 1800.

Poker’s Popularisation

Popularisation of PokerThe 52-card deck version of the game is the one that garnered the most popularity amongst players and slowly evolved throughout the 19th century. The original five-card game became a drawing game around 1850, allowing players to improve their hands. The hand rankings were also updated to include straights and flushes, thanks to the popularity of the French decks with the four suits we still use today.

The game became particularly popular around the time of the American Civil War, as poker was played by both northern and southern soldiers alike. As the war played out, other versions of the game were created, such as the five-card stud. After the war was over, poker rapidly spread throughout the country as surviving soldiers returned home, taking the game with them. Poker was a key part of the culture of the Wild West and was heavily featured in the expansion of the Western Frontier throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At this time, other forms of poker were created and popularised around the country, starting with the Wild Card variant around 1875, lowball and split-pot games around 1900, and community card games such as Texas Hold’em in the early 1920s. 

Poker in Casinos

However, at this time, poker was not available to play in casinos, and the only games you could find were backroom games organised by some rather menacing characters. It was through games like these that poker legends such as Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Johnny Moss made their name and fortune. However, it was another man, Crandal Addington, that took the first step towards making poker a mainstream game, as he pitched the game to casinos to get organised, regulated games going. Only one casino took him up on his pitch, The Golden Nugget, in 1967.

Unfortunately, the Golden Nugget was not on the world-famous Las Vegas strip, and it didn’t get as much attention as originally hoped. It wasn’t until 1969 that poker finally found its way onto the Vegas Strip, thanks to a poker tournament hosted at the Dune. The tournament was a resounding success, and it caught the eye of Vegas heavyweight Benny Binion. He and his son Jack saw a lot of potential in the game and decided to create an event that would attract poker players from far and wide. 

World Series of Poker

The World Series of PokerThat event was the World Series of Poker, which made its debut in 1970. Binion invited seven of the world’s best poker players to his casino, where they would battle it out for days on end, playing a mix of 2-7 lowball, five card stud, razz, seven card stud, and Texas Hold’em. At the end of the event, the players voted on who played the best at the table, and in the end, Johnny Moss won the most votes and was declared the inaugural World Series of Poker champion. Legend has it that the vote had to be run twice, as each player voted for themselves on the first ballot!

After the success of the first WSOP, it was brought back for 1971, when the format changed from a mixed game cash game to the Texas Hold’em freezeout that we know and love today. Not much has changed at the WSOP since those early days, apart from the size of the event! Since 1972, the tournament buy-in has remained at $10,000, but as it’s grown in popularity, the first-place prize has grown exponentially!

The tournament even has a long history of being televised, as the first recorded filmings of the event took place in 1973 and were narrated by the legendary Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. In the late 1970s, CBS began covering the WSOP, and its popularity grew from there.

The Poker Boom and The Rise of Online Poker

Poker’s popularity increased throughout the 80s and 90s and really picked up steam around the late 1990s. Online poker launched in 1998 and gave players a way to play the game without having to travel to a casino. This gave players who lived in more rural areas access to the game on a regular basis and vastly increased the number of people playing poker.

This increased access to poker also increased the average skill level, as players could practice for hours on end every day, all from the comfort of their homes. Success begets success for online poker, as the more players that joined their site, the more their site would spread by word of mouth, which led to more players signing up. Online poker sites even struck deals with the World Series of Poker, offering players the chance to win their way to the famous event for a fraction of the cost.

This was a driving factor in bringing a lot of players to the site, as during the late 90s/early 2000s, poker on TV was at its most popular. Hole card cameras were introduced at the beginning of the 21st century, giving people access to a player's cards during the hand for the first time in history. Up until this point, people watching at home could only guess the hand each player had, but now they could sweat along and feel the tension as someone was pondering a hero call with ace high or bluffing all in with the worst hand.

Arguably the height of poker’s popularity came between 2004-2011 after Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 Main Event. An amateur who had won his seat to the tournament in a $30 satellite played against well-known pro Sammy Farha heads up at the final table to take home the coveted Main Event bracelet and $2.5 million.

This sparked a poker boom in the US and around the world, as millions of people saw an amateur take on the best and win to take home millions of dollars and thought to themselves, “Hey, if that guy can do it, why can’t I?” The number of Main Event entrants skyrocketed from 839 in 2003 to 8773 in 2006, online poker was booming, and it seemed like the games would be great forever.

Black Friday, Modern Poker, and The Second Poker Boom

That was until April 15th 2011, when the Department of Justice seized the domains of three of the most popular online poker sites, Pokerstars, Full Tilt, and Cereus Poker Network, and shut down online poker in the US. This caused a cataclysm in the poker world, as the market’s biggest source of players was suddenly eradicated from the player pool, millions of people had their money seized, and many more withdrew their money, fearing the same would happen to them.

Online Poker WebsitesThis was well and truly the end of the poker boom, as thanks to the loss of the US market, online games became tougher, fewer people were signing up, and the appeal of poker had somewhat waned amongst the general public. Further regulation in other parts of the world, such as France, Italy, and Spain, has led to ring-fenced markets, further reducing the number of players in the worldwide player pool and creating a worse poker ecosystem.

Online poker in the US still hasn’t fully recovered from the events of Black Friday. However, six states have reintroduced legal online poker (Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan), and we’re hoping that many more will follow suit.

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many people turned to online poker as a source of entertainment. Players created home games with their friends to socialise, leading to millions of people being introduced to poker for the first time. This influx of new players has created somewhat of a second poker boom, with sites reporting a large increase in the number of new accounts created during the pandemic.

This is reflected in the numbers for the WSOP Main Event. When some Covid regulations were still in place in Las Vegas, the 2021 Main Event saw 6650 players enter - roughly the average number of players we saw at the end of the previous poker boom. The 2022 Main Event saw 8663 players enter, just over a hundred short of the all-time record in 2006, with many experts predicting that the record will be broken in 2023.

While poker has had a long and storied history, we’re feeling positive about the future of poker, so why not create an account and try the game for yourself?