Poker is the best-known card game of them all. It is one that is played in all corners of the globe by millions. There are thousands who play poker professionally or semi-professionally, and those at the top of the game are as wealthy, successful, and famous as the leaders in any traditional sport like football, tennis, or golf.
Trying to trace the history of a card game invariably turns into a journey down one rabbit hole after another. The trouble with card games is they are not devised and released like video games. Somebody seldom sits down and invents a card game on a certain date, and introduces it to the world the following week.
Instead, as you work back through a card game’s history, you find a point where its tale merges with that of an older, similar game. Blackjack is simply an American variation on the French game of vingt-et-un, which itself derives from an earlier game played in Italy. Poker has a similar story, and you can easily work your way back to the 10th century.
Instead of losing ourselves in poker’s pre-history, let’s focus on its more recent evolution. The term poker first appeared when the game was witnessed being played in New Orleans in 1829. Players used a reduced deck of 20 cards, and already, the basic poker hands were established.
By the mid-1800s, the full deck was in use, and poker game looked similar to the ones we all watched play out in the classic Westerns. But it was in 1925, with the introduction of community card poker, that the game really entered the modern era.
Poker in the 20th and 21st century
Community card poker is where players create the best possible hand from a combination of “pocket cards” held by them and “board cards” laid out on the table for anyone to use. It proved to be the launchpad for the modern game and led to the popularity of Texas Holdem over older versions like the five-card draw.
This popularity grew to a fever pitch in the 1970s when professional poker came out of the shadows and started to attract TV coverage on sports channels like ESPN. Legends like Doyle Brunson, who at 89 remains heavily involved in the game, became household names. Champions like Daniel Negreanu and Vanessa Selbst inspired others to take up the game, just as Tiger Woods and Serena Williams made golf and tennis popular again.
The internet proved both a blessing and a curse to poker’s development. It was mostly a blessing, but the US online poker explosion at the turn of the millennium resulted in a perhaps inevitable bust a decade later. Now, however, with legal US poker sites back on the map and accessible to mobile users practically everywhere, the future of the game looks more secure than ever. The game will continue to evolve, but ultimately, that is what history is all about – mapping events as they change, not staring at them as they stagnate.