People have been playing with cards for several centuries, and as with dice, hundreds of games have evolved over time. Among those were several games that became the precursors to poker, which has emerged as the most popular card game ever played.
European literature dating back to as early as 1526 makes several references to a poker ancestor known as primero in Spain, primiera in Italy, and la prime in France. This game dealt out three cards to each player, and three possible hands could be made: three of a kind, pair, and flux (a flush, or three cards of the same suit). Over time this game gave rise to offshoots known as poque (French), poca (Irish), and pochen (German). In fact, the German version took its name from that language’s word for “bluff.”
Persians in the 17th century created the game of As-Nas, which utilized a 20-card deck featuring five card ranks. In As-Nas the As (Ace) was the highest card, followed by the Shah (King), the Bibi (Lady), the Serbaz (Soldier), and the Couli (Dancer). The gameplay of As-Nas was similar to modern poker, with four players being dealt five cards each, and a forced stake or ante being put up by one player at a time. Players checked their cards and decided whether to see the stake, raise, or fold. After a round of betting the cards were revealed and the high hand (using a basic ranking system of full house, three of a kind, and pair) claimed the pot.
Like so many other modern games, poker arrived on American shores along with the waves of immigrants to arrive during the mid-18th century. Frenchmen brought poque to the South, while Germans took pochen to the East Coast, and by the 1800s poker was a staple among New York businessman, riverboat gamblers, Civil War soldiers, frontiers folk, and Old West cowboys alike.
The concept of “draw poker” was introduced around 1850, giving players an opportunity to improve their initial hand. This addition spawned a number of poker variants as players tinkered with the new gameplay feature, including five-card stud, lowball, and other split pot games around 1900, and community card games like Texas Hold’em around 1925.
By the mid-20th century poker had become a profession for highly skilled players, many of whom traveled the country in search of the next big game. These so-called “Texas Road Gamblers” were a motley crew including the likes of legendary figures Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, Johnny Moss, Walter Clyde “Puggy” Pearson, Bob Hooks, Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Jack “Treetop” Straus, Bryan “Sailor” Roberts, and Crandell Addington.
Although poker was played for huge stakes in underground games all across the country, legal poker had yet to become a hit with the general public, and by the late 1960s there were just 70 poker tables operating in the entire state of Nevada.
Nonetheless, in 1969 a pair of gamblers named Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey held a “Texas Gamblers Reunion” in Reno, inviting most of the players mentioned above, along with players like Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Rudy “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, and Benny Binion.
Moore and Vickrey declined to host the event in 1970, so Binion – an entrepreneurial mind with a flair for gaming who owned the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas – decided to do the honors. Binion held the first World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe, and when “Amarillo Slim” Preston won the event in 1972, his upset victory spawned a media tour that brought poker to the masses and into the mainstream. A second poker boom occurred in 2003 when amateur Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event, turning a $39 qualifier into a $10,000 seat, and then into a $2.5 million payday. Moneymaker’s victory led to millions of players taking to the virtual felt, and online poker became a massive industry.