the origins of poker -- 12/21/18

Today's selection -- from On the Origins of Sports by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine. A short history of poker:

"The debate over whether poker is a sport has raged forever -- or at least since 2003, when ESPN, by then America's de facto decider of such things, expanded its coverage of the World Series of Poker, the game's marquee event. To be fair, sports fans love to argue, and disagreements like this one are nothing new. ...

"Such parsing would have amused card players of yesteryear, who were mostly just interested in gambling. Poker has its roots in a card game similar to dominoes played by a Chinese emperor in the tenth century. (The Chinese invented the playing card a while earlier.) There are also elements that connect poker to a sixteenth-century Persian game.

"But poker's closest cousin -- and most likely the source of its name -- is a game called poque, a seventeenth­-century French game based on earlier Spanish and German games (primero and Poch, respectively). Rules varied from town to town, but the same combinations reigned everywhere: a pair, three of a kind, a 'flux' (aka a flush, a hand of same-suited cards). More crucially, all the games thrived under the assumption that the winning hand didn't necessarily need to be the best hand, owing to the betting -- and acting -- skills of the players. In Bohn's New Hand-Book of Games, a book first published in 1850 that contains the earliest surviving rules of 'modern' poker, the game is alternatively called 'bluff.'

"Poque was brought to the New World by the French. The game took off, in part because of its popularity as a riverboat pastime, with the French-accented port of New Orleans as its hub. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, poker (its name now anglicized) began a slow transformation into the game we play today.

 The Cardsharps by Caravaggio

"In his memoirs, the English actor Joseph Cowell reported playing 'draw poker' in New Orleans in the 1820s, using a twenty-card deck. (Our fifty­-two-card deck -- thirteen cards each in suits of clubs, diamonds, spades, and hearts -- is a 'French deck,' but it was one of many varieties that vied for broad adoption. The four suits in a forty-card 'Italian deck,' for example, were cups, coins, clubs, and swords.) In Cowell's account, five cards each were dealt to four players, who then bet on which player's hand formed the best combination. There was just one round of betting; the deal itself was the 'draw' that gave the game its name, and no replacement cards were taken (or available, for that matter). Gradually, as poker became a favorite amusement of frontiersmen, professional gamblers, and other American risk lovers, the fifty­-two-card deck became the standard: more cards meant more people could play, and more people meant more robust betting. Such progress was slow, because players needed time to adapt to changes in what were often very high-stakes affairs. In the 1856 edition of Bohn's New Hand-Book, for example, a run of five consecutive cards, aka a straight, wasn't listed among usable hands.

"The no-draw poker that Bohn describes is very much the basis for all the variations that followed: five-card stud (four cards revealed and one card down, known only to the player to whom it is dealt), seven-card stud (three cards down and four revealed, from which the best five-card hand is made), and, of course, Texas Hold'em (two cards down to every player, with all players sharing five common cards revealed in the middle of the table). Arguably the most popular version of poker today, hold'em is the game featured in the World Series of Poker's main event, which draws thousands of players annually, each of whom antes $10,000 for the right to compete against professional sharps and amateur enthusiasts alike."



Gary Belsky and Neil Fine


On the Origins of Sports 


Artisan a division of Workman Publishing Group


Copyright 2016 by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine


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