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Last time, we ended with poker entering the US in New Orleans. Poker then travelled north on the long Mississippi River. Getting from New Orleans to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas featuring Texas Holdem as the primary poker variation is quite an amazing story.

What Was Poker Like 300 Years Ago?

Our understanding of poker from the point at which it entered North America is murky.  Historians look to the writings of contemporary men and women for clues as to the history of any given subject.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any written history about poker from its arrival in New Orleans in 1803 until one Joe Cowell wrote about it in 1829.

Cowell wrote about poker more as an afterthought than as a serious historical subject.  The poker he described was a gambling game in which each player received five cards and they bet on who had the best hand.  Bluffing was common.  The game as Cowell described it was very similar to as nas which has led many to believe that poker, at least in its ultimate origins, derived in some way from as nas.

What Happened in the Next Five Years?

The next reference to poker came in 1834.  The only thing we learn from this reference is that poker now used the standard deck of 52 cards.  Exactly when the 52 card deck came into popular use is unclear. 

Now we have to wait 24 years until a book of game rules included poker.  One might think that poker would be presented in such a book as a new game but it was presented instead as a game well known to card players.

From 1858 poker continued to evolve.  Most of the changes were additions to foster betting.  Thus poker took on the identity as a popular betting game. 

Among the additions that led to more betting were the introduction of stud poker which featured open cards and several rounds of betting; the straight as a powerful hand which allowed many players to consider that their chances of getting a winning hand were good and kept them in the hand; the drawing round in which players discarded cards they didn’t want and received cards that might improve their hand; and the ante which forced players to have money in the pot before the cards were dealt and thus forced some players to stay in the hand even with marginal hands.

Changes in Poker Affected the Strategy

The addition of open cards made bluffing a much more powerful tool in the hands of a sharp player.  It caused poker players to study bluffing as a unique art form and has come to us in the amazing bluffs we see even in hands with five community cards!

The draw also telegraphed much information.  If a player drew only two cards, it might signal that he had three of a kind or that he was trying for a straight or a flush with only three cards.  When a player drew only one card, it overwhelmingly indicated that he was trying for either a straight, a flush, or that he had two pair already.

It became exponentially more important for players to “know” their opponents’ tendencies.  If a player sat down to a game of poker with strangers, he had a big advantage over them if he was skilled at bluffing and at misdirection, that is, getting the opponents to think he had one hand when in fact he had a much different hand.

From 1854 to 1865

The United States endured a horrific war from 1861 to 1865.  This war has been called the Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.  The North won the war at great cost in lives, life-long injuries, and the loss of the value of much property.

Ironically, poker was undergoing an evolution of its own as it moved up the Mississippi River.  But it moved westward much more easily than eastward since the war was raging to the east.  Thus, poker became the gambling game of choice in what became known as the Wild West.

The Wild West and the Dead Man’s Hand

Our knowledge of the Wild West is a lot more varied and full than our understanding of the first few decades of poker in North America.  One historical fact has caused a lot of misinformation about poker in the Wild West.

A man named William Hickok, who was widely known as Wild Bill, was shot from behind while he played poker in a saloon in Deadwood which was in a territory at the time, not a state.  The territory was the Dakota Territory which a couple of decades later would become two states, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Wild Bill was holding two pair in draw poker, aces and eights.  This hand has come down as the legendary Dead Man’s Hand.

The misconceptions that Wild Bill’s murder has engendered are that saloons in the Wild West were hotbeds of violence; that many poker players were either killed or threatened enough to cause them to give up a powerful winning hand; and that life in the western territories was fundamentally lawless at least until they became states to the extent that the entire region covering many thousands of square miles was all of one piece—the Wild West.

Almost every movie made about life in the Wild West features a brawl in a saloon.  The facts are quite different.  While life in the west was a bit lawless, it was no more lawless than life in the big cities in the eastern United States.  In addition, the saloon in town was where the men went to drink some cheap whisky and to chat with other men who they would see only in the saloon or at church.

Thus, the saloon was a place of congregation far more than it was a place of endemic violence.  Most of the poker games that these itinerant farmers and ranchers played were friendly games at low stakes.

Moving Forward

Poker was a very popular game in the western United States and in the territories.  In the 1870’s poker then began its own travels to parlors in New York City and to Europe.  We will continue reminiscing about poker’s journey in an upcoming article.


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