Poker in the Twentieth Century
Welcome to Part 3 of our history of poker! As you know, the 20th century began with no internet! There was no online poker, no online tournaments, no rakeback, no large number of online poker rooms, no Chris Moneymakers! Still, poker thrived from the start to the finish of the century!
Go West Young Man
Poker moved up the wide Mississippi River in the 18th and 19th centuries. It might have travelled eastward from the Mississippi which, at the time, was in the center of the known continent geographically but was considered western by the cultural standards of the time.
Poker was too rough and tumble for the parlors of the east. Boston and New York set the tone for northern culture. Boston was far too religious for a roughneck game like poker and New York was already too “refined” for it. Virginia set the cultural tone for the antebellum south and it was also too refined for poker.
So, poker went west and grew with the nation!
Poker Decks and Evolution
The twenty card poker decks that were common in the 18th century evolved into a new species of card deck, one with 52 cards by the middle of the 19th century. Having a full 52 card deck made poker more complex. The size of the deck began the movement toward scientific and mathematical analysis of poker but since the players were mostly untutored roughnecks, this evolution took many millennia in poker years to complete!
Draw and Stud
The main variations of poker for a couple of hundred years were either five card draw, or a precursor of the draw aspect of poker in which the cards were dealt, betting ensued, and the best hand won with no draw, or five card stud. There is an apocryphal story told of how draw poker became stud. It involved a gambler offering his horse as the value of a bet in exchange for each player showing two cards. Maybe and then maybe not, but seeing one’s opponents cards became a very popular way to play poker.
From five card stud, poker quickly evolved to seven card stud. We might infer that seven card stud was the last frontier in poker until the introduction of community cards since in seven card stud, only seven players could sit around the table! Since betting is the raison de vivre of poker, it was important to be able to seat as many players as possible. So, seven card stud became the evolutionary limit of stud poker.
By the way, many rough and tumble poker players probably understood the term raison de vivre since the Mississippi Valley was French territory until the first decade of the 19thcentury.
The introduction of community cards made it possible for a lot more players to play at a single table but we were still many years away from the innovation of community cards.
The Game of Adventurers
Whereas horse racing is still considered the sport of kings, poker has always been the sport, or game if you will, of men who are willing to risk it all. There is no other game in which all-in is a powerful and threatening bet and a major risk on the part of the bettor.
As poker moved west, it was brought along by the type of men and women who were willing to accept the challenge of settling the vast American west. This is no segue into the politics of American expansion; rather it is an attempt to paint a picture of the type of people who had adopted poker and gave it the patina it carried with it until the age of computers and major tournaments.
The major tournament came first as the World Series of Poker began in Las Vegas in 1970. The top prize was not much but at least poker was on the map of sports that held a world championship! The computer age came two decades later and literally exploded onto the scene.
Poker is Bigger than Texas
The small town of Robstown, Texas is officially called the birthplace of Texas Holdem. There is a lot that is murky about calling Robstown the jumping off point for Texas Holdem. No one claims that the variation might have been developed in Maine or Minnesota or Montana. Texas it is!
But it seems that a poker variation starting from scratch even in a small town in Texas in 1925 would have some stronger historical evidence for its origins. The game spread quickly throughout Texas and seems to stay there in a kind of massive dormancy for about 40 years.
The Texas Game Moves to Vegas
Then Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, and Doyle Brunson brought Texas Holdem to Las Vegas in 1967 and by 1970 the World Series of Poker was launched with Texas Holdem as the flagship variation of poker.
As instrumental as these three poker players were in popularizing Texas Holdem, we need to give a great deal of credit to three men: a relatively unknown Texan, Crandell Addington, the owner of the Golden Nugget casino downtown, and Benny Binion.
Addington was more businessman than poker player and he saw Texas Holdem as a business opportunity waiting to happen. He went to Las Vegas to promote the game. He called it the thinking man’s poker variation. It caught the interest of the Golden Nugget Casino where it was played for two years until the Dune brought it to the Strip as part of a tournament.
This was the catalyst that caught Benny Binion’s attention. He saw the potential of a tournament featuring Texas Holdem and he bought a convention and changed its milquetoast name to the World Series of Poker! Since then, the term WSOP has become part of the language.
Crandell Addington was right about two things: Texas Holdem has proven to be the thinking man’s poker variation and the business opportunity offered by a big tournament featuring this specific poker variation has been worth far more than the multi-million dollar top prize in the annual tournament.
A Marriage of the Rough and Tumble and the Egghead
Texas Holdem, to the people who played it in its early years was a game of wits. With so many community cards and so few privately held cards, it seemed as if there might not be so much hand range in any given hand.
There is a great deal of range! And the early non-mathematical side of Holdem was all about bluffing and mental intimidation. The game still is about bluffing and mental intimidation and, in some ways, the advent of so much mathematical analysis makes it even more intimidating for many players, especially newer players.
Millions of people still play poker in friendly games for low stakes and beer. Women have become a major part of these games among friends and it was an episode of Friends that actually made it seem normal for women to be as conniving at poker as men.
Who can forget the scene when Aunt Iris asks if Tony Randall is dead, the girls react in shock at the thought that Aunt Iris might have killed Tony, and she says, “no, that’s bluffing”.
Bluffing is far more a part of online and land based poker than weekend poker with the buds. Still, the enduring popularity of poker comes through when pals get together to play poker until the wee hours when the winners take the losers out to breakfast.
Steak and eggs, anyone?