Poker is a five-card vying game played with standard playing-cards. A vying game is one where, instead of playing their cards out, the players bet as to who holds the best card combination by progressively raising the stakes until either -
- there is a showdown, when the best hand wins all the stakes ('the pot'), or
- all but one player have given up betting and dropped out of play, when the last person to raise wins the pot without a showdown.
It is therefore possible for the pot to be won by a hand that is not in fact the best, everyone else having been bluffed out of play. One of its earliest names was, in fact, 'Bluff'. Bluffing is as essential to vying as finessing is to trick-play.
A five-card vying game is one where, no matter how many cards may be dealt to each player, the only valid combinations are those of five cards. In orthodox Poker these are, from highest to lowest:
- straight flush (five cards in suit and sequence, Ace high or low, as hAKQJ10 or s5432A)
- four of a kind, fours (four cards of the same rank and one idler, as K-K-K-K-x)
- full house (three of one rank and two of another, as Q-Q-Q-4-4)
- flush (five cards in suit but not in sequence, as hJ-h-9-h8-h7-h2)
- straight (five cards in sequence but not in suit, as s10-s9-d8-c7-h6)
- three of a kind, threes, triplet, trips (three of the same rank plus two of two different ranks, as 7-7-7-x-y)
- two pair (as Q-Q-9-9-x)
- one pair (as 3-3-x-y-z)
- high card (no combination: as between two such hands the one with the highest card wins)
(The highest possible straight flush, consisting of A-K-Q-J-10 of a suit and known as a royal flush, is sometimes added to the list in order to bring the number of combinations up to the more desirable ten, but of course it is not different in kind from a straight flush. Other five-card combinations, known as freak hands, are recognized in unorthodox Poker variants.)
Any vying game based on these five-card hands is a form of Poker, and any game lacking either or both of them is not, even if it contains Poker as part of its title. For example, so-called Whisk(e)y Poker and Chinese Poker are gambling games played with Poker combinations, but both lack the element of vying, the former being a type of Commerce and the latter a partition game. Other games or game components are sometimes drafted into the form of Poker known as Dealer's Choice, but this does not make them forms of Poker. On the other hand, it does not prevent Dealer's Choice from being classed as a form of Poker so long as it also includes genuine Poker components.
Poker is of French-American origin and is the national vying game of the United States, though it has come to have a world-wide following in many different forms. Other vying games include Brag (British, a three-card game), Primiera (Italian, a four-card game), and Mus (Spanish, also with four-card hands). Another form of poker to spring up over recent years is what's known as Pai Gow poker (also called Double-hand poker) which is a spin off of the Chinese dominoes game Pai Gow. I won't go into details about this game here, so instead please see Pai Gow poker on pagat.com.
The birth of Poker has been
(courtesy of Look and Learn
history picture library) convincingly dated to the first or second decade of the 19th century. It appeared in former French territory centred on New Orleans which was ceded to the infant United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Its cradle was the gambling saloon in general and, in particular, those famous or notorious floating saloons, the Mississippi steamers, which began to ply their trade from about 1811.
The earliest contemporary reference to Poker occurs in J. Hildreth's Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains, published in 1836; but two slightly later publications independently show it to have been well in use by 1829. Both are found in the published reminiscences of two unconnected witnesses: Jonathan H. Green, in Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (1843), and Joe Cowell, an English comedian, in Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America (1844).
Green and Cowell describe the earliest known form of Poker, played with a 20-card pack (A-K-Q-J-10) evenly dealt amongst four players. There is no draw, and bets are made on a narrow range of combinations: one pair, two pair, triplets, 'full' - so called because it is the only combination in which all five cards are active - and four of a kind. Unlike classic Poker, in which the top hand (royal flush) can be tied in another suit, the original top hand consisting of four Aces, or four Kings and an Ace, was absolutely unbeatable.
Twenty-card Poker is well attested. In 1847 Jonathan Green mentions a game of 20-card Poker played on a Mississippi steamboat bound for New Orleans in February 1833, and in The Reformed Gambler (1858), a new edition of his earlier book, another session played at a Louisville house in 1834. A vivid account of a Poker game played on a Mississippi river boat in 1835 appears in Sol Smith's Theatrical Management in the West and South (1868), with an anecdote hinging on the two players' switching from 'low' cards to 'large cards', i.e. Tens and over.
This provides evidence that the 20-card game was being challenged by the 52-card game in the mid-1830s. The gradual adoption of a 52-card pack was made partly to accommodate more players, perhaps partly to give more scope to the recently introduced flush (the straight was as yet unknown), but chiefly to ensure there were enough cards for the draw-another relative novelty, and one that was to turn Poker from a gamble to a game of skill. These novelties were regular features of Poker's English relative Brag as played in its early 19th-century American form. (American Brag is no longer played, and modern British Brag differs substantially from it.)
It was in this form, but as yet without the draw, that Poker first reached the pages of American 'Hoyles'. The earliest mention occurs in the 1845 edition of Hoyle's Games by Henry F. Anners, who refers to Poker or Bluff, 20-deck Poker, and 20-deck Poke. In a Boston Hoyle of 1857 Thomas Frere describes 'The Game of "Bluff", or "Poker"', with a reference to the 20-card game so brief as to suggest it was becoming obsolete. Dowling, however, points out that it was apparently still played as late as 1857 in New York, for "In that year the author of a guidebook to the metropolis issued a warning against playing 20-card poker, which was described as one of the most dangerous pitfalls to be found in the city".
Between about 1830 and 1845 Poker was increasingly played with all 52 cards, enabling more than four to participate and giving rise to the flush as an additional combination. The end of this phase saw the introduction of the draw, already familiar from contemporary Brag. This increased the excitement of the game by adding a second betting interval and enabling poor hands to be significantly improved, especially the worthless but potentially promising fourflush. The first printed mention of Draw Poker occurs in the 1850 edition of Bohn's New Handbook of Games, p.384. (Or so says Dowling, who reproduces a facsimile of the text; but no such reference appears in the British version of this title published as late as 1879.)
The introduction of Poker into English society is often credited, if only on his own claim, to General Schenck, the American ambassador to Britain. Blackridge quotes a letter from Schenck to General Young of Cincinnati describing a weekend retreat to the Somerset country home of a certain 'Lady W.' in the summer of 1872, when he was prevailed upon by the other guests to teach them this peculiarly American game. As part of the exercise he drew up a written guide for them. Some of his pupils subsequently had these rules printed in booklet form, much to Schenck's surprise when he received a copy upon his return home. Schenck notwithstanding, a probable earlier reference to the game in England dates from 1855 when George Eliot is reported (in her second husband's 1885 biography) as writing 'One night we attempted "Brag" or "Pocher"'[sic].
From the middle of the century Poker experienced rapid changes and innovations as it became more widespread through the upheavals of the Civil War. Stud, or 'stud-horse' Poker, a cowboy invention said to have been introduced around Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, first appears in The American Hoyle of 1864. More contentious was the introduction of Jack Pots, which originally meant that you were not allowed to open unless you held a pair of Jacks or better, and were obliged to open if you did, though the second half of this rule was subsequently abandoned. (At a table of five, at least one player will normally be dealt Jacks or better.) This device was intended to impose discipline on the game by driving out wild players who would bet on anything, while encouraging cautious players who did have something not to be frightened out of the pot by openers who didn't. Blackridge opposed Jack Pots, pithily declaring it 'equivalent to a lottery except that all players must buy tickets'. He added that the rule reportedly originated at Toledo and was common in the west, rarer in the east, and absent form the more conservative south. In 1897 Foster complained that "The jack-pot, with its accompanying small-limit game, has completely killed bluffing-that pride and joy of the old-timer..." Nevertheless, he adds, self-contradictorily, "The two grea t steps in the history and progress of Poker have undoubtedly been the introduction of the draw to improve the hand, and the invention of the jack-pot as a cure for cautiousness... It has come to stay."
Draw, Stud, and Jack Pots, all appear in the 1875 edition of The American Hoyle, together with Whiskey Poker, a form of Commerce based on Poker combinations, and Mistigris, which was Poker with a 53rd card 'wild', namely 'the blank card accompanying every pack'. (This borrowed from a variety of Bouillotte in which the Jack of clubs appears under that name as a wild card.) By this time, too, the full range of Poker combinations was widely recognized, though not universally so. The 1875 edition notes that four of a kind is the best hand 'when straights are not played', and repeats it as late as the 1887 edition.
It is curious how unstraightforward was the introduction of the straight. The 1864 edition gives the hands as: one pair, two pairs, straight sequence or rotation, triplets, flush, full house, fours. It adds 'When a straight and a flush come together in one hand, it outranks a full' - not fours, be it noted, in defiance of the mathematics, and probably for the following reason. Without straights and straight flushes, the highest possible hand is four Aces (or four Kings and an Ace kicker), which is not just unbeatable but cannot even be tied. Traditionalists clinging to the unbeatable four Aces of Old Poker were opposed by innovationists, who found the game more interesting with straights. In this light, the acceptance of straights ranked in the wrong order may be seen as a temporary compromise. As late as 1892, John Keller defended his view that the straight "should be allowed. My authority for this is the best usage of today, and my justification is the undeniable merit of the straight as a Poker hand." He clinches this with the moral argument that has prevailed ever since-namely, that it is unethical and ungentlemanly to bet on such a sure thing as four Aces. If the best hand is a royal flush, there is always the outside chance that it may be tied. However minute that measure of doubt, it has to be morally superior to betting on a certainty.
Under the aegis of the United States Printing Company and, subsequently, the New York Sun, a great deal of research was conducted into the origins and varieties of Poker with a view to drawing up a set of definitive rules, which first appeared in 1904. In 1905 R F Foster published his book Practical Poker, summarizing the fruits of all this research plus additional material gleaned from the Frederick Jessel collection of card-game literature housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Amongst other things, it would appear from this that Dealer's Choice began attaining popularity about 1900, according to Dowling. Subsequent developments can be traced through successive editions of Hoyles published by the United States Playing Card Company.
Following Draw and Stud, a third major structural division of the Poker game, represented today by Texas Hold 'em, is that of varieties involving one or more communal cards. The earliest of these appears in the 1926 edition under the name Spit in the Ocean. Here only four cards each are dealt, but the turn-up and the three other cards of the same rank are all wild. Deuces wild first appears in the 1919 edition.
High-Low Poker, in which the pot is divided equally between the highest and the lowest hands, is attested as early as 1903 (according to Morehead and Mott-Smith). It first appears in the 1926 edition and achieved its greatest popularity during the 'thirties and 'forties, subsequently giving rise to Lowball, in which only the lowest hand wins.
The rise of modern tournament play dates from the World Series of Poker started in 1970.
So many ridiculous assertions are made about the antiquity of Poker that it is necessary to point out that, by definition, Poker cannot be older than playing-cards themselves, which are only first positively attested in 13th century China, though some arguable evidence exists for their invention a few centuries earlier. Playing-cards first reached Europe in about 1360, not directly from China, but from the Islamic Mamluk Empire of Egypt through the trading port of Venice. Mamluk cards themselves also do not derive directly from Chinese cards but bear obscure relationships to the geographically intervening cards of India and (even more obscurely) Persia (Iran). Surviving specimens of Mamluk cards come from an original 52-card pack consisting of four suits (swords, polo sticks, goblets, coins) of 13 ranks each (numerals one to ten, junior viceroy, senior viceroy, and king). The only known Chinese card games of that period were of the trick-taking variety; and, while we have no contemporary account of games played with the Mamluk pack, it too was clearly designed for trick-taking.
Fourteenth century Europe saw an explosion in the variety of designs, suit-systems and structures of playing-cards, culminating before 1500 in the establishment of the principal European suit systems (Italian, Spanish, Swiss, German, French) and a correspondingly wide variety of accompanying games. A major European contribution to the realm of card play was the concept of a trump suit, first embodied in the Italian invention of tarot cards (at first called triumphi or triumph cards) in the 1420s, though also prefigured in the German game of Karnöffel (Kaiserspiel). Also developed during the same period were a number of gambling games based on acquiring or betting on card combinations such as flushes (Flusso, Flüsslen, etc), sequences (Quentzlen, etc), matches (pairs, triplets, quartets), and numeration (as in Thirty-One, the ancestor of Twenty-One and perhaps Cribbage). Melding and numerical games were probably derived from, or modelled on, dice games of the period, though we lack sufficient information to be able to reconstruct the actual forms of dice play.
It is hard to imagine a process of Poker-style vying operating in dice games of the time, as vying originally depended entirely on being able to hide the identity of the cards you hold or draw by exposing only their plain sides to the other players, whereas the outcome of dice throws is necessarily open and visible to all. (As Cardano famously noted in 1564, "There is a difference from play with dice, because the latter is open, whereas play with cards takes place from ambush, because they are concealed.") Nevertheless, whether originating in Europe or imported from elsewhere, there can be no doubt that vying card games were in use by 1500. This should not be taken to imply Poker-style vying, however, which may be a very late development. The earliest style of vying may more closely have resembled that traditionally followed in the English game of Brag.
It is possible that vying developed in trick-taking games as an extension of the process of 'doubling' now seen in modern Backgammon. In ancient card games such as Put and Truc, two players each received three cards and played them to tricks, but either player at any point could offer to double the stakes before playing a card. The other could then either accept the double and play on, or decline it and concede defeat for the existing (undoubled) amount.
A problem endemic in card-game history is that contemporary descriptions of vying are never unambiguous, partly because they find it easier to give an example of a round of vying without detailing the principles on which it is based, thus giving rise to irresolvable ambiguities, and partly because it never occurred to them that there could be any other possible way of doing it. Two fundamentally different types of vying may be categorized as the Equalization method (Poker style) and the Matching method (Brag style).
Equalization method. A player wishing to stay in the pot must increase his stake by the amount necessary to match the total so far staked by the last raiser, and may also raise it further. If unwilling to do either, he must fold. In the following example, column 2 shows the total staked so far by each player, and column 3 the total in the pot.
1 2 3 A opens for 1 1 1 B 1 to stay, raise 1 2 3 C 2 to stay 2 5 D 2 to stay, raise 1 3 8 A 2 to stay 3 10 B 2 to stay, raise 1 4 12 C fold - 12 D 1 to stay 4 13 A 1 to stay, raise 1 5 15 B fold - 15 D 1 to stay 5 16
A and D have now equalized, thus calling for a showdown. Whichever of them wins it gains a pot of 16 less his total stake o 5, making 11 profit.
Matching method. In this case a player wishing to stay in the pot must match the stake just made by the preceding active player, instead of merely making up the difference between his total stake and that of the last raiser. As before, he may then also raise it further, or, if unwilling to do either, must fold.
1 2 3 A opens for 1 1 1 B 1 to stay, raise 1 2 3 C 2 to stay 2 5 D 2 to stay, raise 1 3 8 A 3 to stay 4 11 B 3 to stay, raise 1 6 15 C fold - 15 D 4 to stay 7 19 A 1 to stay, raise 1 9 24 B fold - 24 D 5 to stay 12 29
In this case the winner gains a pot of 29 less the amount of his own stake, which in A's case is 29 - 9 = 20 and in D's is 29 - 12 = 17.
Further variations may be encountered, especially in Brag. For example, under what might be called a 'flat rate' system, each in turn must either add a fixed, invariable unit to his stake or else fold, and play continues until only two remain in the pot, when one of them can call by betting double. American Brag, as played according to an 1830 American Hoyle, used the equalization method, but an edition of 1868 points out that the game is played in various ways and describes a different vying procedure. In this, a player who brags when holding a pair (but not otherwise) may demand a private showdown with the next active player in rotation. They then examine each other's hands without showing them to the others, and the lower of the two must be folded. Play continues until only two remain and one of them either folds or 'calls for a sight [showdown]' upon equalizing. This procedure has the peculiar consequence that you can be forced into a showdown without having had a chance to raise. In Bouillotte there are circumstances in which equalizing does not necessarily force a showdown but entitles the next active player in rotation to instigate another round of raising. It is also possible for a player who cannot meet the last raise to call a sight for the amount he has left and stay in the pot (without further betting) until a showdown, when, of course, he cannot win more than the amount he has staked even if he proves to have the best hand.
Articles on Poker history mention a wide variety of earlier vying games, not all of them entirely relevant. For the sake of clarity, they may be grouped according to the number of cards dealt and listed as follows.
Three-card games include Belle, Flux & Trente-un (French, 17th - 18th centuries, known as Dreisatz in Germany), Post & Pair (English and American, 17th - 18th centuries) and its derivative Brag (18th century to present), Brelan (French, 17th - 18th centuries) and its derivative Bouillotte (late 18th - 19th centuries, French and American). Of these, Bouillotte and Brag are most relevant to the genesis of Poker.
Four-card games include the Primiera (Italian, 16th century - present) and its English equivalent Primero (16th - 17th centuries), Gilet (under various spellings, French, 16th - 18th centuries), Mus (Spanish, specifically Basque, current, of unknown age), Ambigu (French, 18th century). None of these has much bearing, if any, on Poker.
Five-card games include the German Pochen or Pochspiel, which may be equated with a 15th-century game recorded as Bocken, and was played in France first under the name Glic and subsequently as Poque. Of all early European gambling games this one is most obviously germane to the genesis of Poker to the extent of having ultimately furnished its name. Pochen is a verb meaning to primarily to hit, strike, or knock on the table, and secondarily '(I) play' or 'bet' or 'raise'. Thus Pochspiel is the game (Spiel) of poching, i.e. knocking or betting. In its earliest form it appears as boeckels, bocken, bogel, bockspiel and suchlike.
Pochen has a long history
Poch boards of 1713 and 1745 in the
Bavarian Sate Museum, Munich in the German repertoire and is not entirely extinct today. It requires a staking board of special design and consists of three phases: payment for being dealt the best card, vying as to who holds the best combination, and playing cards out as in a 'stops' game such as Newmarket/Michigan. A similar tripartite structure applied also to Belle, Flux & Trente-un, in whose second part the players vied as to who held the best flush, and to Post & Pair, in whose second part they vied as to who held the best pair or three of a kind. An early form of Brag was also played as a three-stake game, and a similar pattern underlies Mus - where, however, the first part has been split into two, thus turning it into a four-part game.
We may surmise that dedicated gamblers found the central section of these games - the vying - more interesting than either the first, where a stake was won for being dealt the best upcard ('belle'), or the third, where it was won for drawing cards totalling nearest to 31 (or, in some games, for playing a variety of Stops). If so, Brelan may be characterized as an extract of B-F-&-31, Brag as an extract of Post & Pair, and Poker as an extract of Poque.
Given that Poker originated in culturally French territory, its likeliest immediate ancestor is Poque, the French version of Pochen. Poque first appears under this name in the late 16th century, but was previously played in France under the name Glic. It remained current until well into the 19th century, undergoing a brief mid-century revival under the spelling 'Bog'. The French equivalent of 'Ich poche eins' is 'Je poque d'un jeton' ('I bet one unit'), and poque itself denotes one of the six staking containers. The final 'e' is briefly pronounced as a neutral vowel, which may explain why non-Francophone Americans perceived and perpetuated the word as 'poker' rather than 'poke'. Louis Coffin writes "The French name was poque, pronounced poke, and Southerners corrupted the pronunciation to two syllable to pokuh or Poker". This sounds more plausible than a fancied derivation from 'poke' as related to 'pocket'.
Poque, however, was a tripartite game
"La Bouillotte Parisienne" played by up to six players with a 32-card pack, whereas the earliest form of Poker was a one-part game played with a 20-card pack equally divided among four. If Poker was based primarily on Poque, we must assume that it developed naturally within a community that was already acquainted with a 20-card vying game and decided to use the same stripped pack for a new version of Poque based only on the vying section. A possible candidate for this influence could be its contemporary and equally French game of Bouillotte, itself played by four with a 20-card pack, albeit with only three cards dealt to each and the top card of stock turned up to enable four of a kind. This, however, would have left a five-card vying game in which the only effective combinations were four or three of a kind. To account for the introduction of one and two pairs and the full house we must either assume that they were obvious additions that may already have been drafted into Poque itself, or else look for another game from which they could have been borrowed. Which brings us to -
Contentious calls have been made on the possible contribution to Poker of a Persian five-card vying game called As-nas through the medium of "Persian sailors, or Frenchmen who had been in the French service in Persia" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franco-Persian_alliance. The problem with this theory is that it is based on no more than a strong resemblance and suffers from a total lack of contemporary evidence, since the earliest descriptions of As-nas do not occur until the 1890s. The first, very brief, is by 'Aquarius' in 1890; the second occurs in Stewart Culin's 1895 catalogue for an exhibition of 'games and implements for divination' under the short title Chess and Playing Cards. Culin, in connection with several incomplete sets of Persian playing cards generally referred to as ganjifeh, consulted a certain General A. Houtum Schindler of Tehran and received a reply describing As-nas as follows:
Schindler's description of As-nas cards and the game played with them reads in part as follows (p.928-9): "The word ganjifeh is in Persian now only employed for European playing-cards (four suits, ace to ten; three picture cards each suit), which, however, are also called rarak i âs - rarak i âsanâs - or simply âs, from the game âs or âsanâs. From travellers to Persia in the seventeenth century we know that a set of ganjifeh consisted of ninety or ninety-six cards in eight suits or colors. At present a set consists of twenty cards in five colors or values, namely:
1. Shîr va Khurshíd or âs: Lion and Sun, or Ace.
2. Shâh or Pishâ: King.
3. Bîbî: Lady (or Queen).
4. Sarbâs: Soldier (or Knave).
5. Lakat (meaning something of little value): generally a dancing-girl.
The backs of the cards
17th century As-nas cards are always black or of a dark color, but their faces have grounds of different colors, viz: The Lion and Sun, a black ground; the King, a white ground; the Lady, red; the soldier, gold; the Lakat, green. The pictures on the cards show much variety and are often obscene, particularly those on the card of the lowest value. The ordinary types as now made are: Ace, a Lion and Sun, as in the Persian arms; a King sitting on a throne; a European lady in a quaint costume; a Persian soldier shouldering his rifle; a Persian dancing-girl. The word ganjifeh I have explained. Âs is no doubt our word 'ace', probably introduced into India through the Portuguese. Neither of the words is found in Persian dictionaries. The game of Âs is exactly like Poker, but without any flushes or sequences. There are four players, and each player gets five cards, dealt to the right. The dealer puts down a stake. The first player then looks at his cards. If he 'goes', he says dîdam (I have seen), and covers the stake or raises it. If he does not wish to play, he says na dîdam, (I have not seen) and throws his cards. He may also 'go' without looking at his cards - that is, in poker parlance, 'straddle' - and says nadîd dîdam (not seeing, I have seen). The second player, if he wishes to play, must cover the stakes, and can also raise. The third player and the dealer then act in the same way just as in poker, and when the stakes of all players are equal and no one raises any more the cards are turned up and the player holding the best hand wins the stakes.
The hands in the order of their value are as follows:
She va just, i.e., three and a pair; a 'full'., i e., three and a pair; a "full."
Sehta, i.e. threes, aces, kings, etc.
Do just, i.e., two pairs; aces highest.
Just, i.e., one pair; aces highest.
When two players have the same pair or pairs, the other cards decide; for instance, a pair of kings, ace, soldier, and lakat. 'Bluffing' is a feature of the game and is called tûp zadan, literally 'fire off a gun'. A bluff is tûp.
The following table shows how the earliest form of Poker compares with Schindler's game and the two most relevant contemporaneous French vying games. [On a hand-held device this table needs to be viewed horizontally.]:
Bouillotte Poque As-nas Poker I Brag Poker II players 4 (3, 5, 6) 4 (3, 5, 6) 4 4 3-6 3-6 cards 20 (28) 32 (36) 20 20 52 52 deal 3 5 5 5 3 5 turn-up yes yes no no no no draw no no no yes yes yes hands fours
The resemblance between As-nas and 20-card Poker is very close (though Schindler does not mention four of a kind - probably by oversight. Original descriptions of 20-card Poker unfortunately do not specify how combinations rank). Schindler's description also leaves open the possibility that raising could continue after equalization: it all depends on the precise meaning of 'when the stakes of all players are equal and no one raises any more'. (Does 'and' specify a second requirement for a showdown, or does it merely amplify the first?)
The question naturally arises as to which way round any borrowing may have taken place. Favouring the priority of As-nas is the fact that As-nas cards, a subset of the Persian ganjifeh pack, are attested as early as 1800 in Persia, though without any account of the game played with them. Against it are -
- the absence of any description of the game earlier than 1890;
- the fact that As is not a Persian word and obviously derives from the French for Ace; and (hence)
- the probability that As-nas derives from a European vying game rather than the other way around.
Research by Jeffrey Burton has thrown new light on the significance of Brag to the development of Poker. Brag is the English national vying game and remains popular in Britain today, though it has undergone considerable evolutionary development in the past 100 years and is restricted to a social stratum having no significant overlap with that of Poker. First described by Lucas in 1721, Brag is basically from the central section of the tripartite game of Post and Pair, or Belle Flux et Trente-un. For much of the 18th century it was popular with the same sort of society that played Whist, especially with its distaff side, which accounts for the fact that Hoyle himself went so far as to write a Treatise on it published in 1751. Brag - which means 'vie' or 'bluff' according to context - is a three-card vying game. The version described by Lucas which has formed the basis of most printed descriptions until the last quarter of the 20th century, is actually of a three-stak model, but it had shed its two outer portions by the time of Hoyle's effusion. The latter describes a game played by five with a short pack of 22 cards, or by six with one of 26, four of which - the black Jacks and the red Nines - were known as 'braggers' and could represent anything, including themselves. The first round of betting was followed by a 'draw' to give each player a chance to improve a pair to a pair-royal or a lone card to a pair or pair-royal by discarding and 'taking in' fresh replacements from stock. However, given that the peculiar length of pack, leaving only seven or eight cards to draw from (implying a maximum of one each), is unique to this notoriously unreliable and muddled source, we may assume that Brag was mostly played with all 52 cards, and that Hoyle's reflected some local or temporary aberration.
Burton surmises that Brag reached America in the late colonial period at the hands of English emigrants, British colonial officials, and perhaps Americans returning from transatlantic visits. At first played mainly in the plantation colonies of the South - Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas - by about 1800 it had caught on in New England, as well as in the southern states of the young republic. Its first description, in The New Pocket Hoyle (Philadelphia, 1805), continued to be faithfully reproduced in a succession of American Hoyles for much of the 19th century, though the game itself was well on the way out by 1850, having been replaced by - or, rather, merged into - the form of Poker to which it contributed the draw. Until that time, however, as Burton says, a multitude of contemporary memorabilia testifies that the rules and procedures were more or less the same in the California goldfields at the end of the 1840s as they had been in the gaming salons of Mobile or New Orleans in the 1820s and in the taverns of Washington or New York twenty years before that.
Brag, he continues, "disappeared during a period of no more than five or six years between, roughly, 1848 and 1853. What had happened is that the 'taking in' or draw feature of Brag was merged into the new game of full-deck Poker. The five-card Poker hand yielded a far greater range of distinctive combinations than the Brag hand, in which the pair-royal (three of a kind) an pair were still the only ones recognized by American players. Hence, when the draw was transplanted from Brag to Poker, the three-card game lost its following in next to no time. The result of the amalgamation could have been called Five-card Brag; instead, it became known as Draw Poker."
Nobody ever knows how a classic card game really originates because at the time it does so its originators do not know that it is going to become a classic and so keep no record. In any case the process of origination rarely takes place at a single table but mostly among a group of players within a given locality, so gaming ideas and variations pass around without anyone being sure who thought of them first. By the time a game description appears in a book it has by definition settled down into some sort of fixity, and may be more than a generation old - especially in the case of games played by a community that circulates its cultural artefacts orally rather than in writing. The following summary of the genesis of Poker is therefore no more than a surmise, albeit at least consistent with the evidence outlined above.
Original Poker, a game in which four players received five cards each from a 20-card pack and vied as to who held the best hand, evidently originated in the New Orleans some time between 1810 and 1825. Its gaming milieu was that of French-speaking maritime gambling saloons, especially those of the Mississippi steamers. Its name suggests that its first players felt they were continuing the tradition of playing a game called Poque in which one said Je poque to open the betting. At this time and place, and before it underwent development, Poque probably denoted a five-card vying game consisting of the central section of a formerly tripartite game of the same name. Its ultimate ancestor must have been the substantially similar German game of Poch (Pochen, Pochspiel), which can be traced back to the 15th century.
Poque itself was played with 32 or 36 cards by up to six players. Its transition to one played with 20 cards by four players or both. As-nas would be an ideal candidate were it not for the fact that there is no evidence for any knowledge of it at that time or place.
In the 1830s, having spread northwards along the Mississippi and westwards with the expanding frontier, Poker had adopted its anglicized name and become increasingly played with 52 cards to accommodate a greater number of players, thus also giving rise to the flush as an additionally recognized combination. Under the influence of Brag, its three-card British equivalent, it adopted the draw. This led to its further and more rapid expansion of popularity, as Poker-players preferred the additional round of betting after the possibility of improving a promising hand, while Brag-players preferred the wider range o combinations offered by a five-card hand. Draw Poker, first recorded about 1850, marks the coming of age of what Allen Dowling rightly calls 'The great American pastime' - a game which, as Burton observes, could equally well have been dubbed 'five-card Brag'.
Hildreth, James, Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains; Being a History of the Enlistment, Organization, and First Campaigns of the Regiment of U.S. Dragoons; Together With Incidents of a Soldier's Life, and Sketches of Scenery and Indian Character. By a Dragoon. (N.Y., 1836) Pages 128-130 describe a late-night game of poker in the soldiers' barracks, beginning "The M- lost some cool hundreds last night at poker...". Hildreth refers to it as popular in the South and West but little known in the East. He does not specify whether it was played with the 20-card or full 52-card pack. Return
Dowling, Allen, The Great American Pastime (New jersey, 1970). This is the only accessible history of Poker worth reading. Return
Green, Jonathan H. , in Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, (New York, 1843; republished with additional material in 1857 as Gambling Exposed.) Return
Cowell, Joe, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America (New York,
1844). "One night, while I was getting instructed in the mysteries of uker [Euchre], and Sam was amusing himself by building houses
with the surplus cards at the corner of the table, close by us was a party playing poker. This was then exclusively a high-gambling
Western game, founded on brag, invented, as it is said, by Henry Clay when a youth; and if so, very humanely, for either to win or
lose, you are much sooner relieved of all anxiety than by the older operation.
"For the sake of the uninformed, who had better know no more about it than I shall tell them, I must endeavour to describe the game when played with twenty-five cards only [sic; evidently twenty as implied below], and by four persons.
"The aces are the highest denomination: then the kings, queens, jacks and tens: the smaller cards are not used; those I have named are all dealt out, and carefully concealed from one another; old players pack them in their hands, and peep at them as if they were afraid to trust even themselves to look. The four aces, with any other card, cannot be beat. Four kings, with an ace cannot be beat because then no one can have four aces; and four queens, or jacks, or tens, with an ace, are all inferior hands to the kings when so attended. But holding the cards I have instanced seldom occurs when they are fairly dealt; and three aces for example, or three king with any two of the other cards, or four queens, or jacks or tens, is called a full, and with an ace, though not invincible, are considered very good bragging hands. The dealer makes the game, or value of the beginning bet and called the ante- in this instance it was a dollar-and then everybody stakes the same amount, and says, "I'm up". Return
Schenck, Robert Cumming, was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St James in 1870. Return
Blackridge, J, The Complete Poker Player (New York, 1880) Return
Smith, Sol, Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years (New York, 1868). (Citation and reference kindly provided by Professor Evert Sprinchorn.) Return
Eliot citation and reference from the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. poker. Return
Foster, R. F. Foster's Complete Hoyle (London 1897); see also Foster, Practical Poker (London 1904). Return
Glic: See Depaulis, Thierry, "Une boîte à jeux du musée de Cluny", in La revue du Louvre (February 1987, No 1). Return
Coffin, Louis, former treasurer of the United States Playing Card Company, in the Introduction to George Coffin's The Poker Game Complete (London 1950). Return
Keller, John, The Game of Poker (New York, 1892) Return
Morehead, A, and Mott-Smith, G, Culbertson's Card Games Complete (New York, 1952). Return
Cardano, Girolamo Liber de ludo aleae (1564); also Gould, Sydney (trans.) The Book on Games of Chance (Princeton University, 1953) Return
French service: The phrase is Dowling's, his source possibly Louis Coffin, who write "American Poker probably originated in New Orleans among French inhabitants who had been in the French Service in Persia circa #1800-20". Return
'Aquarius' (Louis d'Aguilar Jackson): Italian Games at Cards and Oriental Games (London, 1890). Return
'Theophilus Lucas', Lives of the Gamesters of the Restoration (1714). 'Bragg' first appears in an appendix to the 1721 edition. Republished London, 1930, with an introduction by Cyril Hughes Hartman. Return
Burton, Jeffrey, 'Bluff English Game - with American Branches: Brag in Literature and Life', The Playing Card (Journal of the International Playing-Card Society, Volume XXIV, 3 - 4, Nov 1995 - Jan 1996). Return
Hoyle, Edmond, A Short Treatise on the Game of Brag (London, 1751) Hoyle's unsatisfactory work was not republished, and only two copies are known to survive. As Burton (prec.) says, it "betrays evidence of haste and muddle. Hoyle was almost 80 years old in 1751, and may not have had any especial interest in what he was writing about. His reputation as an oracle, perhaps not unmixed with vanity, may have prompted him to produce a handbook on a new variation of Brag which, all of a sudden was all the rage in the clubs and drawing-rooms of the capital. Just two years earlier, indeed, Horatius (Horace) Walpole had informed a correspondent, Sir Horace Mann, that 'Methodism is more fashionable than brag'; t women, he added 'play very deep at both'. And it was news of the Brag revival that had moved Lady Montagu to refer [in 1749] to its first burst of popularity, forty-some years previously." Return