One of the interesting things about poker is that the game seems to have no commonly agreed birthplace or origin. The history of poker is widely disputed, and it seems to have drawn elements from a variety of earlier games.
One popular belief is that poker was invented by the Chinese around 900 A.D., as a derivation of Chinese dominoes. It’s reported that on New Year’s Eve, 969, the emperor Mu-tsung played “domino cards” with his wife. Whether this early hybrid between dominoes and cards can be identified as a form of poker is, of course, very debatable.
Less debatable is the fact that poker has closer ties with a French game called, similarly, “poque.” The French who settled New Orleans around 1480 played poque, which was a card game involving betting and bluffing. Poque was incidentally also the first game on record to use a deck consisting of spades, diamonds, clubs and hearts.
Later, in the 17th century, we can see a game similar to poker developing in a different part of the world. The Persian game “as nas” was a five-player game using a special deck of 25 cards with five suits, and many people credit “as nas” with being one of the true predecessors of modern-day poker.
As for documented early references to poker, the English actor Joseph Cromwell described a card game being played in New Orleans in 1829, while Jonathan H. Green wrote a book called An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling. In the book, Green refers to what he calls “the cheating game,” which was then being played on Mississippi riverboats. Green is credited with first calling this “cheating game” poker.
Whatever your theory about the origin of poker, the game becomes much easier to follow once we look at more modern American history. Poker traveled from New Orleans by steamboat up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and ultimately spread further by wagon and train. Variations such as stud poker, the draw and the straight became popular during the Civil War, and the last major European influence on the game was the introduction of the joker as a wild card around 1875.
In 1910, Nevada made it a felony to run a betting game. But the Attorney General of California declared that draw poker was based on skill and, therefore, that anti-gambling laws could not stop it. While stud poker remained illegal, draw poker became legal and quickly developed. This caused Nevada to reverse itself in 1931 and legalize casino gambling.
What really jumpstarted interest in modern tournament play was the beginning of the World Series of Poker in 1970. The first WSOP, which attracted a whopping total of seven players, was promoted heavily by Las Vegas casino owner and poker player Benny Binion, and took place at Binion’s Horseshoe casino. Now the WSOP is merely the culmination of a nationwide series of poker tournaments organized by Harrah’s Entertainment. Each year, the WSOP attracts more players and, as a result, bigger cash prizes.
In 2004, $25 million was distributed to winners of the WSOP, including a record-breaking $5 million for first place. ESPN and The Travel Channel routinely televise the tournament, further generating interest in poker.