PrintPrintEmailEmailIn 1875 a writer for the New York Times was “forced to the conclusion that the national game is not baseball, but poker.”

“Rich and poor, high and low, good and bad, male and female yield to the fascinations of Poker,” another observer wrote in 1889.

As you read this in 2006, nimble fingers are flicking aces onto emerald baize in card rooms from eastern Connecticut to southern California; friends are bluffing friends across kitchen tables; television viewers are gazing at “Celebrity Poker Showdown”; college students are neglecting political science for Texas Hold ’Em; and the Chicago Tribune offers readers a weekly poker column.

Americans are in love with poker, but it’s hardly a sudden infatuation. For more than 150 years we have glorified the game and condemned it, promoted it and banned it, played it for fun and for profit. We have found in poker hints of the American character and analogies to world events. It has been the game of Presidents and dockworkers, of immigrants, housewives, and professional gamblers.

Why has poker so consistently inveigled the American imagination? A perfect amalgam of skill and luck, the game has the virtues of simplicity and versatility. You can learn it in 10 minutes and spend a lifetime acquiring proficiency. To the analytical, it’s about math; to the social, it’s pure psychology; to the acquisitive, it promises gain. To everyone, it offers the absorbing prospect of staking something, whether a few pennies or a fortune, and waiting giddily for the cards to decide your fate.

A Vying Game

Paternity tests attempting to pinpoint poker’s immediate parents have come back inconclusive. Like most card games, poker evolved, incorporating elements from other games, modifying them according to the habits and whims of players. Nor can the exact time of its birth be pinpointed. The game emerged out of the French cultural milieu of New Orleans during the decades after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. We know it came to prominence in the 1820s, but its roots are lost in the hazy air of long-ago saloons.

Poker began as a simple, almost childish game in which 20 cards were distributed, 5 each to four players. Participants bet on who held the best combination of like cards: pairs; three or four of a kind. If two or more players backed their cards, a “showdown” determined the winner.

The new game added an American wrinkle to card playing, an activity that first appeared in Europe in the late fourteenth century (one of the earliest references to playing cards is a 1377 Florentine edict banning their use). The cost of early, hand-painted cards made them playthings of the aristocracy. In the fifteenth century the printing press put cards into the hands of commoners, but the activity long retained an association with the upper crust. In England, ordinary folk were permitted their games only during the 12 days of the Christmas holiday.

Poker is a vying game, one in which combinations of cards are ranked according to their rarity. It differs from games like bridge or rummy in that there is no actual “play” with the cards, no trick taking or scoring of melds. The participants simply wager on who has the best five-card hand. This vying element had a long history in European card games. One such game, called primero, was popular in the Tudor court; Shakespeare has Henry VIII himself playing it. Brag, a popular British vying game, was played in America and existed side by side with poker through much of the nineteenth century. Both bluffing and wild cards were elements of brag.

One influence on early poker was the ancient German game of Pochspiel . Pochen , meaning to knock, was used to announce bets: “ Ich poche eins [I bet one].” A French version was known as Poque . It’s likely that poker borrowed certain of its elements as well as its name from these games.

Whatever its origins, poker was born at a propitious time. In 1812 Robert Fulton’s New Orleans became the first steamboat to churn into the Crescent City. Eight years later, as poker was finding its legs, 69 paddle wheelers were plying the Western rivers. These watery corridors provided the ideal pathway for the spread of what would one day become America’s national game.

The Devil’s Picture Book

Poker is a contest in which the gambling element is integral; it cannot be played in any meaningful way without wagering. As such it has always been linked to Americans’ ambivalent attitude toward games of fortune.

America was founded on gambling; Jamestown was one of several colonies backed by the proceeds of English lotteries. But the gambling craze that swept Europe in the seventeenth century was sternly condemned by the Puritans who settled New England. To them, card playing was sinful idleness that smacked of the sacrilegious. To the devout, playing cards were “the devil’s picture book.” In 1633 authorities imposed a fine for card playing in Plymouth Colony.

In Europe the situation was different. Gambling was the prerogative of gentlemen, idleness a courtly virtue. The southern colonies of America, beyond the influence of Puritan moralizing, embraced this aristocratic view of gaming. If Americans did not have the cash or the insouciance to wager on the scale of European gentry, they still loved to bet. George Washington recorded his modest wins and losses in his daybook (but gave orders to squelch the rampant gambling among Continental Army soldiers).