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The very American career of the card game you can learn in 10 minutes and work on for the rest of your life
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
Cardsharping, though, was a precarious profession. Suckers from the backcountry might be naive, but they could also hand out frontier justice to someone they suspected of cheating. Professional gamblers were sometimes tossed off riverboats into a swampy wilderness.
A bad streak of cards pushed some losers to extremes. In 1858 John Powell, who had a reputation as one of the few honest professionals on the Mississippi, took an English traveler in a game of poker for $8,000 and his luggage. The next day the Englishmen shook hands with the other passengers and shot himself dead. Powell sent the money and luggage to the man’s family and stopped gambling for a year.
Draw and Stud
Late in its riverboat phase, poker underwent two important modifications. One was the introduction of the standard 52-card deck. This allowed more than four players to participate and opened the way to the next modification, the draw. In Draw poker, players were given a chance to exchange some or all of their cards for others. With one round of betting before the draw and one after, games grew more exciting and required a good deal more skill. Draw poker spread rapidly in the late 1840s, and by 1850 play with a full deck had largely replaced the original 20-card game.
These innovations enhanced the practice of bluffing, a central feature of poker. By betting big and drawing no cards, a player could give the impression of holding a superior hand. If the others did not match his wager, the bluffer won the pot. Bluffing gave poker a psychological dimension and an enduring fascination. Early writers refer to bluff as another name for poker.
If poker grew up on the Mississippi, it came to maturity during the Civil War. Gambling was a welcome diversion for soldiers on both sides, and poker was a convenient, easy, and spirited game. When Sherman was advancing on Atlanta, word reached his headquarters that John Bell Hood had been appointed the new Confederate commander opposite him. The story circulated among Union ranks that a Kentucky colonel who had known Hood approached Sherman to inform him that in a poker game Hood had “bet $2,500 with nary a pair in his hand.” Reading Hood’s aggressive, bluffing style, Sherman prepared for the defensive. The Confederate attack came the next day, and Hood’s gamble was soundly defeated.
A new version of the game emerged during the war. Stud or Studhorse poker was first mentioned in The American Hoyle of 1864. (Edmond Hoyle, the eighteenth-century English barrister whose name became so closely linked to the rules of card games, died before poker was invented.) In Stud, a player received one card down and four cards up, with a betting round after each card. A seven-card version came into vogue later. Because of its complex and shifting permutations of hand values, the game made for suspense and encouraged liberal betting.
With peace, returning soldiers brought poker to every corner of the country. Veterans seeking opportunity on the frontier firmly established the game in the West. The saloons of cowtowns and mining camps replaced the riverboats as the nation’s wide-open gambling venues. The cowhands who brought the longhorns to Kansas railheads in Abilene or Dodge City sat down at the towns’ gambling tables with four months of tedium behind them and perhaps $120 pay in their pockets. Miners whose luck had paid off were eager to test it at cards. Serious gamblers were always on hand to oblige.
Banking games like faro and blackjack remained the preferred forms of action in commercial establishments, but poker became increasingly popular during the late 1860s. Stakes could be astronomical. Sen. William Sharon, of Nevada, once played a game with William Ralston, president of the Bank of California. With the pot already at $150,000, Sharon, holding a pair of jacks, raised $50,000. Ralston re-raised $150,000. With more than $350,000 on the table Sharon lost his nerve and folded. Ralston showed a pair of tens and raked in the cash. Sharon had been bluffed out of a fortune.
Jackpots and Jokers
The rules of poker continued to evolve. The flush, five cards of the same suit, entered the hierarchy of hands during the 1840s. Soon afterward five cards in sequence, a straight, came along, although it was listed as a regional variation in 1864 and its inclusion was optional even in the 1890s.
The variation of Draw poker known as Jackpots began to spread during the 1870s. Rules required that a player hold at least a pair of jacks to make the first bet and thereby helped dampen reckless bluffing. If no player held openers, the antes were left in the center, causing the “jackpot” to grow. The wild card, known first as a mistigris, later as a joker, entered the game. Wild cards livened the play of many later poker variations.
In 1872 Robert C. Schenck, who had been an Ohio congressman and a brigadier general in the Civil War, was serving as the U.S. minister to Britain. Informal and chatty, he became a welcome guest at English country houses, where he frequently played cards. A lady of quality asked him to explain this game that was so popular in America. He obliged by writing down the rules of draw poker, along with some advice on how to play. Friends had the pages published without his knowledge. According to Schenck, the booklet brought down “the wrath and reprehension of so many good people in America” who were scandalized that he had lowered himself to discuss the frontier game with refined foreigners.
His treatise, which is the earliest rule book devoted to draw poker, notes that “it is a great object to mystify your adversaries.” It lists the main elements of the game as “(1) good luck; (2) good cards; (3) plenty of cheek; (4) and good temper.”