By the 1870s increasingly stringent laws were eradicating commercial gambling. California passed a state ban as early as 1854 making operating a gambling house a felony. By 1873 the great gambling halls that had enchanted San Francisco during the gold rush were throwing in their cards. Dodge City, once the national capital of sin, outlawed gambling in 1878. States followed suit, forbidding not only commercial casinos but virtually all games of chance. The laws became a badge of respectability for regions that had moved beyond the anarchic frontier ethos. Nevada was the last state to crack down. On October 1, 1910, public gambling there was, as the Nevada State Journal put it, “stilled forever.”

Pass the Garbage

Poker continued to be played in informal games and at private clubs. The lawyer John Blackbridge wrote in the 1880s that “so many cultivated men love this game, that it is impossible for me to do otherwise than respect it.”

After the turn of the century, games among friends for low stakes were found to grow monotonous if the play never changed. Players jazzed up the action with the concept of “dealer’s choice”; the dealer for each hand could choose from any of a growing array of poker variations.

The game now entered a baroque period. Around 1903 players added a version in which the holders of the lowest and highest hands split the pot. Hi-lo poker was followed by Lowball, in which the lowest hand won outright. These innovations made the strategy of the game more slippery, the odds harder to calculate.

Many of the new mutations involved wild cards. In Woolworth, for example, fives and tens were wild, in Baseball, threes and nines. Games began to proliferate. There was Mexican Stud, otherwise known as Flip. Players could choose English Stud, Sweat and Push, Kick Me Down, Hurricane, or Pass the Garbage. Cincinnati was sometimes known as Lame Brains. Twin Beds was another variation, as were Crisscross, Butcher Boy, Screwy Louie, and Name Your Poison. Wild Widow, later known as Spit in the Ocean, started a trend toward the use of communal cards laid face-up in the center and included in each player’s hand.

Purists pointed out that wild cards so skewed poker’s probabilities that winning became largely a matter of luck. James Thurber captured this spirit in his 1935 story “Everything Is Wild.” A wife drags her reluctant husband to a party where they play poker with two other couples. Fed up with games like Poison Ivy and Duck-in-the-Pond, the hero suggests his own variation, which he calls Soap-in-Your-Eye. The absurdly convoluted rules leave all players with royal flushes.

30 Million Decks

If poker swept the country during the Civil War, it reached around the globe during World War II. The armed forces distributed more than 30 million decks of cards to GIs, who popularized the game wherever they went. The rules had already been translated into Chinese, with a million copies floating around Asia by 1937.

One of those who whiled away the slow hours of the Pacific campaign playing poker was a young lieutenant named Richard Nixon. Picking up the game quickly, he managed to amass several thousand dollars in winnings before V-J Day, a bankroll that helped finance his first election campaign against the California congressman Jerry Voorhis. One of Nixon’s Whittier College professors later asserted that a man who couldn’t “hold a hand in a first-class poker game” was not fit for the Presidency.

Nixon joined a long line of poker-playing politicans (see sidebar on page 45). President Truman was an inveterate, low-stakespoker aficionado. His aide Clark Clifford remembered a game in 1946 in which Winston Churchill, who was preparing to give his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, sat in with Truman and a few others. Churchill, an accomplished rummy player, was a lamb among wolves when it came to poker, wrote Clifford. Truman diplomatically suggested they go easy on the prime minister. Nevertheless, the Americans made sure they took Churchill for a modest $250 so that he couldn’t boast that he had bested the Yanks at their national game.

By mid-century, poker was the nation’s most popular card game among men and followed only rummy and bridge among women. Players could choose from more than 150 variations.

The Apocalyptic Pot

While friendly games were the norm, professional poker continued on the margins of society. The attorney general of California had mysteriously decided that although the legislature had banned Stud poker as a game of chance, the antigambling law did not apply to Draw poker. Localities were left to make their own rules. In 1936 the town of Gardena, south of Los Angeles, allowed commercial Draw-poker rooms to operate around the clock, the house charging a fee every half-hour. For decades the town reigned as a somewhat down-at-the-heel mecca for poker players, but the parlors’ drab cleanliness attracted few high rollers. Many more games were carried on illegally in clandestine locations.

In 1931 the state of Nevada had repealed its antiwagering laws altogether. Las Vegas town fathers found in gambling a potent way to lure Southern California tourists into the desert. The trend took off after the war, and Las Vegas soon passed Reno as the nation’s most popular gambling haven.

Casino operators, like earlier professionals, did not care for the rather plodding pace of poker. They could make more money from blackjack, keno, and other banking games. Gamblers, though, liked the fact that this was the only game where they could play against each other rather than against the house and where skill was a genuine factor. To accommodate them, most casinos ran a poker room off the main floor and took a small rake from each pot.