Having become a fixture of American popular culture, poker inevitably attracted the interest of eggheads. John Von Neumann, a brilliantly eccentric mathematician and mediocre poker player, wrote a 1928 article, “Theory of Parlor Games,” in which he analyzed games like poker that did not follow strict probabilities but depended on interactions among players. He wanted to quantify how bluffing and deliberate deception affected the dynamics of play. In 1944 he collaborated with the economist Oskar Morgenstern on an influential book titled Theory of Games and Economic Behavior . Game theory had a resounding impact on economic analysis, and the authors went on to apply it to military and political concepts as well.

During the Cold War, with the Americans and Soviets glaring at each other across the table and alternately tossing new ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs into the apocalyptic pot, poker analogies became a commonplace way of making sense of what some insisted was madness. Who was bluffing? Who had the better hand? Who was willing to raise the stakes?

“Today a new hand is being dealt in the cold war that is a game of cold poker between the Kremlin and the new Administration in Washington,” Morgenstern wrote in 1961. “Something substantial can be learned from good poker principles.”

If poker offered insight into politics, the notion that it also probed a man’s character went back at least to 1889, when the author of a book on the game wrote: “Draw Poker is insatiable in its exposure of human weakness. It tears the mask of bravery from the face of the coward; it exposes the hypocrite … and it continually unearths unsuspected vices or develops astonishing virtues.”

Some have been ready to elevate poker’s significance even higher. The historian John Lukacs wrote in 1963 that “poker is the game closest to the Western conception of life … where free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance… .” But Lukacs didn’t like Stud poker: “In this development I see reflected the erosion of the American national character.”

The Return of the Pros

Professional poker in the postwar era became the domain of “road gamblers.” These men, mostly from Texas and the Southern states, traveled around the country, searching for high-stakes games wherever they could find them. They were the modern version of the riverboat professionals, skilled at every nuance of the game and fearless in laying down colossal wagers.

Typical of them was Johnny Moss. Having learned poker as a child in Odessa, Texas, he survived the Depression playing the game in juke joints and poolrooms.

In 1949 Moss was matched in a fabled poker game with Nick “the Greek” Dandolos, whose high-rolling credentials went back to the Roaring Twenties. Nick and Johnny played for big money in the lobby of the Horseshoe, a casino in downtown Las Vegas run by an ex-con named Benny Binion. The game was a curiosity; normally the Horseshoe didn’t even offer poker. But with two sharks going head to head, spectators crowded six deep to watch. The casino profited from the influx as the game dragged on for five months with only occasional breaks. Dandalos finally threw in the towel.

In 1970 Binion again decided to boost business by sponsoring a poker tournament. The first version of what he called the World Series of Poker drew scant attention. Over the next two years, though, Binion reconfigured the event to focus on a version of the game known as Texas Hold ’Em. This was a fast-paced variant of Seven-Card Stud in which players received two down cards and shared five cards turned up in the center.

Hold ’Em is rumored to have emerged in the Corpus Christi area during the Depression and may have had roots back to the turn of the century. Also known as Hold Me Darlin’ or Tennessee Hold Me, it hit Las Vegas casinos in the early 1960s. The game encouraged healthy wagering, and its simplicity appealed to players. With few cards hidden, it was a good game for spectators.

Eight professionals played in the 1972 tournament, with Amarillo Slim Preston, another hard-bitten road player, taking home the prize. The contest became an instant success and has been a fixture of the poker scene ever since.

The current national obsession with poker has its roots in the success of these early tournaments. Professional poker emerged from smoke-filled rooms and began to acquire respectability. The top players found their pictures in the paper and their autographs in demand. They beguiled fans with stories of bygone contests in which the threat of violence and astonishing quantities of greenbacks played equal roles.

Poker playing has in recent years received two injections of anabolic steroids. The first was the advent of a series on cable television called the “World Poker Tour.” Its creator, Steve Lipscomb, was inspired to use cameras that could glimpse players’ hole cards. With viewers privy to participants’ cards and the dull parts of the game edited out, the programs were a hit. Celebrity versions along the same lines drew thousands of new players to the game.

The second boost was provided by the Internet. Online poker has attracted an increasing number of players since its advent in the late 1990s. Scores of poker “rooms” operated by off-shore companies let enthusiasts from around the world meet online and play for real money.

Despite poker’s position as an American institution, the nation has continued to equivocate about gambling. Through the twentieth century police regularly descended on organized poker games, hauling players to jail. Even private games were subject to raids. In 1936 The New York Times reported that New York City police broke down the door of a West Seventyninth Street apartment and arrested 20 women who were playing poker amid “a light fog of cigarette smoke.”