The History of Poker

The history of modern poker is hard to pin down. Depending on which source you believe, it originated from anywhere in the 900’s AD to the early 1800’s.

I’ve compiled as much information as I can on the different origin stories for the game of poker.

You get to decide which ones you think make up the actual history of poker.

Pre 18th Century Poker

Though it’s not the most popular belief about the origins of modern poker, there’s a story about Chinese emperor Mu-tsung playing a game with his bride on Chinese New Year’s. No one seems to know the exact date of the game, but the year 969 AD is listed in many of these stories. The emperor called the game domino cards.

The generally accepted first recorded use of playing cards is credited to the Egyptians in the 1100’s and 1200’s. There isn’t much information available about the games they played but they did have playing cards. Of course you can’t have poker without playing cards, but just because they were using cards didn’t mean they were playing a form of poker. The Egyptians inventing poker is also not the most popular belief.

Persia, France, Germany, and Spain each play a part in the popular theories of how poker was invented.

In the 1500’s in Persia there were a wide range of gambling or betting games. Many of these games used a deck of cards called a Ganjifa. Ganjifa means treasure cards.

A Ganjifa deck of playing cards had 96 pieces of thinly sliced wood or ivory with in depth engravings. As you can imagine, only the affluent community could afford to have a set of these early cards.

The Persians also were responsible for a game called As Nas. As Nas used 20 or 25 playing cards, a hand ranking system, and several rounds of wagering.

Because poker also uses playing cards, a hand ranking system, and rounds of betting many credit the game of As Nas as the true founding game of modern poker. R. F. Foster, the author of the 1937 edition of Foster’s Complete Hoyle is responsible for the link in modern literature between poker and As Nas. Foster claims the game of poker played in the United Stated in the early 1900’s was As Nas. Many later authors have disagreed with this claim, but the belief has remained in many circles that Foster was correct.

You’ll have to decide if many still believe Foster was correct because he was in fact right or if it’s simply because he was the first to write about it and through laziness and lack of research his statement has been quoted over and over since it was first written.

I have to admit that his reasoning, backed up by the similarities I listed above, make it a believable claim.

The other popular belief is the French invented poker. They played a game called La Prime in the early 1500’s and a game called Poque in the 1600’s and 1700’s.

In La Prime each player was dealt three cards. The hand rankings were three of a kind, a pair, or a flush. Later versions of the game used a special card, much like a joker or wild card.

La Prime was supposedly the same game that was called Primiera in Italy and Primero in Spain.

Another theory states that Primero was the first poker game and La Prime and Primiera were based on it. All of these intertwined games involved bluffing and betting.

While the French were playing Poque, the Germans were playing Pochen (which mean bluff). The two games appear to be identical. I assume the reason the credit goes to the French instead of the Germans is because Germany lost WWII and didn’t get to write the history books published after the war. Both of these games are derived from Primero according to some authors.

Even the Irish enter into the early poker conversation with a game called Poca. While some believe the modern word poker comes from Poca, there isn’t much popular support that the actual game of modern poker was derived from Poca.

All of these early games were similar in some ways and throughout history they have been linked to each other by some and ignored by others. It’s no wonder determining the true history of poker is so difficult. Unless you’re a history buff the good news is it doesn’t really matter who invented poker. We can still enjoy the modern game even if we don’t know who to thank for inventing it.

Around 1700 the game of Brag started being played in England. Brag gained most of its fame because it was one of the original games that Edmond Hoyle covered.

Poker in America

The next popular belief is real poker wasn’t invented until sometime in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s in America. The people who stand behind this theory claim that the core of poker is the betting and bluffing combined with hand rankings. While some of the earlier games had some parts of this, none of them combined the elements to produce a true version of poker.

Those who support this belief point to the card games that sprung up all around the Mississippi river area. You can find written accounts from the early 1800’s of poker games in saloons and other business establishments.

The game spread up and down the Mississippi river and was played on sternwheelers when they were popular. Soon the game of poker spread to the Western part of the United States and could be found in just about every saloon west of the Mississippi.

When the 52 card deck of playing cards was introduced in the early 1800’s it marked a key development for poker as we know it today. Of course we still use a 52 card deck, but more importantly the current games of Texas holdem, 7 Card Stud and others wouldn’t be possible without the standard deck of cards.

Two authors had a great deal to do with what we know about early poker in the country. Joseph Crowell, an English author, wrote about poker in New Orleans in 1829. The game he described used a 20 card deck and had four players. Each player received five cards and then players wagered on who had the best hand. Notice that all of the cards in the deck were used for every hand. None of today’s popular poker variants use all of the cards every hand.

Jonathan Green published a book called An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling in 1843. Green dubbed poker the cheating game.

In a truly American attitude, some authors credit the world wide spread of modern poker to the Americans. The claim is in 1871 the US minister to Britain introduced the game to members of the British court. These authors choose to ignore all of the earlier games mentioned above throughout the rest of the world. Once again, the person writing the history books tends to have a great deal of power in swaying the general population about what is fact.

Modern Poker

As poker spread throughout the world it has become easier and easier to find a game. There are thousands of casinos and poker rooms around the world that offer poker as well as home poker games everywhere you look.

Texas holdem is the most popular form of poker today. Played in no limit or limit, the coverage of Texas holdem on television and in magazines have helped the game of poker to a level of popularity never seen before.

Other poker games that are played today include Omaha, 7 Card Stud and Pineapple. 5 Card Draw is played in some home games but it is rarely available in a casino or card room.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s 5 Card Draw was the most popular form of poker. It remained popular until just before WWII when 7 Card Stud became popular. When the World Series of Poker started in the early 1970’s the main event used Texas holdem, and it has been the most popular form of poker ever since.

As an interesting side note, if you walk into a poker room or watch a poker tournament you will see many women playing the game. Until the middle 1900’s poker was considered a man’s game and any woman playing was looked down on by most people.

This attitude continued to some degree through much of the 1900’s. It wasn’t until the television coverage started making the game more acceptable through the main stream media that it became more accepted for women to play.

I don’t see why it took so long for it to be acceptable for females to play poker, but women are still discriminated against in some areas of society so I guess it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise.

Online Poker

The most recent development in poker is the ability to play on the Internet. Instead of having to find a local game or travel to a casino or poker room you can now play without leaving your home with people from all around the world.

The first online real money poker site launched in 1998 and now there are hundreds of places to play poker online.


It doesn’t matter if poker originated a thousand years ago or just in the last two centuries. It’s a game that is more widely available today than in any time in history and is becoming more accepted every day thanks to main stream media.

Whether you enjoy a friendly home game, a contest at your local card room, or an online tournament, the opportunity to play a game of poker looks like it will be available for years to come.

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