War, Mobsters, Casinos: The History of Poker


It’s no secret that Poker has a rich and illustrious history. In less than 200 years Poker has transformed from a simple sailor’s past time into globally recognized sport.

In the mid-1800s, a deck of playing cards expanded from 20 to 52 cards. Five-card poker evolved into a drawing game. An additional round of betting was added to sweeten the pots. The hand rankings included a “flush” (five cards of the same suit) for the first time. In the 1860s, the “straight” (five sequential cards) was also added to hand rankings.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865) poker was played by both rebel and federal soldiers during large stretches of downtime. At the end of the war, surviving soldiers took the game back home with them. For the first time, poker was spread throughout the United States and its heavily populated areas in the Midwest and the Northeast.

According to club poker, Poker became synonymous with expansion of the western frontier in the late 1800s. Poker was an integral part of the lore associated with the “wild, wild west.” Faro (a French game that is an ancestor to Baccarat) was the popular game played in gambling halls and saloons in different mining towns that peppered the American west. Poker was gaining in popularity, but the game attracted criminals, hustlers, card sharps, and other players of ill repute. It was difficult to find a legitimate poker game due to the lawlessness of the west. In order to keep games semi-honest, players were armed with knives and firearms.

Those gamblers did not hesitate to resort to violence if they felt they were cheated. As a result, poker games were associated with violence. It was an unfortunate symbiotic reputation and it took another century before poker could be legitimized and distance itself from cheating and violence.

The first documented account of Poker was in 1829 in New Orleans, LA. Poker was religiously played by sailors on Mississippi River boats which led to it being spread throughout America. Poker spread as the new settlers traveled out West to California during the gold rush. Poker made its first transformation when the original 20 card deck was discarded for the new and improved 52 card English deck. This led to new innovative changes to be made to the game, & the flush was born.

Stud poker (five-card) became popular on the west coast in the years surrounding the California Gold Rush  in 1849. Eventually the game was expanded from five to seven cards. Other variants of poker popped up in the late 1800s such as Kansas City lowball. Stud poker continued to evolve with the inception of Texas Hold’em in the middle of the 20th Century.

Civil War & Poker

Civil war and poker

Civil war and poker – Image source NY Times

Poker was wildly popular among soldiers during the Civil War. Playing poker outside their tents was a lucrative past time and helped ease the pain from the harsh realities of war. The new passionate military interests in Poker lead to more additions being made, including the five card stud and the straight. In 1875 the wild card was introduced to Poker, followed by low ball and split-poker shortly after in 1900.

In 1925 table play of poker became insanely popular. This new variation used community cards which are dealt face up on the table. Each player is dealt an incomplete hand with the community cards used to complete the hand. This brought Poker into the social night life of casinos with everyone from mobsters to politicians indulging in Poker. The mob franchised the casino industry and you can even visit the Las Vegas Mob Museum to get an in depth look at their role in making casinos the powerhouses that they are today. Casino’s created modern Poker tournament play in 1970 which was broadcasted nationwide.

How Poker Variants Evolved?

Pot Limit Omaha

Pot Limit Omaha

For the last 200 years or more, poker has not changed. Decks and rules have become standardized. The popularity of the individual games has changed over the years. But in the end, everyone is still trying to achieve the same goal… make the best possible five-card poker hand, and if you don’t have one, then try to bluff your way to winning the pot.

Originally, five-card draw was the game everyone played, but then it shifted away from draw and towards stud, which in turn expanded to seven cards. Lowball and split-pot games were introduced, along with Texas Hold’em, which revolutionized the game and allowed up to 10 people to play in a single hand with two hole cards and five community cards.

Hold’em evolved further and morphed into Pineapple (three hole cards) and Omaha (four hole cards). Omaha itself branched off into games like Courchevel and Big-O (five hole cards). In the last few years, poker has evolved further with the introduction of Badugi (which has so-called origins from Korea) and Open-Face Chinese Poker.

By the 80’s poker was an accepted recreational activity and was featured in popular television shows, including Star Trek. In the 90’s the Poker and Casino industry continued spreading throughout America, especially in Atlantic City, NJ.

Poker in Australia

Crown casino Australia

Crown casino Australia

By the late 90s, Australian poker enthusiasts were well-familiar with all popular game variations.

In 1997, poker was introduced at the famous Crown Casino in Melbourne. A year later, Australian poker players saw the introduction of the first significant poker championship dubbed the Australian Poker Championship, commonly known today as Aussie Millions.

Over the years, Aussie Millions has grown to become one of the most prominent high-roller tournaments, featuring some of the biggest buy-ins in the history of the game.

This trend began in 2006 with the $100,000 No Limit Hold’em Challenge. At the time, this was the highest buy-in for any poker tournament in the world.

By 2011, the buy-ins reached another record, as Aussie Millions added a tournament with a $250,000 buy-in that year.

Over more than two decades since it was established, Aussie Millions saw a great number of poker champions claim first place. This includes names like Bryn Kenney, Gus Hansen, Alexander Kostristyn, and many others.

In 2013 and 2014, Australians could participate in the World Series of Poker Asia Pacific, held at the Crown Casino both years.

Fun fact, the first of these two tournaments was highlighted by Daniel Negreanu winning first place with his hand in the final being a pair of twos.

Besides this, Australia has also hosted many other poker events, notably the WPT, APT, APPT, and many others. Today, there are well over a hundred poker tables in the country, spread across many great land-based casinos.

This includes the Crown Casino chain, Adelaide Casino, Cairns Reef Hotel Casino, Poker Palace Sydney, and many other top venues.

Also, video poker and poker machines, in particular, enjoy massive popularity in Australia. For example, even though Australia has a significantly smaller population than the US, it has five times more poker machines.

Poker is so prevalent in Australian society that it has also often been the cause of concern.

It’s estimated that between 80,000 and 160,000 Australian adults (one percent of the population) have significant gambling problems, with twice as much dealing moderate gambling issues.

Online Poker

Poker games at online casinos

Video Poker games at online casinos

Online Poker revolutionized Poker and impressively expanded its market. Players could finally bet online from the comfort of their own home, this lead to an explosive new interest in Poker that transformed it into an online cash cow and catapulted Tournament Poker into a spectator sport. In 2003, Poker player Chris Moneymaker turned $40 into $2.5 million; this spawned the “Moneymaker effect” and allowed Poker to reach a whole new level of notoriety. The following publicity helped create “The World Poker Tour” & “The European Poker Tour”. The International Federation of Poker is the first official governing body for poker and was founded in 2009 in Switzerland, which promoted Poker as a mind sport.

The early 2000s were the golden years of online poker in Australia, as an entire generation of Australian poker players jumped on this rising online gaming trend.

This lasted for over a decade but was abruptly stopped when the Interactive Gambling Act of 2016 was passed. In Australia, the online poker landscape took a hit as this legislation significantly affected online operators, particularly the offshore ones.

Although the bill’s primary purpose was to clamp down on illegal sports betting, it inadvertently restricted offshore gambling sites, including online poker platforms.

This resulted in a mass exodus of offshore gambling sites, with all major operators leaving the Australian market. This includes 888 Poker, PokerStars, and Partypoker, among others. However, some sites still continue to serve Australian poker players, so there’s still a good number of options available for those looking to play a few poker hands online.

Recently, the Australian government started considering licensing online poker platforms as onshore businesses. If this comes to fruition, these platforms could continue providing services like they have been doing before the Gambling Act of 2016.

As for the live poker scene in Australia, the future is undoubtedly secure. With so many poker rooms and casino venues all around the country, poker players can relish in live poker games without any limitations or restrictions.

Throughout history Poker has adapted to new markets with the versatility of a professional gymnast on steroids. The sky is the limit; the people have spoken and Poker has officially solidified its place in gambling culture worldwide.

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