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A Brief History of Poker – Until 1800ish

A Brief History of Poker: Until 1800ish

Article written by: Adikk7

“In the beginning, everything was even money.” Those are the words of Mike Caro, well-known poker strategist and author. He meant that when something is new to people, such as gambling, it is very hard to judge in terms of profitability or practicability. When we were just kids, our parents were easily able to make us believe that Santa Claus is real (not that he isn’t) and that he visits us every Christmas (which he does). We had so little information about the world that it was simple to believe that a magical man visited every house around the world in one night. As we age and learn, we start to realize that while it is fun to believe in magic, realistically everything in life comes down to chance and probability.

When you cross the street to meet your friend, you already knew to look both ways to make sure it was safe. Right from that early age, it was your parents teaching you to mitigate risk. If you did not see a car it was probably safe. There was always the possibility that you did not see a vehicle, but as long as you were doing what you could to make it safer, you were learning about chance and probability. You could always reduce your chance of getting hit by a car even more by never crossing the road, or further by never leaving your house. Sure the possibilities are reduced, but they are never zero (The dad of a friend of mine once lost control of the car because of an electrical malfunction and drove right through a neighbor’s living room. Thankfully no one was hurt). 

Mike Caro’s words describe a gambler’s dilemma; someone who has to make an analysis but only has partial information. It forces the gambler to treat every situation as if it is 50/50 and make a decision based on the risk versus reward of the gamble.

For Sheep and Goats

The tendencies to gamble have always been a part of human nature. Evidence of gambling can be traced back to the year 3,000 BC, and the earliest record of a bet, which was for animals, happening around 2,300 BC. Other ancient cultures, the Babylonian, Greeks and others, practiced belomancy, which was a form of divination with marked arrows. There are some who believe that belomancy was responsible for one of the earliest deck of cards, the “htou-tjyen” (traditional playing cards of ancient Korea). It is thought that the arrows evolved into “htou-tjyen”, which comprised of long and narrow paper strips. On one side they had a consistent design, and on the other side a number and something akin to a suit. The cards often pictured feathers on their backs, lending more credibility to the relationship. The oldest known reference to a deck of cards or a card game comes from 9th century China. 

It was from Asia that cards arrived to western Europe and became part of the culture. In Catherine Perry Hargrave’s A History of Playing Cards, from 1930, we can find hundreds of examples of how the various cards originated depending on culture and tradition. Early Chinese cards looked like the banknotes that were used as currency. European cards pictured profiles of kings and gentry. Indian cards often had different incarnations of Vishnu on their backs. Playing cards and the games played with them, while developed elsewhere, were thoroughly influenced by the culture they became part of – the Kings, Queens and Jacks all being representative of various noblemen and women.  

While the exact route taken from the earliest forms of card games and gambling to the game of poker is unknown, it is believed that it evolved from the French and German game named Poque or Poch, respectively – it is also known as Pochen. The earliest reference to this game comes from 1441 in Strasbourg. Poch is a game of chance played with a deck of cards, 32 cards for a 3-4 player game and 52 cards for a 5-6 player game. The decks were split into 4 suits (the 4 suits are believed to be a European addition) with either 8 or 13 cards each, depending on the deck size, of each rank. The game was played over 3 rounds with players betting and bluffing each round depending on their 5 card hand. 

Another early game with great similarities to poker is primero, or primiera or la prime, as it was known in Spain, Italy and France respectively. The first appearance of this game in literature is as early as 1526. Early versions of this game had players receive 3 cards and attempt to make pairs, three of a kind or a flush. As time passed the rules evolved to include special card values (akin to wild cards). 

By the early 1700’s the betting and bluffing parts of the game became the basis of the English game of Brag, a 3 card game where players bet and won if they had the best hand. 

America finds Poker

As the number of settlers from Europe to the Americas increased, they would bring their localized entertainment with them, including card games and gambling. It was around the time of the Louisiana purchase, around 1803, that the new French American territory Anglicized the name and modernized the rules, thus the first modern game of Poker was finally played. 

 

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