Birth and growth: The birth of Poker has been convincingly dated to the first or second decade of the 19th century. It appeared in former French territory centred on New Orleans which was ceded to the infant United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Its cradle was the gambling saloon in general and, in particular, those famous or notorious floating saloons, the Mississippi steamers, which began to ply their trade from about 1811.
The earliest contemporary reference to Poker occurs in J. Hildreth’s Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains, published in 1836; but two slightly later publications independently show it to have been well in use by 1829. Both are found in the published reminiscences of two unconnected witnesses: Jonathan H. Green, in Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (1843), and Joe Cowell, an English comedian, in Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America (1844).
Green and Cowell describe the earliest known form of Poker, played with a 20-card pack (A-K-Q-J-10) evenly dealt amongst four players. There is no draw, and bets are made on a narrow range of combinations: one pair, two pair, triplets, ‘full’ - so called because it is the only combination in which all five cards are active - and four of a kind. Unlike classic Poker, in which the top hand (royal flush) can be tied in another suit, the original top hand consisting of four Aces, or four Kings and an Ace, was absolutely unbeatable.
Twenty-card Poker is well attested. In 1847 Jonathan Green mentions a game of 20-card Poker played on a Mississippi steamboat bound for New Orleans in February 1833, and in The Reformed Gambler (1858), a new edition of his earlier book, another session played at a Louisville house in 1834. A vivid account of a Poker game played on a Mississippi river boat in 1835 appears in Sol Smith’s Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years (New York, 1868), with an anecdote hinging on the two players’ switching from ‘low’ cards to ‘large cards’, i.e. Tens and over.
This provides evidence that the 20-card game was being challenged by the 52-card game in the mid-1830s. The gradual adoption of a 52-card pack was made partly to accommodate more players, perhaps partly to give more scope to the recently introduced flush (the straight was as yet unknown), but chiefly to ensure there were enough cards for the draw - another relative novelty, and one that was to turn Poker from a gamble to a game of skill. These novelties were regular features of Poker’s English relative Brag as played in its early 19th-century American form. (Brag is no longer played in America, and modern British Brag differs substantially from 19th century American Brag.)
It was in this form, but as yet without the draw, that Poker first reached the pages of American ‘Hoyles’. The earliest mention occurs in the 1845 edition of Hoyle’s Games by Henry F. Anners, who refers to Poker or Bluff, 20-deck Poker, and 20-deck Poke. In a Boston Hoyle of 1857 Thomas Frere describes ‘The Game of "Bluff", or "Poker"’, with a reference to the 20-card game so brief as to suggest it was becoming obsolete. Dowling, however, points out that it was apparently still played as late as 1857 in New York, for "In that year the author of a guidebook to the metropolis issued a warning against playing 20-card poker, which was described as one of the most dangerous pitfalls to be found in the city".
Between about 1830 and 1845 Poker was increasingly played with all 52 cards, enabling more than four to participate and giving rise to the flush as an additional combination. The end of this phase saw the introduction of the draw, already familiar from contemporary Brag. This increased the excitement of the game by adding a second betting interval and enabling poor hands to be significantly improved, especially the worthless but potentially promising fourflush. The first printed mention of Draw Poker occurs in the 1850 American edition of Bohn’s New Handbook of Games, p.384.
The introduction of Poker into English society is often credited, if only on his own claim, to General Schenck, the American ambassador to Britain. Blackridge quotes a letter from Schenck to General Young of Cincinnati describing a weekend retreat to the Somerset country home of a certain ‘Lady W.’ in the summer of 1872, when he was prevailed upon by the other guests to teach them this peculiarly American game. As part of the exercise he drew up a written guide for them. Some of his pupils subsequently had these rules printed in booklet form, much to Schenck’s surprise when he received a copy upon his return home. Schenck notwithstanding, a probable earlier reference to the game in England dates from 1855 when George Eliot is reported (in her second husband’s 1885 biography) as writing ‘One night we attempted "Brag" or "Pocher"’[sic].