The genesis of poker likely began in ancient China around 900 A.D.; however, ‘cards’ as we know them had not emerged among game-players as yet. It was Chinese dominoes that developed in the 900s and rose to great popularity particularly among the ruling class. In 969 A.D. it is written that Emperor Mu Tsung introduced the game of “domino cards” to his wife. This may have been poker’s slow-growing zygote.
Our next stop in the prenatal journey of poker brings us briefly to Egypt from whence fragments of playing cards have been recovered that date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Although the exact nature of the original Egyptian game remains buried, the card fragments in question can be linked to cards used for the eastern derivation “Ganjifa” (“Treasure-cards”) in the early 16th century.
The Ganjifa deck consists of an elaborately painted 96-card deck (in fact, these cards are often collected by galleries as objets d’art) with which a variety of betting games were played. The highly stylized cards – often made of exquisitely thin slabs of ivory (now illegal) or precious woods – may have helped to inspire the Persian game of “As Nas,” a five-player 25-card game from the 17th century and one of the early games that most resembles poker in terms of play (which includes a meted deal, rounds of betting, and hierarchical hand rankings).
Card playing spread from its eastern roots to the western world in the 14th century as first documented in Catalan, Spain. From Spain, cards first gained popularity in Italy before quickly spreading throughout Europe. Many of the extant early European decks had as few as 20 cards; it was the inception of the early Tarot deck (For which no single inventor is credited but which exemplified semiotic material from early Egyptian, Hebraic, and Roma cultures) whose suited minor arcana cards inspired the popular 52-card deck.
The Tarot deck was first adopted for general gaming in Spain and Italy and used variations of the original Tarot suits of Swords, Batons (Clubs), Cups, and Coins. Due to its regional initiation, this system of card symbology is referred to as the “Latin” suits. As cards became a cross-continental pastime in Europe, myriad variations in terms of suit icons began to emerge. By the mid 15th century many countries boasted idiosyncratic regional and national versions. For instance, Switzerland offered a deck of Shields, Flowers, Bells, and Acorns while Germany used Hearts and Leaves along with the shared Bells and Acorns. It was France, one of the most avid among early card playing nations, that created the familiar four playing suits of Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds in the 15th century for its national game of “Poque.”
As the reader may deduce, Poque is one of the possible etymological roots for the eventual “poker” moniker. (Though it may also have sprung from the 14th century British Isles definition of “poke” being a sack or bag for carrying away purchases or valuable items). Poque was also a precursor of another pre-poker card game, the German Pochspiel or “knock-play” which introduced the tactic of bluffing into the early betting world. England didn’t take on card playing as a widespread national pastime until the late 15th century but the British are credited with the invention of a number of early card games, among them Primero, Brag, and Faro which is one of the first known ‘casino’ style games where an indeterminate number of players (known as punters) bet against a single dealer (referred to as the ‘Banker’).
Any one of these early European games could arguably have been the seminal material from which poker sprang; however, in terms of poker’s distinctly North American conception, it seems that the French may have been the most influential gamblers in the colonial New World.
When French colonials arrived in Canada, in the early 17th century, they brought their beloved poque with them. The national card game of France did not spread widely, however, until the beginning of the 18th century when a hardy group of French-Canadian settlers founded the soon-to-be-boom-town of New Orleans.
Poque swiftly developed myriad variations and, during the Civil war when cards were a popular pastime among soldiers, clear precursors to modern poker forms developed such as poque variants called ‘stud’ and ‘draw’. It may be surmised that proper poker (as such) emerged during this turbulent period in turn-of-the-century America; however, it did not receive its distinctive appellation until 1834 thanks to a thoughtful gambler who went by the name of Green.
Jonathan H. Green (1813 -?) learned cards as a young man in a Cincinnati jail where he’d been incarcerated for petty crimes. After his release, he began a traveling career of professional gambling. Wandering up and down the Mississippi River, debatably the busiest gambling region of the period, brought him into contact with the quickly evolving poque variations and he wrote of one such game, presumably developed by riverboat cardsharps, in his autobiographical chronicles referring to it as “the Cheating Game.” This was a 20-card game (using a euchre-style deck of 10-Ace) for 2-4 players who were each dealt a 5-card hand to bet on.
“The Cheating Game” quickly began to supplant the popular cardsharp game of 3-card monte on the gambling circuit. Gamers eagerly embraced the new game as it was perceived as a more challenging and ‘honest’ gamble as opposed to the notoriously dubious 3-card game. Green took more than a passing interest in the new game and discovered that there was no mention of it in the definitive American Hoyle Book of Games series or, for that matter, in any other documentation of the time. So it came to be that Jonathan H. Green took it upon himself to formally name and document the ‘Cheating Game’ in his book ‘An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling’: Poker was born.
The History of Poker: