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The History of Poker

The Game’s Development and Rise to Prominence Here in Nevada

The first iteration of the game of poker came from the French game poque. Its origins in the United States first made an appearance in New Orleans in the early 19th century as a result of the city’s French influence. At this early time in the history of poker, the game was played with bets on 20 card decks and those who embraced it were typically playing in backrooms and seedy areas as a means to earn money from unsuspecting opponents.

The game’s rise in the 1820’s on the Mississippi River came as merchants and tourists traveled the waterway to and from New Orleans. Gamblers took advantage of these people and their money while they spent their days on the riverboats. Players were often known as a Riverboat Dandy as they wore suits to intimidate other participants.

During this time, the game evolved; people were more keen on winning than they had ever been and were willing to put up high stakes and many of their possessions including property for a chance to win big. It was through the 1800’s that poker also developed a variety of iterations including turning into the 52 card game most often played today. This 52 card version developed prominence largely in part to the increased opportunity for higher stakes betting. Stud poker rose out of games played among soldiers in The Civil War and was named for their stud horses whose carts would get stuck in the mud.

The mid-1800’s U.S. Gold Rush brought opportunists and gamblers alike to California and the Old West and the game of poker with it. The nature of the game at the time is often portrayed in our cultural Western films. Players would travel from town to town following the money, gambling with the newly wealthy, and acquiring necessary marksman skills as a result. One of the most prominent of these figures was Wild Bill Hickok who is widely known as a gunslinger, but rose to infamy as a poker player first. He remained formidable throughout the west until his death in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876 where he was shot in the back during a game. The hand he was holding at the time was double Aces and double Eights, now known as “The Dead Man’s Hand.”

At the start of the 20th century, as the temperance movement came to prominence, gambling was officially outlawed in much of the United States. As a result, poker receded again into backrooms and into the hands of questionable characters. The seeds of the game’s resurgence began in the 1950’s with a group known as the Texas Rounders. Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Sailor Roberts very successfully, and with infamy, traveled from town to town seeking participants for high stakes poker games. This is where the now most recognizable version of the game of poker, No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, was developed. Gambling was still illegal during this time, but with relatively low fines, and great people skills when it came to the police, the players got off with only a few scratches. Meanwhile, a player known as “Puggy” Pearson, was in the process of cleaning up at tables across Tennessee. When these two states dried up, these men, the biggest poker players in the country, moved west.

In the 1960’s, Reno and Las Vegas were known for their public gambling, but there was still no money to be made at the game in the casinos. Despite this, the cash exchanging hands all over the cities was a draw for the pioneers of modern poker, Brunson, Slim, Roberts, and Pearson. They came to town, earned their livings, and met up with old friends along the way. One of these friends was Benny Binion.

Binion was originally from Texas and had become a gambler at an early age in order to provide for his family before he was even a teenager. Over the years, his gambling and other illegal exploits made him to Dallas what Al Capone was to Chicago. Due to his many nefarious activities, he was wanted by the Texas Rangers who were ordered to kill him on sight. Binion then fled and made his way to Las Vegas. He was familiar with the Texas Rounders from their mutual time in the Lone Star State, so they became natural friends during the early days of the strip.

Binion opened his own casino and saw an opportunity to make money from poker by dealing in the house, something that hadn’t been done before. With this move, he singlehandedly brought poker out of the shadows and into the bright lights of the gambling capital of the world. Soon, he added tables for No Limit Hold ‘Em as he believed that while the casino doesn’t make money in this game, it would draw people to his establishment as spectators who would marvel at the large sums exchanging hands. Binion’s Horseshoe Casino thus became the capital of poker as well as no limit betting as Binion was willing to take the large bets that other casinos wouldn’t. As an early exhibition, Binion invited the best of the best players, Johnny Moss and Nick The Greek, to participate in a head-to-head poker game at his casino. The match went on for five months and involved millions of dollars before the pot was finally taken by Moss. It was events like this that took poker to the next level.

Always an entrepreneur, Binion looked into the future and broke ground by hosting a televised World Series of Poker in 1970. The series of various format cash games were by invitation only and played over the course of five days. At the time, the winner was voted on and determined by who had played the best over the entirety of the tournament. This event delivered poker to living rooms across America and began the popular tournament era that we see today. Through the years, the format of the World Series of Poker changed to involve a “freeze out” style where a buy in is required and you play until you have no chips left.

In 1983, satellite tournaments were introduced as part of the qualification for the World Series of Poker. This meant that anyone across the country could enter a local qualifier with a lower buy-in and win their way to Las Vegas and a seat at the year’s biggest tournament. This put amateurs with a knack for the game face-to-face with the big guns who had the money for the large buy-in required thus making it “anyone’s game.”

Modern poker has developed into a phenomenon. The addition of pocket cameras for televised tournaments (where each player’s hand is shown to TV viewers) has increased the excitement for those watching at home and interested in the game. These days, poker playing can be a profession and more women are winning big. The game can take a lifetime to master and many have attempted the feat. Poker requires a strong propensity for math and a highly nuanced ability to read people. Now with online gaming, players have many opportunities to hone their skills and it’s bringing gamblers who are successful on this platform out to public tournaments from around the globe. But these days, with increased competition and such an advanced level of play, in order to really win, participants must dedicate much of their time and be good at all poker variations, not just the high pressure, “chess of poker,” No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em.

Develop your own skills and be a part of the excitement of the game during your next visit to Ramada Elko Hotel and Casino here in Elko, Nevada. We look forward to seeing you!