Trying To Pin Down The Origins Of Poker


There are some historical questions that are very difficult to answer. The classic one is whether the egg came before the chicken or vice versa. Another one is who first thought of drinking the milk of a cow. Because both things happened such a long time ago, it feels like we have no way of knowing for sure, and so we’ll never get to the bottom of either mystery. If you have a keen interest in history, that’s a little frustrating. We like to have certainty, and when we can’t get it, we’re inclined to carry on looking!

It might surprise you, but there are actually answers to some of the questions that people ask all the time. We’ve already posed the old ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum, but it isn’t actually a conundrum at all. The answer, definitely, is that the first chicken egg was laid by an animal that was similar to – but not exactly like – a chicken. There’s no other way that it could have happened, and so scientists are unanimous in saying that must have been the correct order of events. If you didn’t know that before, you do now!

Why are we talking about such vast questions in an article about poker? Because the origins of the game are just as mysterious. Poker is big business now. It’s a staple of gambling even in places that won’t specialize in poker, like online slots websites. Log into almost any slots website of your choosing, check it out! you’ll find poker games available to play. Gamblers might log on for the online slots at first, but they often stay for the poker. Slots are a much more recent invention, and so the history of online slots would be a lot easier to chase, but the history of poker is much harder to write. Most historians can’t even agree on which century it started in, or where in the world it began – but let’s try to pin it down anyway!

Poker: A 16th Century Practice?

Human beings have been playing card games for almost one thousand years, so we could just use that as a starting point and say that poker simply evolved from the card gambling games of Ancient China, but we’d like to be a little more specific than that if we can. Instead of the vagueness of ‘one thousand years ago,’ let’s start a little more recently in relative terms. You can definitely draw some connections between the modern game of poker, and a Persian card game called ‘As Nas’ which was first recorded in the 16th century, but may have begun a little earlier than that. It’s a game that involves a much more simplified set of cards, consisting of five different designs, but there was an Ace, a King, a Lady (who we can interpret as a Queen), and a Soldier (who we can interpret as a Jack). The lower-value cards weren’t present, but the ranking system and value of the cards were the same.

The problem with saying that poker came from As Nas and calling it a day is that we don’t believe there was any connection between As Nas and Poque, which was a popular card game in France during the 17th century. Poque is almost exactly the same game as Pochen – which was popular in Germany at the same time – so it’s overwhelmingly likely that Poque and Pochen had a common ancestor. It’s just that the common ancestor almost certainly isn’t As Nas.

Rather than being inspired by As Nas, based on the style of the game and the way in which it’s played, we can probably say that both Pochen and Poque evolved from Primero, which appears to have started in Spain. The format of Primero will sound familiar to anyone who plays poker regularly. Players are dealt three cards, and make bets on the value of those cards. The other players can’t see their cards, and so bluffing that your cards are worth more than they really are is a vital part of any winning strategy. The lines get blurred, though, when we try to trace Primero backward. It appears that it began to be played widely in Spain during the 16th century – the exact same time that As Nas was beginning to take hold in Persia and across what’s now the Middle East.

Exporting The Hobby To America

Poker, as we understand it now, is a decidedly American invention. Most accepted versions of the tale say that French colonists brought Poque with them when they emigrated to North America during the early 19th century, and it caught on in New Orleans. The name of the game was Anglicised to ‘Poker,’ and the game evolved to take on its current popular forms. By 1834 the standard deal was five cards to each player, and the standard deck had 52 cards. It’s been almost two hundred years since then, and the game has barely changed at all in that time. It’s clear that poker was shaped and styled between the 16th and 19th centuries, but it’s impossible to say whether we should talk Primero or As Nas more for the game that so many people play and enjoy today.

As Nas has the ‘face’ cards that we see in standardized 52-card packs today, but Primero has the betting and bluffing system that makes poker so distinct from any other form of card-based gambling. Neither ancestor of the game appears to have evolved on its own to become what poker is today. Perhaps the most likely explanation, then, is the most simple one. Perhaps someone with experience of Al Nas came to France in the 17th century, saw what was happening with Poque, and realized that they could combine the two games together to make something even better. Their re-imagined game of cards caught on and the rest is history. That seems likely, but if it’s true, then the history books have never recorded who that enlightened soul was, or when the combination of the two older games happened.

The prestige of poker as a high-stakes, high-society parlor game was secured in 1871 when Queen Victoria of Great Britain became a fan of the game, and it immediately became the thing to do in European houses of nobility. We know everything about what’s happened since then, but it appears we’ll never know for sure what happened prior to 1834. A hybrid of the Persian and Spanish games is a likely explanation – but ‘likely’ is about as confident a statement as we’ll ever be able to make about the matter!


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