Poker in America: The Game’s Evolution Over Time

As early as the frontier days, poker was enmeshed in American society. In fact, American poker historians claim that this iconic casino card game has been around for over 200 years. This fascinating game of skill, wit, and strategy was played in riverboats and saloons across the United States. It was the preferred pastime of soldiers deployed abroad too. It would be foolhardy to assume that poker only got a start in the US in recent years. This game has been a staple in the United States, and continues to grow in popularity.

The game's dramatic development has paralleled the advances in the US, and it has adapted to the changing nature of the times. Capitalism and poker appear to be opposite sides of the same coin; the harder you work at this game, the more you will be rewarded. Our in-depth study will take you on a fascinating journey through time, with a focus on the influence of poker on the American cultural zeitgeist. Get seated, we’re about to deal you in on the rich history of poker in the United States.

The Wild West in Poker – An Extraordinary Relationship Unfolds

American cinema is peppered with references to poker. Consider the John Wayne cowboy western, Tall in the Saddle. It's 1944, Europe and the world are in the throes of a devastating war. Audiences were in desperate need of respite. Filmmakers wasted no time bringing Hollywood heroes to life in epic tales of bravado, machismo, and coolness. Tall in the Saddle starred the inimitable John Wayne as Mr. Rocklin. In a scene from the movie, Mr. Rocklin was quizzed about what happened with another fellow’s stepson the other night. Mr. Rocklin responded with just one word: Poker.

The power of that one word has transcended generations from Hollywood to Hoboken, New York City to El Paso, and Las Vegas to Miami. Such is the appeal of this extraordinary game that it has been the subject of several box office Hollywood films over the years - more of that later. Poker got its start in the US long before John Wayne made it cool. The game was played by cowboys in the Wild West for decades. Sure, the names have changed and the rules have changed, but the essence of poker has remained. Poker is one of a handful of games that truly needs no introduction to the populace. Like it or loathe it, poker has earned America's respect over the years.

One could cite many reasons for poker's growing popularity in US social circles. Perhaps it is the game's mystique which appeals to so many people. Perhaps it's the prospect of good fortune. Perhaps it's the ability to delve deep into the intricacies of the game and its characters and to uncover what makes them tick. Whatever it is that makes poker so unmistakably appealing, it has won the admiration of US players. It began as a man's game; the preferred entertainment for cowboys and outlaws. If you could hold your nerve at a game of poker, you would earn the respect of your opponent and hopefully walk away unscathed. If not, you better hope that you were fast on the draw because bandits with six shooters were notoriously skilled assassins.

Bending the Rules to Explore New Frontiers

Americans by their very nature put freedom above all else. Poker players put everything on the line in pursuit of the ultimate prize – the poker pot. In poker, as in life it's an ongoing tussle between risk and reward. In poker, players tend to play other players more than they play their cards. This psychological, emotional, and analytical game mirrors the behavior of everyday folks in all walks of life. Players need to continually adapt their game plan to get the most out of their sessions. The game is as varied as the characters who play it. From the frontier days of pistol-packing cowboys and crooks, to the golden age of cinema and beyond, poker has maintained its standing as a staple of American culture.

Mark Twain, one of the greatest American literary minds of all time had this to say about poker:

… There are a few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker. The upper class knows very little about it. Now and then you find ambassadors who have sort of a general knowledge of the game, but the ignorance of the people is fearful. Why, I have known clergymen, good men, kindhearted, liberal, sincere and all that, who did not know the meaning of a flush. It is enough to make one ashamed of one’s species…

Culture is shaped by influencers, and when great men and women speak of poker, it is surely a portend of the game’s greatness in society. While Mark Twain never wrote these words himself, he spoke them on stage. He also collaborated with another fiction writer by the name of Bret Harte on a poker story known as The Outcasts of Poker Flat. During the play, Mark Twain lamented how little people in the US understood about poker. It should not be assumed that poker was misunderstood in American social circles; it was very much in favor. Beyond Twain, Stephen Crane also inked a story about poker known as A Poker Game. In the short story, Crane referred to poker as,

‘…one of the most exciting and absorbing occupations known to intelligent American manhood.’

Even Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln were avid poker players; such was the universal appeal of the game in US society. An historian by the name of John Lukacs indicated that the more important aspect of poker is what people think took place, not what actually happened. The fact that players can bluff their way to monster pots in poker is extraordinary. All that's needed is the look of confidence in one's ability to outmaneuver the competition, in pursuit of victory. It's a game of posturing and pandering, antics and psychology, betting and bluffing, and all else. In 1875, a New York Times writer stated that the national game of the US was not baseball, it was poker.

Is America's Infatuation with Poker a New Phenomenon?

The short and sweet answer is no. The country's infatuation with the game is nothing new at all. For hundreds of years, poker has been glorified and vilified by players and lawmakers. Poker was played in brothels and saloons, underground gambling dens and ultimately at Benny Binion's poker room in Las Vegas, Nevada. The game is relished as a fun-filled pastime for casual players and a stable source of income for professional players. It has a distinctly American flavor, as evidenced by its flashy play, showboating, mega-money poker pots and glorious interactions between players. Whether you are playing for pennies or C notes, poker caters to one and all.

Nobody quite knows where poker began, or how it began. The game has evolved over time, and borrows from many other games. Some say it is the French influence in New Orleans that gave rise to poker, but others believe it was played long before that. Cardplaying began hundreds of years ago in Europe, around 1377 when card games were banned by a Florentine edict. By 1820, poker was already a hot game in New Orleans riverboats. To win though, one must gamble. There is no other way to go about it. Even the legendary George Washington was a card player, although he despised the wanton gambling among soldiers. From Mississippi river boats and their poker players, the game eventually migrated north, east and west. There are many poker references in US cultural circles, particularly with writers like Jesse May (Shut up and Deal), John Updike (Poker Night), Robert McLaughlin (Let's Get Rid of the Ribbon Clerics), and Bertolt Brecht (Four Men and A Poker Game, or Too Much Luck Is Bad Luck).

Poker in the Movies Began Way before Rounders

A famed English actor by the name of Joe Cowell recalled playing poker in 1829 on a riverboat in Saint Louis, New Orleans. Cheating was rampant on riverboats, but cheating techniques were not limited to these floating card havens. Back in the day, the Cincinnati Kid directed by Norman Jewison was a smash hit sensation. Other poker films include Big Deal with Anthony Holden, California Split directed by Robert Altman in 1974, and Gambler on The Loose with Robert Walsh in 2008. However, the best poker film of all time, stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams – Rounders from 1998.

If we backtrack a bit, it's clear that poker has seniority on all of us. Around 1864, Americans first heard of stud poker. This version of the game deals 4 face up cards and 1 face down card to players with betting rounds after each card dealt. The Seven Card version of this game – 7 card stud came later. This is evidence of the dramatic evolutions taking place in poker. During the 1860s, a Nevada senator by the name of William Sharon played poker with the president of the Bank of California, William Ralston. Such was the immense amount of money in the pot that William Ralston raked in $350,000 by bluffing his way to victory.

There are multiple instances of pokers influences on the US cultural scene over the years. But it wasn't until poker legend Johnny Moss popularized the game, followed by Benny Binion in 1970 that things really got moving. It was then that the inimitable Texas Hold'em catapulted to fame and the game has never slowed down since. Early-stage poker tournaments initially offered up relatively small prize pools, but these grew as interest grew. Women were not averse to playing poker, as indicated in a New York City Police Department report from 1936 about 20 women being arrested for playing poker while smoking cigarettes. The game truly caters to players across demographics, gender groups, and social strata. It is a universal game which unites Americans and inspires new generations of players to join the ranks.