The Worldwide History Of Poker

Andrew Collinson

By Andrew Collinson

Legal Expert

Poker History

From its keenly-debated origins to the online era, poker is a game that has been played by millions of people over hundreds of years.

Let's take a closer look at the game's purported origins, right up to today's popular games.

1500-1850: The Early Days

Although no one is quite sure exactly where and when poker originated, it is widely accepted that early incarnations of the game we play today sprung up in Persia, France, Germany and Spain [1] before being picked up by Mississippi riverboat gamblers in the early 1800s.

French settlers may also have brought an early version of the game to the New World, called 'poque'.

1860-1910: America Embraces Poker

Early versions of Draw and Stud poker become the gambling games of choice in saloons across the American West.

Folk hero James "Wild Bill" Hickok is shot dead at a South Dakota saloon holding aces and eights, giving rise to the phrase "Dead Man’s Hand" [2].

In the early 1900s, the game spreads around Europe when an American diplomat explains the rules to English aristocrats.

1911-1965: Las Vegas and the Texas Road Gamblers

A settlement of construction workers contracted to build the Hoover Dam springs up in Clark County. The new city is named Las Vegas and goes on to become a Mecca for gambling and entertainment from the 1940s onwards.

Meanwhile, legendary road gamblers like Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson and Amarillo Slim travel the country to play in notoriously dangerous private games. Texas Hold'em becomes the game of choice due to its huge swings and exciting nature.

1970-1997: The Emergence of the World Series of Poker

In 1970 the owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, Benny Binion, invites seven professional poker players to contest the first World Series of Poker [3].

Originally conducted as a cash game, the first winner, Johnny Moss, is crowned champion by vote. The following year, the event returns as a tournament and Moss wins again.

In 1972, the now-annual tournament is won by Amarillo Slim and he subsequently raises the profile of poker by appearing in a number of TV interviews. The WSOP grows exponentially as a result.

In 1980, a young punk from New York named Stu Ungar upsets the established hierarchy by defeating Doyle Brunson to win the tournament. He is widely regarded as poker’s first wunderkind.

The first satellites appear in 1983, allowing players without the 10k buy-in to compete for less. Tom McEvoy wins the main event the same year.

1997-2000: The Birth of Online Poker

The invention of the Internet in the early 90s makes it possible to gamble against players living thousands of miles away.

The first online poker site, Planet Poker, opens in 1997 [4]. Initially offering only play money games, the first real money poker tournaments begin on Planet Poker a year after launching, and are a huge success.

Paradise Poker, a rival online poker site, is next to emerge and quickly takes over as the market leader. Its success provides the blueprint for many of the poker sites still operating today and competition to attract players heats up as the industry flourishes.

2000-2003: TV Takes Hold

Despite its success online, poker is still considered a niche interest game played in casinos. That all changes in the early Noughties with the introduction of televised poker.

Shows like Late Night Poker in the UK successfully bring the game to the mainstream thanks to the efforts of poker personalities like Phil Hellmuth and Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott (who won the first series of Late Night Poker).

Meanwhile, the invention of the hole card camera allows viewers to see each competitor's hole cards without the need for guesswork by the commentators [5].

In 2003, the World Poker Tour makes its debut on the Travel Channel. The use of the hole card camera again gives viewers an insight into how the pros play. For the first time, professional poker players achieve celebrity status.

The WPT also gains popularity by promoting satellite tournaments, which allow regular players to qualify for high buy-in events for a fraction of the cost.

2003-2006: The Moneymaker Effect

In 2003, a Tennessee accountant with the uncanny name, Chris Moneymaker, becomes the first online qualifier to win the WSOP after parlaying $89 of satellite buy-ins into a $2.5 million first prize [6].

Moneymaker’s success causes a boom in poker as regular players seek to emulate his astonishing success. Attendance numbers at the WSOP quadruple the following year and steadily increase, reaching an all-time peak Main Event attendance of 8,773 in 2006. That year, Jamie Gold wins a first prize of over $12 million, a record still unbroken for a Main Event.

2006-2011: UIGEA and Black Friday

Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, fears that terrorists may use online poker sites to launder money emerge. In 2006, as a part of tacked-on US legislation, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is signed in a bid to control offshore financial activities.

Upon the bill’s approval, most US banks cease processing payments from offshore poker companies and several operators begin creating "shell" companies to mask the true nature of their transactions.

Although poker itself is not prohibited, these financial restrictions mean that the game now exists in a legal grey area, with sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker continuing to operate in the US.

That all changes in April 2011, when the US Department of Justice indicts both sites on charges of money-laundering, bank fraud and wire fraud. Players’ funds are seized from online poker accounts around the world and both PokerStars and Full Tilt are fined and banned from operating in the US. The incident is dubbed "Black Friday" and marks the end of the online poker boom in America [7].

2011-Present: Online Regulation and the Future of Poker

Despite instigating Black Friday, the Department of Justice in the US relaxes its stance on Internet gaming later in 2011.

As a result, individual states are given the green light, if they so choose, to legalise online gambling within their borders.

In the years following Black Friday, laws are amended on a state-by-state basis to allow taxed and regulated poker sites to begin operating again in the US.

Nevada and New Jersey [8] are the first to take advantage, but growth is initially slow as players continue to fear the safety of their funds. Credit card companies remain wary of processing online payments, legal or otherwise.

Nevertheless, strides towards safe and legal online poker continue to be made as groups like the Poker Players Alliance aggressively lobby US congress. The players affected by the Black Friday indictments eventually have their funds returned to them and many pros relocate around the globe to continue playing online.

Elsewhere in the world where online poker and all associated financial transactions are legal, the industry continues to expand and innovate, with the introduction of fast-fold poker and spin and go tournaments making it quicker and easier to play than ever. Mobile poker also brings the game to a whole new audience and the biggest sites put their focus into attracting a new breed of player.

2014 - The UK Moves Ahead With Regulated Online Poker

Although online poker is legal in the UK, and has been for years, the government passes the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014. [9]

Remote poker sites who want to provide games to UK-based players must now apply for a Gambling Commission license before they can open the doors.

In addition, sites must pay a 15 percent tax on gaming revenue if their customers are UK-based. So far, it hasn't led to any additional charges for UK poker players, but many sites have exited the UK market altogether.


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