Ed. note: Adopting his alternate persona as the card-playing detective Short-Stacked Shamus, Martin Harris seeks to solve poker-related mysteries in this series for the PokerStars Blog.


“When was poker invented?”

A friend asked me that question recently. He was half-kidding with the question, to be honest. Someone else had asked how far back in history he’d need to go before he could find a group of poker players against whom his modern-day skills would give him an edge. His humorous response was to ask when the first hand was dealt.

Even so, I felt compelled to respond and say when approximately the game was invented. It’s happened before, in fact, that I’ve been asked questions about poker’s history asking to pinpoint the first time some event occurred. In a lot of cases it is hard to describe with absolute precision many of the historical firsts in poker, given how so much of the game’s history is, well, a mystery. But it is possible to make some educated guesses.

Here are answers to 10 questions about “poker firsts,” starting with that one about when the game was invented.

1. When was the first hand of poker dealt?

All available evidence points to the first decades of the 19th century — the 1800s or 1810s — although  no specific references to poker games during those years survive (those come a little later; see below). In Cowboys Full, James McManus nominates the day of the Louisiana Purchase (July 4, 1803) as a “symbolic birthdate” for poker, and indeed the acquisition of more than 820,000 square miles extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains would greatly help facilitate the spread of the game from New Orleans throughout the “Old West.”

2. When was the first hand of poker dealt for which we have an account?

That would be a hand played in a game aboard the Helen M’Gregor in December 1829. The story appears in Joe Cowell’s 1844 book Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America, the “players” being referred to in the title being actors, not poker players. The only hand Cowell describes in detail involves a player with four kings and an ace beating another with four queens and a third with four jacks. (Yes, there was cheating.)

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, a.k.a. the Notorious A.J.

3. When was the first account of a U.S. president playing poker?

Most of the early presidents played card games, in some cases for money, though the earliest reference to one playing poker that I’ve found appears in the September 3, 1832 issue of the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Globe sharing an item from another publication. That was an election year, and supporters of the Republican candidate Henry Clay are quoted finding “fault with the moral character” of the incumbent, the Democrats’ Andrew Jackson. After recounting examples of his violent behavior and other faults, Jackson being “notorious for his skill and dexterity at… poker” is also listed as reason not to vote for him. (The complaint was more than a little ironic, as Clay was also known to be an avid poker player.)

4. When was the first reference to poker in a book?

Published in 1836, Dragoon Campaigns to the Rocky Mountains compiles letters written by a scout from a couple of years before, including one recounting a late night poker game witnessed by the writer. Proving that the game still probably wasn’t known to many readers, the writer (or editor) saw fit to put an asterisk next to the word “poker” and add a note at the bottom of the page explaining it was “A favorite game of cards at the south and west.”

5. When was the first time poker rules appeared in a book?

That would be the American edition of Hoyle’s Games that was published in 1845. There one finds a short explanation of how to play “Poker, or ‘Bluff,’” one of the games described as being “entirely new in this country.” Poker’s inclusion the “Hoyle” books thereafter was enough to get Edmond Hoyle inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979, even though the Londoner died in 1769 — i.e., decades before poker was invented.

6. When was the first time poker appeared in a movie?

In 1899, a 20-second silent film called Poker at Dawson City was produced by Thomas Edison’s studios, one of about 1,200 different films created by those working for the Wizard of Menlo Park. To be honest, there isn’t much poker shown — the entire film shows the aftermath of what must have been a disagreement caused by the cards:

7. When was the first game of Texas hold’em played?

This is a hard one to answer. Some have claimed hold’em was invented as early as the late 19th century. Johnny Moss once told a biographer he first played hold’em “around 1930,” and elsewhere made statements suggesting he might have played it a few years before. Others have claimed the game started in the 1940s, and in his memoir Doyle Brunson mentions how he first learned of hold’em “Round about 1958.” I would say the 1950s is a reasonable answer to the question, though it wouldn’t be until a 1968 article about “hold me” in Life magazine and the World Series of Poker popularizing no-limit hold’em in the 1970s that most poker players found out about it.

8. When was the first poker tournament?

Speaking of the WSOP, a check with the folks at the Hendon Mob reveals their earliest entry is for the inaugural series in 1970 where no tournaments were played, just a series of cash games. That would make the 1971 WSOP “World Championship” won by Moss the first tournament result recorded by the database. Brunson called that event “the first poker tournament ever played as a freezeout,” and while there might have been a poker tournament played somewhere before that, I am inclined to agree with Tex Dolly and make the early 1970s a starting point for tournament poker.

The 1973 WSOP on CBS

9. When was the first instance of actual poker being shown on television?

There was a lot of fictional poker on television shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the first example of actual poker being shown on TV probably didn’t come until 1973. That’s the year CBS filmed a documentary chronicling the 1973 World Series of Poker and aired it as part of its weekend sports anthology show CBS Sports Spectacular. You can watch it on YouTube here.

10. When was the first hand of online poker played for real money?

As the internet first became a significant part of our lives in the 1990s, various sites offering casino-style games and sports betting began to appear, as well as some online poker sites for “play money.” On January 1, 1998, the site Planet Poker began spreading the first real money game online, starting with $3/$6 fixed-limit hold’em.

And in case you’re wondering, PokerStars first began offering real money games on December 12, 2001.


Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game by Martin Harris will be published this June. You can preorder either the paperback or e-book at D&B Poker.

Have a poker-related mystery you’d like solved? Tweet your questions to @PokerStarsBlog with the hashtag #AskShamus and we’ll put our P.I. (Poker Investigator) on the case.

 

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