The Most Popular Poker Games Throughout History

5 years ago
The Most Popular Poker Games Through The Time
25 Jul

The question of where poker begins is somewhat vexed. One convention, popularized in the 1937 edition of The Complete Hoyle, is that the earliest form of poker – played originally with a 20 or 25 card deck – is an adaptation from the Persian game of As Nas using standard playing cards. As Nas is played with a game specific deck, with five suits of five cards each: one court, four numbers. The 52 card deck would be easily stripped for the purpose.

As Nas’ rules are similar to the rules of poker. There is a round of betting, with each player having the ability to fold or raise, and a showdown when everyone has chipped in to the pot or passed.

More recent theories of poker’s origins posit that it was developed out of European vying games – a group including bragg, primero, and the familiarly named French game of poque. It may also borrow its name from the German word for bluffing ‘pochen’, or from the Irish for pocket: ‘pocha’.

Once poker as we know it was invented in the 1800s the game became the American pastime, spawning endless variations stud poker with five, six, or seven cards, draw poker with one, three, or no draws, hold’em games like Omaha and Texas and Courchevel. Wild cards and jokers were introduced later, say 1850 ish. Lowball games like razz were pioneered. Even games that don’t look like poker anymore such as badugi.

Nowadays, one game rules them all. No limit texas hold’em, but it wasn’t always that way.

The Renaissance, Primero

“I never prospered since I foreswore myself at primero,” says Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor after being tricked into wearing women’s clothes by a lady he thought he was there to sleep with, then thrown in the stocks as a witch. Perhaps if he had worked his bad luck off at the card table he might have avoided the further humiliations in store for him in the rest of the play.

The game of primero seems to have been extremely popular during the Renaissance in Europe and in Early Modern England where it is the subject of several impressive paintings. Known as ‘poker’s mother’, the exact rules of primero were never written down, but instead have had to be reconstructed by historians.

In England the game was played as a vying game, which links it cladistically to poker. Hands were ranked on a point system for each card or combination rather than the sort of hand rankings we are used to today. An extra layer of bluff/counter-bluff was added with a requirement that a player declare the strength of their hand before another round of betting and then the showdown. While you wouldn't have to be specific, you did have to declare the general rank, I.E. 2 pair, or straight. Declarations need not be true, so deception here was an important part of the strategy. For centuries, primero would have been the most likely vying game, and is the subject of several mathematical treatises from the early history of probability theory.

The 1700s, Three Card Brag

In England, from the 1700s until poker took over in the nineties and oughts, the vying game of choice has always been three-card brag. Brag is the game which gets the small time gangsters into plot trouble in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. And Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott, for example, cut his gambling teeth in games of brag, transitioning to poker as the game rose in popularity.

One quirk of the game is that the deck is only shuffled when a player wins a hand with a prial (three of a kind), so a part of the game is being able to remember what was dealt when, and to be able to track the deal. Devilfish had a memory for cards and earned more by remembering who had what and when, than he did from bluffing.

The other quirk is the ability to play blind. A blind player pays half of what a player who has seen their cards does. A variation that could be interestingly introduced to poker.

In India, the game is still hugely popular, going by the name of teen patti over there.

The Old West, Five Card Draw

Poker as we know it seems to be an American invention. By 1829 the actor Chelsea Poker was writing about a four man, stripped deck version played in New Orleans. By the 1840s it was racing up the Mississippi under steam-and-paddle power and the era of the roguish gambler of TV’s Maverick was born.

By the 1850s the 52-card deck had become standard, mostly to allow for more players, and by the time The American Civil War broke out in 1861, someone had invented the draw. For the next few decades five card draw would be the platonic idea of poker from which all other versions deviated.

It was during the Civil War that the game had its rules standardised, the jacks or better rule was added (officially called the Jackpot rule), and wild cards were introduced.

The Civil War was, to some people, the first truly industrial war, in that sense it was a striking precursor to the First World War and set the stage for the following Century. For poker, however, thr most important thing to come out of the Civil War was one of the innovations that defined 20th Century poker. The stud game.

A short coda to the five card draw story is that after pretty much disappearing for a while, it has begun to make a small comeback online and it has the game you’re most likely to see in old TV shows. This is rather pleasing to an old fashioned type like me; Doyle Brunson’s first game at school was five card draw. Come to think of it, so was mine.

The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Second World War, 5 Card Stud

Herbert A Yardley’s An Education of A Poker Player is a fascinating document. Pre-dating Brunson’s Super/System by 22 years, the book is half a guide to how to win at cards and half a memoir of gambling man and international spy. His book was only published in England because Ian Fleming took his American copy to his publisher with the most strenuous sales pitch.

Born in 1889 Yardley was playing cards for years by the time America joined in world war one in 1917, and he found himself breaking codes for the US government. In his gambling stories you can almost see the landscape shifting from the draw games in the pre-ward chapters at Monty’s Place to the more mixed blend of games in Chungking during the second world war. But between the two periods the name of the game was five card stud.

The high point for five card stud came in 1949 though, with a now legendary game, so famous and stitched into the fabric of poker history that some people find it hard even to believe it happened. Sure it was meant to have taken place in Binion’s Horseshoe, which wasn’t built until a few years later, but there you go. Johnny Moss was there, and he says it happened this way…

Nick Dandalos, better known as ‘Nick the Greek’, was there, a high stakes gambler and a man who supposedly once took Einstein to a poker game and introduced him as “Little Al from Princeton”. In 1949 Nick the Greek got in touch with his friend Benny Binion and asked to set up a high-stakes heads-up match with the best poker player they could find. Binion, ever the showman, said sure, as long as the game went down in the public poker room where the punters could watch. Johnny Moss, the grand old man of poker, took up the challenge. They played a mixed game, with no limit five card stud played for the most part.

Four months and two millions dollars later Nick the Greek assessed his losses, stood up and gave poker the now immortal line.

Mr. Moss," he said. "I’m gonna have to let you go."

Within a few decades no one much was playing five card stud. There was a new game in town.

The Post War Years, 7 card stud

Yardley’s book ends with a story of him catching a German spy in Chunking by following the money the German always seemed to have at his disposal for a seven card stud game Yardley often played in. Meanwhile, in America, for most of the latter half of the 20th Century seven card stud was the main game played card rooms and home games.

Even in Europe Antony Holden, in his book ‘Big Deal,’ notes that into the 80s a travelling pot limit razz game which followed the tournament circuit was one of the highest stakes cash game this side of the Atlantic.

But almost as soon as it rose to dominance a new game took its place as the king of poker. Doyle Brunson talks a bit about seven card stud in his intro to Super/System, but by the time he was playing, stud games were already being challenged by an adaptation of the game played with communal cards.

The 1970s, Limit Hold’em

Supposedly invented in Texas to allow more players to sit around the table, hold’em brought a whole new style of play to the game. A much cleaner game with just the one set of cards face up, and no need to track the folded cards of your opponent, holdem was much easier for a novice to grasp than most stud games ( with one notable exception).

It took off in a big way. Pros liked that it lent itself to big bet play: pot limit and no limit, and everyone else seemed satisfied that it was plenty fun, easy to get the hang of, and strategically interesting. It had been a mainstay of the Texan gambling rooms for a while, but it was the second WSOP, held in 1971, when the freeze out format was introduced and the No Limit Texas Holdem event was made the Main Event.

No limit took a while to catch on away from the tournament table. Table stakes or even true no limit have always been preferred in the fictional world of movies and in the equally fictitious world of Europe, both places where the action is appreciated. For the most part, holdem stayed as a limit game in the US; and the Vegas cardrooms gave the people what they wanted.

It took a rise in the popularity of televised tournaments to break the stranglehold of limit games on the poker community.

The Poker Boom to Date, No Limit Hold’em

Two things happened to make No Limit Hold’em the go-to game the world over: the first was that in 1999 the UK’s Channel 4 started filming a new poker show in which a camera, positioned beneath a glass panel, allowed the viewers to see the cards during the hand. This format, and the table armrest mounted hole cams first used at the WSOP in 2002, revolutionized the way poker could be televised. The commentators could talk about hands in real time, with real time knowledge of the hand, and there would be no more cock ups like the 1994 hand where – following the hands reported by the players – the graphics showed two Eight of Clubs, one on the board and one in the hole.

The second big event was Chris Moneymaker’s amateur win and the boost he gave to the game in general by showing us that anyone can win, and to interweb poker specifically by winning his ticket into the Main Event by playing an online satellite.

Nowadays most of the games played online and off are no limit texas hold’em. Although even that may be having it’s time with the rising popularity of mixed games and the return of dealer’s choice to the mainstream in home games (this year there is even a dealer’s choice event at the WSOP).

The ESPN WSOP coverage now extends to plenty of the non-hold’em events and as the cash games get tougher and tougher online as more players are looking to stud and draw again for a softer field.

Perhaps the future isn’t going to be about the most popular form, so much as it will be about all of them...

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Jon is a freelance writer and novelist who learned to play poker after watching Rounders in year 9. He has been giving away his beer money at cards ever since. Currently he is based in Bristol where he makes sporadic donations to the occasional live tournament or drunken late night Zoom session. He ...Read more


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