When in 1872 Colonel Jacob Schenk wrote Queen Victoria a set of rules for playing poker, he felt sufficiently confident to call poker “our game” meaning American game. This is misleading as it might be taken to mean that poker developed in America. The facts, however show that poker’s history is a little bit more complicated than that.
While poker as we know it today is a fairly modern game its principles are quite ancient. 14th century records show that an early version of poker was widely played in South European countries. In France it was la prime, primiera in Italy and primero in Spain. In this early version would be given three cards. The counting combinations included a pair, three cards of a kind and a flux. A flux was three cards of a similar suit. As the game evolved other cards were added which were given a specific value. Those cards were the predecessors of the modern wild card.
As the game moved north of Europe, few changes were made to the game. In England the new game was called brag. In Germany it was called pochen. It was this German version of poker that crept back to France again. The French renamed it poque. At the time poque was gaining ascendancy, France was a major power with not only in Europe but in America as well. A huge chunk of Modern USA called Louisiana Territory was in French hands. The capital of this territory was New Orleans. It was in this city that Frenchmen introduced poque to the United States in 1803 before the territory was purchased by America from the French the following year. After the territory became American scores who English settlers adopted and anglicized its name to poker. Apart from the game they also developed the features that it currently has.
It was in 1829 that poker first enters American written records. This was through the writings of a touring English actor called Joe Cowell. His writings give us a rough idea of how the game was played at that time. The game was played using cards with each player having five cards. Betting was then done by the players to find out who had the best card combination. To a large extent this type of play resembled the game of as nas that had been popular in Ancient Persia. No research has however found any link between poker and as nas.
Joe Cowell’s description of the game differs significantly from the records of the game written in 1834. In this later recording the game was then played using the modern 52-card pack. It is likely that by then poker was not very popular in the USA. The Civil War of 1860-1865 greatly increased the popularity of poker and added many new innovations to it. From 1871, the game was spread to other countries. Britain was the first one where Col Jacob Schenck, the American ambassador, introduced the game to the British high society including the Royal family. From Great Britain it quickly spread to continental Europe in large measure due the presence of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.
By the end of the war poker had already established its foot not only in America, but also in Europe and its colonies. However, very few women played it as it was considered a man’s game. By 1920’s this changed. Poker became accepted among women, thus completing its fantastic growth from New Orleans’ men to humankind the world over.