Upping the Ante
The Rise of Poker in America
Rewarding ingenuity, luck and a good bluff, poker spread across 19th-century America via riverboats and railroads. Towns like Deadwood, in present-day South Dakota, attracted fortune seekers who, if they didn’t strike it rich sifting for gold, might land a jackpot at the poker table. Today we’re in the midst of another poker boom: The game is part of a robust online gambling industry, and televised tournaments have proven that high stakes translate to high ratings.
Poker historians date the game’s emergence to early 1800s New Orleans. The city’s location along the Mississippi River delta and the arrival of the first steamboats there in 1812 helped the game spread rapidly. By the 1830s, players on numerous Mississippi riverboats were zealously competing in what Jonathan Green in Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (1843) called “the cheating game.” Poker was originally played with an abbreviated 20-card deck, which “renders it very easy to keep the eye on particular cards, and to stock them.” The transitory quality of life on a riverboat also made it an ideal venue for experienced gamblers to fleece unsuspecting travelers.
Although much of the game’s provenance is unclear, poker terminology is imbued with a water traveler’s concerns. A full house in poker is a “boat.” A “fish” is a player whose money is easily taken. In Texas hold ’em, the final card dealt in a round is the “river.” Some speculate this term originated when cheating gamblers dealt an extra community card (one that is shared, faceup) to help themselves win; if the cheater was called out, the theory goes, he was tossed into the river.
Mississippi riverboats and Deadwood’s gold-mining community shared certain features that helped them become 19th-century gambling hotbeds. Both were isolated—the riverboats surrounded by water, Deadwood by wilderness—making card playing one of the few available entertainments for passing the time. Each was also a locus of interclass mingling. Riverboats were favored by rich travelers but also by cardsharps hoping to separate them from their money. Deadwood’s gold attracted both poor immigrants hoping to strike it rich and wealthy mine owners such as George Hearst, father of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Both locales operated with little legal oversight. When New Orleans passed laws against gambling, in the 1830s, players flocked to waterway venues, where they eluded state and local regulation. The community of Deadwood was illegally founded by settlers in Indian country. As David Milch dramatized it in his critically acclaimed TV series Deadwood, the town’s early years form a veritable case history for the way an ordered community develops under lawless conditions. The Dakota Territory became the states North and South Dakota in 1889; by that time Deadwood had elected a mayor and established building regulations following a devastating 1879 fire.
In the Dakota Territory town of Deadwood, the word draw could just as easily have invited someone to a poker game as challenged him to a gunfight. A number of colorful poker terms originated from frontier culture. In fact, deadwood refers to the pile of discards on a table, and cowboys are kings. The term nuts (meaning the best hand) may have originated from the practice of betting one’s wagon: To show good faith, players had to remove the lug nuts from their wagon wheels and place them on the table.
In 1876 one of history’s most famous poker-related killings occurred in Deadwood when Jack McCall shot the gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head during a game. Today the poker expression dead man’s hand refers to the cards that town barber “Doc” Pierce claimed Hickok was holding when he was shot—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights. Associated with bad luck, the dead man’s hand has appeared in numerous films, including the Westerns Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and in episodes of such television shows as Quantum Leap and The X-Files.
Texas hold ’em has replaced seven-card stud as the most popular poker game in the U.S. It was originally called hold me darling, which was shortened to hold me and eventually hold ’em. Although it’s unclear where hold ’em was first played, the game became popular in Texas in the mid-20th century, and in 2007 the Texas state legislature assigned Robstown, Texas, as hold ’em’s birthplace.
Texas hold ’em’s popularity has introduced a number of hold ’em–specific terms into the poker lexicon. Unlike in many poker games, in hold ’em five shared community cards are dealt faceup over the course of three rounds, and different lingo describes each card. The first three community cards are called the “flop,” perhaps because of the way the dealer spreads the cards, all at once, on the table. The fourth and fifth community cards are referred to as the “turn” and “river,” respectively. While the term nuts (the best hand) is not specific to Texas hold ’em, it is used in hold ’em far more frequently than in stud or draw poker, because the community cards make it easier for players to see whether their hand can be beaten.
Hold ’em seems to have emerged in the early 1900s, but it remained less well known than draw and stud poker until the World Series of Poker, created in 1970 by casino owner Benny Binion. The first World Series main event attracted just seven entrants, including hold ’em legend Doyle Brunson, who had helped popularize the game in Texas during the 1950s and went on to win the WSOP in 1976 and 1977. People even refer to having a 10 and 2 as hole cards—the two cards in hold ’em that each player receives facedown—as a “Doyle Brunson,” because he won both championships with that hand. Since 1972 hold ’em has been the WSOP’s main event, a winner-take-all tournament with a $10,000 buy-in that remains the holy grail for poker players to this day.
In the U.S., televised poker began its climb in popularity with the 2002 World Series of Poker, owing to entrepreneur Henry Orenstein’s under-the-table cameras (“hole cams”), which allowed viewers to see players’ hole cards, making the game more accessible and dramatic. By 2005 broadcasts of the World Poker Tour’s hold ’em tournaments were airing regularly on the Travel Channel, ESPN and CBS Sports.
The growing popularity of televised poker in the late 1990s coincided with an increase in online gambling. Introduced in Europe in 1998, “hole cams” allowed home viewers for the first time to see each player’s cards and thus learn betting and bluffing strategies from their favorite poker stars in real time. With the number of online gambling sites on the rise—from 15 in 1996 to 200 in 1997—players were able to apply their newfound knowledge without trekking to a brick-and-mortar casino. Poker’s popularity peaked half a dozen years later, between 2003 and 2006, triggered in large part by Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee who won a stunning upset at the 2003 World Series of Poker main event, for which he had qualified by winning a small online tournament. Following Moneymaker’s victory, the number of WSOP entrants for its main event exploded—from 839 in 2003 to 8,773 by 2006. In the past few years, however, televised poker has hit a saturation point (ESPN’s WSOP TV rating in 2012 was less than half its 1.7 rating in 2004), and lawmakers have moved to regulate online gambling, suing some of the biggest sites for fraud and other illegal practices.
Texas hold ’em and online gambling have gone a long way in popularizing and democratizing poker. In 1968 Life magazine published an article on what was then called Texas hold me, in which author A.D. Livingston predicted it would become America’s most popular poker game: “The historical trend in poker has always been toward more and more action.… Hold me—with its increased play of straights and flushes—is more lively than stud ever was.” Online gambling has transformed an activity that previously required tournament buy-ins, trips to casinos or even just scheduling with friends; now your average poker fan can jump into a game and wager money anytime, at the click of a mouse. Online gambling made poker more accessible for players everywhere and at every level, while hold ’em’s large number of shared community cards allows players who have been dealt seemingly lousy hands to ultimately win the round. No-limit hold ’em champion Chris Ferguson first learned to play hold ’em in the early 1990s on an internet site called IRCpoker.net, and Chris Moneymaker cites online poker playing as an experience that helped him achieve his surprise victory at the World Series of Poker in 2003.
With its evocation of the shadowy world of backroom poker, the film Rounders (1998) anticipated the poker craze that was about to sweep the United States. Matt Damon is Mike, an in-debt hold ’em player who leaves law school, returns to playing high-stakes poker in New York City with his friend Worm (Edward Norton) and ultimately tries his hand at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Despite its modest gross—just under $23 million—Rounders became a cult classic; poker players consider it one of the greatest films about the game ever made.
World Series of Poker veteran Johnny Chan appears as himself in the film, in a scene where Mike, holding only “rags” (a weak hand), bluffs the superstar player out of a big pot. A similar scenario occurred during the 2003 World Series of Poker final, when the previously unknown Chris Moneymaker bluffed poker legend Sammy Farha out of a large pot that Farha, had he stayed in, would have won. Moneymaker, who went on to win the tournament, credits Rounders with inspiring him to play poker professionally; he even participates in the audio commentary tracks on the film’s DVD.