Last updated 9/4/08
Poker is a type of card game in which players bet on the value of the card combination ("hand") in their possession, by placing a bet into a central pot. The winner is the one who holds the hand with the highest value according to an established hand rankings hierarchy, or otherwise the player who remains in the hand after all others have folded (the player who makes an un-called bet).
The history of poker is a matter of debate. One of the earliest known games to incorporate betting, hand rankings, and bluffing was the 15th century German game Pochspiel. Poker closely resembles the Persian game of as nas, though there is no specific description of nas prior to 1890. In the 1937 edition of Foster's Complete Hoyle, R.F. Foster declared: "the game of poker, as first played in the United States, five cards to each player from a twenty-card pack, is undoubtedly the Persian game of as nas." By 1990s some gaming historians including David Parlett started to challenge the notion that poker is a direct derivative of As Nas. There is evidence that a game called poque, a French game similar to poker, was played around the region where poker is said to have originated. The name of the game likely descended from the Irish Poca (Pron. Pokah) ('Pocket') or even the French poque, which descended from the German pochen ('to brag as a bluff' lit. 'to knock'). Yet it is not clear whether the origins of poker itself lie with the games bearing those names. It is commonly regarded as sharing ancestry with the Renaissance game of primero and the French brelan. The English game brag (earlier bragg) clearly descended from brelan and incorporated bluffing (though the concept was known in other games by that time). It is quite possible that all of these earlier games influenced the development of poker as it exists now.
English actor Joseph Crowell reported that the game was played in New Orleans in 1829, with a deck of 20 cards and four players betting on which player's hand was the most valuable. Jonathan H. Green's book, An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (G.B. Zieber, Philadelphia, 1843), described the spread of the game from there to the rest of the country by Mississippi riverboats, on which gambling was a common pastime. As it spread north along the Mississippi River and to the West during the gold rush, it is thought to have become a part of the frontier pioneer ethos.
Soon after this spread, the full 52-card English deck was used and the flush was introduced. During the American Civil War, many additions were made including: draw poker, stud poker (the five-card variant), and the straight. Further American developments followed, such as the wild card (around 1875), lowball and split-pot poker (around 1900), and community card poker games (around 1925). The spread of the game to other countries, particularly in Asia, is often attributed to the U.S. military.
The game and jargon of poker have become important parts of American culture and English culture. Such phrases and clichés as ace in the hole, ace up one's sleeve, beats me, blue chip, call one's bluff, cash in, high roller, pass the buck, poker face, stack up, up the ante, when the chips are down, wild card, and others are used in everyday conversation, even by those unaware of their origins at the poker table.
Beginning in 1970 a series of developments led to poker becoming far more popular:
Modern tournament play became popular in American casinos after the World Series of Poker began, in 1970. Notable champions from these early WSOP tournaments include Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, Bobby Baldwin, Doyle Brunson, and Puggy Pearson.
Later in the 1970s the first serious strategy books appeared, notably Super/System by Doyle Brunson (ISBN 1-58042-081-8) and The Book of Tells by Mike Caro (ISBN 0-89746-100-2), followed later by The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky (ISBN 1-880685-00-0).
In 1987 community card poker games were introduced in California, home of the largest poker casinos in the world. These games proved far more exciting to players than the draw poker variants that were played up until that time.
In the 1990s poker and casino gambling spread across the United States, most notably to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In 1998 the poker-themed film Rounders starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton was released.
In 1999 Late Night Poker debuted on British television, introducing poker for the first time to many Europeans.
Poker's popularity experienced an unprecedented spike at the beginning of the 21st century, largely because of the introduction of online poker and the invention of the hole-card camera, which turned the game into a spectator sport. Viewers could now follow the action and drama of the game, and broadcasts of poker tournaments such as the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour brought in huge audiences for cable and satellite TV distributors. Because of the increasing coverage of poker events, poker pros became more like celebrities, with poker fans all over the world entering into expensive tournaments for the chance to play with them. This increased camera exposure also brings a new dimension to the poker professional's game the realization that their actions may be aired later on TV.
Major poker tournament fields have grown dramatically because of the growing popularity of online satellite-qualifier tournaments where the prize is an entry into a major tournament. The 2003 and 2004 WSOP champions, Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, respectively, won their seats to the main event by winning online satellites.
Poker has many variations, all following a similar pattern of play and using the same hand ranking hierarchy. There are three main families of variants, largely grouped by the protocol of card-dealing and betting:
"Straight" A complete hand is dealt to each player, and players bet in one round, with raising and re-raising allowed. This is the oldest poker family; the root of the game as currently played was a game known as Primero, which evolved into the game Three-card brag (very popular in Britain around the time of the Revolutionary War). "Straight" hands of five cards are sometimes used as a final showdown, but poker is currently virtually always played in a more complex form to allow for additional strategy.
Stud Cards are dealt in a prearranged combination of face-down and face-up rounds or "streets", with a round of betting following each. This is the next-oldest family; as poker progressed from three to five-card hands, they were often dealt one card at a time, either face-down or face-up, with a betting round between each. The most popular stud variant today, 7 card stud, deals two extra cards to each player (three facedown, four faceup) from which they must make the best possible 5-card hand.
Draw A complete hand is dealt to each player, face-down, and after betting, players are allowed to attempt to change their hand by discarding unwanted cards and being dealt new ones. 5-card draw is the most famous variation in this family.
Community A variation of Stud, players are dealt an incomplete hand of face-down cards, and then a number of face-up "community" cards are dealt to the center of the table, each of which can be used by one or more of the players to make a 5-card hand. Texas hold-em and Omaha are two well-known variants of the Community family.
Other games that use poker hand rankings may likewise be referred to as "poker". Video poker is a single-player computer game that functions much like a slot machine; most video poker machines play draw poker, where the player bets, a hand is dealt, and the player can discard and replace cards. Payout is dependent on the hand resulting after the draw and the player's initial bet.
Another game with the "Poker" name, but with a vastly different mode of play, is called "Acey-Deucey" or "Red Dog" Poker. This game is more similar to Blackjack in its layout and betting; each player bets against the house, and then is dealt two cards. For the player to win, the third card dealt (after an opportunity to raise the bet) must have a value in between the first two. Payout is based on the odds that this is possible, based on the difference in values of the first two cards.
In casual play, the right to deal a hand typically rotates among the players and is marked by a token called a 'dealer' button (or "buck"). In a casino, a house dealer handles the cards for each hand, but the button (typically a white plastic disk) is rotated clockwise among the players to indicate a nominal dealer to determine the order of betting.
One or more players are usually required to make forced bets, usually either an ante or a blind bet (sometimes both). The dealer shuffles the cards, the player one chair to his right cuts, and the dealer deals the appropriate number of cards to the players one at a time. Cards may be dealt either face-up or face-down, depending on the variant of poker being played. After the initial deal, the first of what may be several betting rounds begins. Between rounds, the players' hands develop in some way, often by being dealt additional cards or replacing cards previously dealt. At the end of each round, all bets are gathered into the central pot.
At any time during a betting round, if one player bets and no opponents choose to "call" (match) the bet and instead "fold", the hand ends immediately, the bettor is awarded the pot, no cards are required to be shown, and the next hand begins. This is what makes bluffing possible. Bluffing is a primary feature of poker, one that distinguishes it from other vying games and from other games that make use of poker hand rankings.
At the end of the last betting round, if more than one player remains, there is a showdown, in which the players reveal their previously hidden cards and evaluate their hands. The player with the best hand according to the poker variant being played wins the pot. A poker hand consists of five cards, but in some variants a player has more than five to choose from.