During the Civil War, as is common in extended military campaigns, soldiers on both sides often found themselves with a lot of time on their hands, a little money in their pockets, and nothing to do. This confluence inevitably led the more clever among them to devise ways to pass the time, and take the money, from the less clever. Since a deck of cards was easily acquired and took little space, a gambling game, which we now call poker, was invented.

By the time the hostilities ended this easy to learn, but impossible to master, game of chance was well on its way to becoming the great American game. It has many ways to be appreciated: poker is analytic, until it’s psychological; it favors the bold, except when it favors the patient; it’s about making money, but only if you don’t care about money. And, above all, it is democratic. Poker gives no advantage to young or old, man or woman, weak or strong. As the saying goes, “the cards talk, so shut-up and deal.”

After the war, the soldiers and the scoundrels took the game west. It thrived in the muddy waters of the Mississippi River Boat culture, and a poker game could be found in almost any saloon west of St. Jo.

Even today the rules of the game have not been codified. True, the order of winning hands is generally agreed upon, but the play of the game can, and will, vary from table to table, and casino to casino. In a casino in Las Vegas there might be one set of rules, while across the street, a rounder would find another.

Gambling casino interior

Image by Linda72 from Pixabay

What’s more, there are literally hundreds of forms of the game and, beyond Hold’em, Stud, Omaha and Draw an experienced player dealing dealer’s choice at a home game might call Deuces Wild, Spit in the Ocean, Wild Widow, Cincinnati, Round the World, Criss-Cross, Baseball, Butcher Boy, Pass the Trash, Mexican Stud, Hi-Lo Declare, California Lowball, High Chicago, Low Chicago, or Follow the Queen.

And so, the first piece of advice from the veteran to the beginner, a wisdom passed from father to son, from winner to loser is always, always, always: make clear the house rules before you sit down. If you doubt, consider the language of the game. A skilled player is called a “shark,” an unskilled player is called a “fish.” Could the predatory relationship between the two be described in a more descriptive manner? No, it could not.

Fortunately, the disrepute in poker’s formative years did little to contain poker’s popularity. (In fact, it probably helped it.) Let’s be real- the game acquired, from the first hand ever dealt straight through to the last hand of last night’s all night marathon in your brother-in-law’s den, a terrible reputation.

As a means for sharps to separate the honest, if not foolish, from their fortunes the stain was well deserved and, in many ways, predictable, for poker could not be better designed as an invitation for angle shooters, grifters, cheats, sharks, con artists and other kinds predators to sit among the sheep. Marking cards, playing partners, double-dealing and shorting pots are a part of the past (and the present) game.

Shark in dark waters

Las Vegas Poker Professional

Still, the game is vibrant, and challenging, and has prospered beyond all expectations. It is a cultural norm and has been exported to Europe and Asia, where it is wildly popular there, as well. Back in the ‘50s Friday nights became known as poker night. And why is that? Ask anyone who plays- the game mixes unusually well with our other social vices: smoking, drinking, and trash-talk.

During this evolutionary period the most common variations of the game were 7-Card Stud and Five Card Draw. Although neither of these games is much played anymore, they were instrumental in getting us to where we are now and, until the late 1960’s, when we said “poker,” that’s what we meant.

As it happened, at that time there was an oil boom out in the Texas panhandle and it brought a lot of money into the hands of a lot of workers who had a lot of time on their hands and, if we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned that’s a combination that attracts sharks, as surely as blood in the water.

A small, but influential, group of card players formed a circuit around Texas and Oklahoma. They travelled from town to town, city to city, for the singular purpose of relieving hard-working oil workers, rich businessmen, wannabe card-sharps and anyone else foolish enough to take them on, of their money. They favored a new variation of the game, one better suited to their needs: easy to learn, fun to play, and (unbelievably) difficult to master. They gave it a name, and the name was “Hold ‘em.”

Wren is a contributing editor of HeadMagazine.com. A poker derelict, he’s played the game in underground illegal card dens, fraternity houses, police stations and cruise ships around the world. A student of the game, his poker library exceeds eighty volumes.