Over the last few decades, poker has grown from a relative niche activity seen in casinos and James Bond films to a worldwide phenomenon with an estimated 100 million players around the world, according to the World Poker Tour. The majority of games are now played over the internet, with the online poker worth an estimated $56bn per year, but how did we get here and where did the game originate?
Poker in its current form is first believed to have been played around the mid 18th century around the Mississippi River region of the US, but its origins are much earlier. Historians differ on where the inspiration for this five-card game came from, with some tracing its origins to the traditional Persian game of “As-Nas”, the European game “Poque” or “Poch”, or the English game “Brag”, all of which had been established hundreds of years prior.
However, more recently academics such as Reuven Brenner have sought to move away from the history of the deck or card-play, and place more emphasis on the role of betting in poker, an element that does not appear to have come from an earlier ancestor. They argue that it is gambling that turned poker form just another card game into the global behemoth that it has now become.
By the end of the 18th-century poker had reached most of the Mississippi River region, with writers at the time reporting playing both straight poker and stud with either a 20-card or 52-card decks on riverboats where gambling had become a common past-time. From there, the game quickly spread to the northern cities out West following the gold rush, which is where gambling and the game of poker itself became part of the frontier pioneer ethos.
Whilst other so-called frontier games like Three Card Monte and Faro are now better known as the street games of con-artists and hucksters, poker managed to grow beyond its lawless “Wild West” image and into a booming regulated worldwide industry. Nowadays there are a multitude of books which explain the art of poker.
The World Series
The early 20th century saw poker slowly grow into a mainstream game, with games being played throughout the world. And in 1970 Benny Binion launched the first World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament when he invited seven of the best-known poker players from across the globe to Las Vegas’ Horseshoe Casino for a single tournament.
These regular competitive tournaments pushed the game into mainstream culture, with the poker commonly featured in films, books, and television series throughout the decade. By the 1980s, the crew famously played a weekly poker game on board the Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation. Coinciding with the adoption of the game by mainstream culture, poker rooms sprung up across the US and beyond throughout the late 1980s, and by the 1990s Poker had its own hall of fame and televised matches thanks to the invention of the hole-card camera.
The World Wide Web
TV shows like Channel 4’s Late Night Poker brought the game into people’s living rooms, but it the growth of the internet meant that people could suddenly play games with others around the world from their home PC and resulted in a huge spike in player numbers.
Online poker revenues rocketed from $82.7 million in 2001 to $2.4 billion by 2005, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors. And the invention of the iPhone in 2007 saw revenues more than doubling to $4.9bn by 2009, as players could now play online from their phone, which was always connected and always in their pocket. By 2014, PokerStars, the largest online poker website, was valued at over $1bn alone.
In a couple of centuries, poker has grown from a gambling past-time played by frontiersmen in the US to a huge industry with over 100 million players around the world. However, the online game has not yet plateaued as the grey area of its legality in the US has stopped many in the country from taking up the game online. Currently, only a handful of US states have passed legislation to legalise online poker, but with many more states looking to follow suit in the next few years, poker still has plenty of room to grow.