On Poker: From 'pocken' to 'poque' to poker, the game has evolved

Poker is a game with a rich history that goes back centuries, but there are some gaping holes in the timeline. Nobody really knows with complete accuracy who or where it was invented; there's just a lot of guesswork that kind of makes timeline sense.

The 2006 book by David G. Schwartz, "Roll the Bones," lays out a sensible evolution of the game. He references an early birth in Persia (modern-day Iraq), but credits 16th-century games in Western Europe as a more likely beginning. There was a German game called "pocken," and it had obvious similarities to modern-day poker, depending on which of the multiple versions of the game you were playing. One format allowed players to bet on who held the best starting hand — the earliest ancestor of an early betting round.

France did what France does and refined the game, but changed the name to "poque." The game maxed out at four players, with the deck halved to 20 cards, ranked from 10 up to the ace. Once the hand was dealt, the game allowed a single round of betting, but there was no drawing component in the game.

The entry point into the United States is assumed to have occurred in Louisiana in the early 1800s, which makes sense, considering the French colonized the area. And instead of continuously butchering the pronunciation of the name, it was Americanized into "poker."

They kept the 20-card deck, and according to Schwartz, the two best hands a player could have were four aces or four kings with an ace. Draw hands such as flushes and straights were not recognized; the rankings chain went one pair, two pair, three-of-a-kind, full house and four-of-a-kind. It's actually a pretty fun twist on the game, if you want to give it a whirl in your local home game.


Decades later, poker players decided that it was a bit of waste for half of the deck to remain unused, and it's estimated that the 52-card deck was put into play around 1840, as well as the flush and straight winning combinations.

What is distinctly American about poker was the introduction of the discard system, creating the draw form of poker that most of the current 35-and-over crowd grew up on at the kitchen table.

There was a geographic element of Louisiana that allowed poker to spread quickly: It was filled with steamboats that moved up and down the many rivers, with a captive audience of bored passengers looking for entertainment.

There was a guarantee of sorts that every boat hosted a professional gambler, who usually brokered some sort of deal with the crew to keep business afloat. The "Riverboat Gambler" often was ruthless, creating victim after victim through various cheat techniques and angle-shooting the games.

Three-card monte was a particular sucker game that yielded the most profit for the resident cheat. The guessing game was impossible to win, with a savvy deck mechanic controlling the action.

These disastrous river trips, where entire family fortunes sometimes were lost, planted a mighty seed of the unfavorable image some folks have on gambling as a whole today.

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