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The cheating game . . . by name, that is

19 August 2005

Dear Mark, Thanks for including the occasional poker question to your column. They are always quite informative. My question though isn't about poker per se, but about its origins. Do you happen to know where the game of poker originates? Lester K.

There is no clear or direct origin of the game of poker, given in the most respected encyclopedias, and it is probably likely, Lester, that the game of poker evolved from elements of many different games. Why, even the derivation of the word "poker" is a topic of debate.

Game historians and most lexicographers believe the word comes from an eighteenth-century French game, poque; however there are other references to a German game named pochspiel. Others believe it came from the Hindu word, pukka. Another account I found suggests that it came from a version of an underworld slang word, "poke," a term for wallet used by pickpockets, and there are those who believe that "poke" probably came from "hocus-pocus", a sort of mumbo-jumbo chanty widely used by magicians in tricks where something disappears.

One thing game historians can agree on is that the game's naissance is a very old one, the earliest reference being dated 1550, and that in connection with the Italian game of primero. Primero involved betting, and had valued hands like three-of-a-kind, pairs, and the flush. By the 18th century the betting and bluffing aspects of the game had been introduced in such five-card games as brag (England), pochen (Germany), and poque (France).

In America, the earliest written reference to poker is in 1834 among the writings of Jonathan H. Green. Green mentions the rules to what he called the "cheating game," then being played on Mississippi riverboats. Green, who couldn't find reference to it in Hoyle, decided to name the game Poker. The game Green described was played with 20 cards, and used only aces, kings, queens, jacks and tens. Up to four people could play; each was dealt five cards.

When Green put pen to paper, the game had already become the No. 1 cheating game on the Mississippi riverboats, surpassing the ever-popular game of Three-Card Monte. Poker's popularity eventually moved from New Orleans by steamboat up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers; and from the river towns, the game spread both east and west by covered wagons and the new railroad. When the now-standard 52-card deck ultimately replaced the 20-card deck, the flush was re-introduced (remember primero?). During the Civil War, modifications such as open cards (stud poker), the straight and the draw were established.

There's a whole lot more history, Lester, more than space allows, but suffice it to say that the game of poker today is as popular as ever, thanks in large part to the Cinderella story of Chris Moneymaker, who had never played in a "live" tournament before winning the main event in the 34th annual World Series of Poker Championship at Binion's casino in Las Vegas in 2003.

I believe his win is the genesis of poker's resurgence and high popularity level today.

Dear Mark, I had a big argument with a friend of mine regarding his theory regarding blackjack. My friend thinks that if you are dealt a twelve or over, no matter what the dealer has showing you should not take a hit. He thinks your chance of busting is greater than the dealer's. I think he is nuts. Am I wrong? Nate H.

Not this time, Nate, as perfect basic strategy in blackjack advises hitting plenty of those stiff hands. When your friend uses a never-bust strategy, he is giving the casino a 5% advantage, whereas when you use strict basic strategy, your are only giving the casino a half of 1% edge on the six or eight-deck games.

Losing players employ this never-bust strategy, at the minor cost, that is, of the greenish colored contents of their wallets.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "No presidential candidate should visit Las Vegas without condemning organized gambling." --Ralph Nader

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Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.