Poker has long been a favorite American pastime with countless nights spent around a kitchen table playing a game rich in the history of the old West. The game has changed significantly, however, with electronic poker machines becoming as popular as live games. Technological advances have allowed machine manufactures to create a variety of electronic poker games that are incredibly fun and easy to play, with awesome graphics that will impress even the “geekiest” among us.
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In less than two centuries time, poker has changed drastically. Once a game mainly played by cheats and outlaws aboard riverboats, it has developed into a celebrated 'sport' played worldwide. The cheat and hustler have been replaced by the professional poker player, whose celebrity status is much more akin to a professional athlete or movie star than an infamous outlaw. And poker is played in a variety of ways today, with electronic poker machines rivaling live poker excitement.
The exact origins of poker are unclear. It seems to have originated from a 16th Century Persian card game known as As Nas. This game was played with 25 cards with 5 different suits. The game played in a similar fashion to modern 5-card stud and possessed similar poker hands rankings, such as three-of-a-kind. When Europeans began to play the game, they called it 'poque' or 'pochen.'
While poker's origins may lie in Europe and Persia, it truly developed in the United States. Poker was first widely played in New Orleans in the early 1800s. Prior to the American Civil War, poker spread quickly from New Orleans to towns throughout the Western frontier. Poker's spread was the result of a general spread of gambling during the era. The West was comprised largely of speculators and travelers, both groups that enjoyed gambling. Gambling suited the speculator's individualistic and risk-taking traits.
Poker initially was played with one round of betting. Players were dealt five cards face down, and no cards were drawn. Professional gamblers later modified the rules in order to enhance the profitability of the game for them. After 1850, wild cards and bluffing became common practices in the game. The draw was also added. The addition of the draw helped professionals because it introduced another round of betting (meaning another opportunity to cheat).
Poker became increasingly popular as American gambling shifted from the frontier towns to the riverboats. While gambling was tolerated on the Southwestern frontier during the early 1800s, it fell out of favor by the 1830s. The Western, frontier culture of these towns was steadily replaced by Southern culture, which was more averse to gambling.
Since their trade was no longer tolerated on land, professional gamblers took their trade to the many steamboats navigating the Mississippi River. However, carrying heavy equipment like a roulette wheel proved more difficult aboard the steamboats, so card games like poker became an increasingly popular game of choice for gamblers.
The California gold rush introduced a new venue for poker playing. The gold rush resulted in a large influx of men traveling to a new area, seeking to strike it rich. Unsurprisingly, gambling houses sprouted in Northern California, offering an array of gambling and entertainment opportunities for young men. Casinos employed musicians and pretty women (not necessarily prostitutes) to entertain gamblers as they played games such as roulette, faro, and blackjack.