FROM OBSCURE CARD GAME TO GLOBAL PHENOMENON
When Texas Hold’em first came onto the poker scene in the 1900s, it spent many years languishing in relative obscurity. However, a few chance encounters with some of the most prolific poker players in the world saw the game receive a much-needed boost. Some more good luck, and an association with the World Series of Poker would launch the game to global phenomenon status.
In only a few decades, Texas Hold’em has managed to achieve unprecedented popularity. In the modern era, it is the standard form of poker in nearly every casino, both online and traditional building-based establishments. Like many other games, poker’s ancestry traces back to the Middle East, many thousands of years ago.
THE WORLD BEFORE POKER
Throughout most of recorded history there are references to people and cultures from all over the world playing games of chance, with the earliest instances dating back to areas of the Middle East around 6000 BCE. Unfortunately, nearly all of these original games have long since disappeared, only a few have stood the test of time; the rest have been altered, evolving into newer games like poker.
Most modern poker formats can trace their ancestry back to a 10th-century Chinese domino game and a Persian card game called As Nas. Similar to Mahjong, the domino game used tiles, dominoes and leaves as playing cards. Made famous by an emperor and his concubines, it spread first through China, then beyond, crossing multiple continents and cultures. Over time, different countries modified the concept with their own rules, resulting in variations on the original game.
As Nas was the game of choice in Persia during the 16th century and was played with a 20-card deck. There were five suits, as (ace), shah (king), bibi (queen) serbaz (soldier) and couli, (dancer). Each player received five cards at the start of the game. The goal was similar to poker, make the best card combination and bet on the outcome. With no draw phase, nearly all strategies revolved around deciding whether to bet, fold, or bluff. When Western civilizations started trading with the Middle East, the concept made its way overseas through sailors and other travelers.
Like the Chinese domino game, over time, different rules were added to the format by other cultures, eventually resulting in early forms of poker such as Primero in Spain, Primiera in Italy and La Prime in France. The French created another variation called Poque, which also gave rise to Brelan, which used a deck of 20 cards and was one of the first to use community cards. It would take a few hundred more years, and many more variations before Texas Hold’em came onto the scene though.
THE ORIGIN OF TEXAS HOLD’EM
Nearly all modern poker variations were created in the early years of the United States, visitors and immigrants brought their native games of chance with them to the new world. From this melting pot of different ideas and cultures, the earliest forms of modern poker emerged, taking inspiration from the many games that preceded them.
These first versions of poker only had one round of betting, and a deck of 20 cards, limiting hand combinations and player numbers. However, it didn't take long before the games were modified by players, adding additional rules, a 52-card deck, more betting phases and a chance to draw cards.
Poker was a mainstay in Wild West saloons on the frontier during the late 1800s, mainly Five Card Draw and Stud Poker, but these game types helped form the basis of Texas Hold’em a few decades later. Despite popular depictions in media and literature, Texas Hold’em wasn't played until well after the Wild West was dead and buried.
The idea of having community cards was a novelty that saw introduction in the 1920s, but it wasn't until many years later the first game of Hold’em was played. A Texas road gamer named Blondie Forbes is listed as the first to create the specific Texas Hold’em ruleset, and he has a spot in the Poker Hall of Fame to prove it. The Texas State Legislature officially recognizes Robstown, Texas, as the game's birthplace; however, the exact year isn't known.
Originally called Hold’em, the Texas moniker was added as the game went beyond state borders and spread across the rest of the United States as gaming became legalized. The exact circumstances around the creation of Texas Hold’em are not known, but it's clear that it takes inspiration from previous poker variants. The rules, hand rankings and use of community cards were nothing revolutionary, but the specific ruleset resonated with people.
In 2021, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't know what Texas Hold’em is. Even people who are not fans of gaming or poker have heard of the game, which makes it very hard to believe that when it first debuted, it failed to make an impact; very few people knew or cared.
Everything started to change in 1967 though, when Texas Hold’em was introduced to Las Vegas by Texan gamers and card players. During its first years, the game was only available in one casino, the Golden Nugget. That would change in 1969 when a gamer named Tom Moore held a second Gambling Fraternity Convention event and added Texas Hold’em to the schedule.
Only a year later, father and son team Benny and Jack Binion bought the rights to the convention and renamed it the World Series of Poker (WSOP), moving the tournament to their casino, Binion's Horseshoe. Over the next few years, the profile of Texas Hold’em grew along with the WSOP. Eventually, both would reach mainstream success beyond their creator’s wildest dreams.
Texas Hold’em went international for the first time when Irish bookmakers Terry Rogers and Liam Flood saw the game in Las Vegas and brought it back to Europe. Later, they would create the Irish Poker Open, the second-longest running tournament in the world behind the World Series of Poker Main Event.
TEXAS HOLD’EM CONQUERS THE WORLD
After a lackluster start, Texas Hold’em received another boost in popularity thanks to Doyle Brunson. Arguably one of the most famous poker players of all time, Brunson is known for two things, winning back-to-back titles at the WSOP in 1976 and 1977, and his poker strategy book, Super System. Released in 1978, the book specifically mentions Hold’em, marking the first time it was ever mentioned in literature. Brunson's high profile meant every poker player who could afford the price, bought the book, and was introduced to the game. However, the best was yet to come.
The WSOP started to grow exponentially, and the profile of Texas Hold’em expanded along with it. However, it wasn't until the early 2000s that the tournament and the game reached mainstream success. The WSOP was regularly televised, and films, books, and TV shows began to depict Hold’em in their storylines. Most notably, the 1998 film Rounders. Combined with the new technological innovations of the era, such as online casinos, a whole new audience was introduced to the game, setting the stage for the final catalyst that would see Texas Hold’em catapulted to unprecedented heights of popularity.
At the 2003 World Series of Poker, internet poker player Chris Moneymaker, an amateur who won his seat at the tournament through playing smaller online competitions, shocked the poker world when he won the Main Event. Texas Hold’em entered a golden age following Moneymaker's victory. An unknown amateur winning millions of dollars playing poker captured the public’s imagination, everybody wanted to learn how to play the game that paid millions in prizes to its champions.
The Golden Age of poker only lasted a few years, but the boom saw Texas Hold’em take the crown as the most popular poker variant in the world. Live and online games continue to grow, and the World Series of Poker has tens of thousands participate each year for millions of dollars in prize money. Texas Hold’em has not yet seen a legitimate challenge to its rule as the most popular poker variant in the world, but as poker continues to change and evolve, perhaps another game will rise to the challenge.