The History of Poker—19th Century



In the last article, we looked at some of the historical games that possibly influenced the modern game of poker.

However, some argue that the natural history of poker began when its unique rules were first introduced. The earlier games like As Nas might have shared similarities with poker, but their play structure was never precisely the same.

Following that approach, it is also possible to argue that the “real” history of the game began in the mid 18th century and then exploded throughout the Mississippi River region by the 19th century with riverboat casinos. As America pushed towards the West at the end of the civil war, so did Poker find its new home in cities like San Francisco.


Before the railroads were established in the United States, riverboats were considered an effective means of transportation for freight and passengers. However, trains would win over boats in terms of efficiency over time, and riverboats would be designed more and more for recreational and entertainment purposes.

Instead of being a way to get from one point to another, they became an experience in themselves. City folks would escape the heat and enjoy the lively atmosphere on board.

Casinos were not allowed to function on land by then (except in some areas like New Orleans), but the states would eventually approve riverboat casinos by the late 20th century. For some states, the riverboat casinos would be allowed to function only when sailing, but some allowed for docked riverboats casinos to operate.

Around this time, French settlers in New Orleans had already popularized a game called “Poque,” which shared many characteristics with poker. They were also likely one of the first poker players in the United States.

During the 1800s, the riverboat casinos would hit their peak. Large paddle wheelers and steamships would cruise up and down the massive Mississippi River with passengers flirting with lady luck along the journey.

However, all good things do come to an end. At its worst, riverboat casinos started attracting a crowd of con men and cheats. In addition, passengers soon realized that many poker games were rigged by the “professional” players.

Over time, riverboats would lose their prominence as the world moved on to trains and later cars for more efficient transportation. However, poker was also booming on land by now, notably in New Orleans and river towns which were popular with passengers and poker players.


As poker spread along the Mississippi River, the United States was going through a monumental moment in its national history. The civil war was over, and the gold rush was pushing more pioneers towards the promises of the American frontier.

Naturally, the pioneers were prone to risk-taking behavior. As a result, numerous gaming houses would start sprouting up in the Old West. Soldiers, railroad workers, professional card players, and outlaws would be typical patrons of the saloons.

It was not uncommon for gunfights to erupt over poker games, and aspiring players would work on improving their game on the table and their shooting skills. In addition, the California gold rush would lead to more mining camps in the Old West, such as Leadville and Tombstone, which would become home to both the game of poker and its idiosyncratic players.

Over time, San Francisco would replace New Orleans as the hub for card games like Faro, Brag, and Poker in the United States.


By the end of the 19th century, many states in the West started enacting laws against gaming. However, these laws were mainly targeted towards professionals instead of the public at large.

Interestingly, one of the first states to criminalize poker and other card games was Nevada in 1909. Other states soon followed with their own laws pushing poker underground.

However, a few decades later, Nevada would relax its gaming laws. By 1939, Las Vegas was becoming well known for casinos and saloons, with many professional players eying Nevada as their next destination.


In the next article of this series, we follow poker through the 20th century and start seeing the true commercial origins of the most popular card game today and the late 1980s boom in California and Las Vegas.

Note, this article is intended for interest and entertainment only. It is not related to, nor a reflection of, Global Poker, its views, its products, content, or its games. Just enjoy it.