The History of Poker—The Players—Yardley to Nixon



People on the moon; cell phones; the internet; the war on drugs—the world underwent many changes throughout the 20th century.

Poker, too, surfed the winds of change during this time; what had started off as a niche game played by wild characters in shady mining towns became a highly competitive game with formalized rules, huge tournaments, and professional players.

Here we look at some of the most prominent figures from the era that affected the world of poker. Later, we’ll come to other legendary players like Doyle Brunson; however, for now we focus on four influential individuals who played a massive role in popularizing poker and changing its public perception.


Near the end of his life in 1957, a man called Herbert Osborne Yardley wrote a book called “Education of a Poker Player.” While he spent most of his life working as a military cryptologist, he had a keen interest in poker. He also had a natural inclination towards math and a photographic memory, which gave him a considerable edge over other players.

His book contained poker stories from his life and went into detail about the math behind poker. At that time, his insights appeared as revolutionary as splitting the atom. It was virtually the first time anyone had ever written a poker strategy book.

While poker might have been a minor part of his exciting life, his best-selling book greatly impacted the game and how people thought about poker in the 20th century.


John Von Neumann was considered by many as one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century. He was involved in the Manhattan Project and is credited with developing and popularizing game theory.

He was inspired heavily by poker and used the game as a framework for thinking about how people behave and make decisions based on imperfect information. While he wasn’t a great poker player by most means, he wrote extensively about the game and used it to demonstrate his ideas of game theory.

He realized if you play poker using a strategy based solely on probability, the chances of winning are slim. To win, one must use a strategy that includes at least some bluffing. At a fundamental level, game theory is essentially a formal definition of bluffing (and how we act against each other while working with limited information against each other.)


Poker seemed like an apt metaphor for the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for world domination, making moves without knowing what hand the other party held. Not surprisingly, the game was also preferred by several presidents, most notably Henry Truman and Richard Nixon.

Truman’s famous personal motto “The Buck Stops Here” originated from a poker term. A buckhorn would signify which player had to make a move during a hand in the early days of poker, used instead of the modern dealer button.

Although rarely seen playing poker in public, Truman reportedly even commissioned special poker chips embossed with the presidential seal. He was known to frequently use a friendly game of poker with his associates to relax and get to know them better.

Another president known for his interest in poker was Richard Nixon. While serving in the navy, Nixon faced tough times during World War II. His unit saw a lot of action, and it was eventually transferred to Green Island, a relatively peaceful assignment.

Nixon took to playing poker during this time and excelled at it. Word spread around the camp soon, and other sailors were in awe of his poker skills. By the time he returned to his home, he had accumulated thousands of dollars in poker winnings. Those funds were partially used to fund his first political campaign, which won him a congressional seat in 1946.

While there are no stories of Nixon playing poker while being the president, he was known to use poker metaphors during discussions.


As poker became more popular, it transcended beyond just a wild game for outlaws. Instead, a new sense of urgency took over poker strategy as many tried to figure out the optimal playing techniques through the years. As a result, there were new systems, new players, and rising interest in the game, eventually leading to the online poker boom in the mid-2000s.

Instead of a simple game of chance, poker became a symbol of mental warfare like chess. There were several standout players from this era, such as Stu Unger, Doyle Brunson, and David Reese, all of whom we cover in our next article.