THE HISTORY OF POKER
PRE-1800—PERSIA, FRANCE, ENGLAND
Most poker players don’t know they're technically athletes. The game was classified as a "mind sport" by the International Mind Sports Association in 2010. This placed it in the same category of competitive intellectual sports like Chess and Go!
However, the history of the game starts way before 2010. Even though it wasn't always a "mind sport," people have played mind games with each other over cards for hundreds of years.
Historical evidence suggests poker started gaining mainstream popularity in the United States during the early 19th century. It evolved from older games that used to be popular in Persia, France, and England. In this article, we take a brief look at those historical games and how similar they were to poker as we know it today.
AS-NAS FROM PERSIA
As the second world war ended in 1945, there was another ending that went by relatively unnoticed by the world. As-Nas, an ancient card game dating back to the 17th century in Persia, was at the tail end of its mass appeal and would soon be replaced by modern games like Poker and Brag.
The name refers to the game and the particular kind of cards used to play it. Instead of the modern 52-card deck, As-Nas players would usually play with a 25-card deck. There were five suits, and each suit had the following cards—As (Ace), Shah (King), Bibi (Queen), Serbaz (Jack), Couli (Ten/lowest card).
As-Nas' gameplay would be highly familiar to poker lovers. Like the modern game, players are dealt five cards with multiple rounds until a showdown happens, or only one player remains.
If you are wondering about the hand rankings the game would follow, it is quite similar to the modern hand rankings used in poker. The highest possible hand ranking was called "She va just," which was a full house, and the lowest hand ranking was called a "Just"—an ancient word for one pair.
BRELAN FROM FRANCE
Another game that heavily influenced poker was Brelan. It was prevalent in France between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and featured many striking similarities to the modern game we love today.
To play a hand, players would have to contribute to the pot (ante). Then, the player making the subsequent move can either increase the ante (raise) or contribute the same amount (call). After the first round, the dealer deals four cards to the players—three facing down and one facing up.
The best possible hand ranking was known as a "Brelan Carré"—when all the cards facing down have the same rank as the card facing up, essentially the equivalent of a four-of-a-kind. (Four Aces, with three facing down and one up).
An "Ordinary Brelan" was the next best possible hand, in which the three cards facing down would have the same rank, but it need not match the rank of the face-up card. Thus, in modern game terms, it would be considered as a three-of-a-kind. (Three Aces facing down and any other card facing up).
BRAG FROM ENGLAND
Unlike the other games in this article, most readers would be familiar with or would have heard about Brag. Three Card Brag, or Classic Brag, has been a popular card game in England since the 1720s. Brag had many modern features, such as a more complete hand rankings table with flushes and sequences (known as runs). It also introduced bluffing, and players could keep playing even though they might not have the best hand.
One important thing to note is the difference in playing structure. With poker, players are used to play "closing" at a certain point after going around the table. If every player calls, the chips go into the pot, the next card is dealt, and play restarts.
However, with Brag, play keeps going around the table until the end of the hand. Instead of resetting, the plays just keep increasing in size until a showdown happens or only one player remains.
MANY INFLUENCES CONVERGED TO CREATE POKER
Poker's "recent" history may have begun in the 19th Century in the USA, but its origins can be traced back to a medley of influences from games played since time immemorial. With the next article in the series, we set out on the poker journey as it explodes in popularity, with the riverboat casinos and becomes a quintessential part of life in the Old West.
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.