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"Poker is to cards and games what jazz is
to music. It's this great American thing, born and bred
here. We dig it because
everybody can play. "
- Steve Lipscomb, World Poker Tour founder
Physical playing cards have been traced to 13th-century China, which led to the creation of card games around the world. Today's poker likely originated from its closest ancestor Poque, the French version of Pochen from the 16th century (which is probably a version of a 15th-century German game called Poch). Pronounced "poke," it's believed Americans mispronounced it as "pokuh" or "poker."
Poker in America can be traced back to the early 1800s in culturally French New Orleans on the city's famous floating saloons. Travelers on the Mississippi steamboats bound for New Orleans played 20-card poker (four suits of Ace, King, Queen, Jack and 10), where four players received five cards each and bet on hand combinations. In the mid-1830s, it's thought that a new 52-card game spun from the English game of Brag, was created to accommodate more players, new hand combinations and to allow for an exchange of cards to make better hands, turning poker into more of a skill game than a gamble. By the middle of the century, "stud-horse" (Stud) poker was invented by cowboys who introduced it around Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. By 1926, another variety of poker, this one with communal cards, appeared. It was called Spit in the Ocean. All three poker variations - draw, stud and community - spread throughout America, eventually becoming "the great American pastime."
I grew up in a military family in the days of three network TV stations, long before the Internet where family time was board games and card games. The weekends were always the time when military families would socialize, rotating houses around the base playing cards. While the kids played Hearts and Crazy 8s, the adults were playing Michigan Rummy, Pinochle and … poker. I can remember sitting on my mom's lap "helping" her play and when I was old enough to understand how poker worked, 7 or 8, my dad taught me to play Five Card Draw and later Seven Card Stud. I taught my younger siblings so I'd have someone to play with and we'd use anything we could find to "bet" with - marbles, pennies, even the fake money from our Monopoly game. It wasn't long before I was selfishly teaching the kids in my neighborhood so I'd always have someone to play with, because there are only so many games of Solitaire a kid can stand.
In 1998, the movie "Rounders" sparked a movement. Matt Damon was a promising poker player paying for his law school education and saving up for the buy-in at the World Series of Poker, a poker tournament in Las Vegas since the '70s. "Rounders" made poker interesting and it became an instant classic. After watching the movie, Chris Moneymaker (his real name) began playing online poker in 2000 and in 2003, he won a $40 tournament online that bought him a seat at the WSOP. ESPN was airing a show called the "World Poker Tour" and televised the Main Event. When Moneymaker won the $2.5 million prize, his Cinderella story brought poker out of the smoky backrooms in bars and into the billion dollar worldwide industry it is today. The 2014 WSOP prize is $10 million and thousands of players of all skill levels will head to Vegas to vie for the final table.
I watched Moneymaker win that year. I was already watching the "World Poker Tour." As an adult some years before, someone taught me Texas Hold 'Em at a party. It wasn't as popular as it is today, but it was a new game and it was fun. And being from Texas … I should be learning the game that originated here, right? Again, I started teaching my friends so I would have people to play with and if I met anyone who'd never played poker at all (often), I always started teaching the easier Five Card Draw to cover the basics and moved on to the rules of Texas Hold 'Em.
These days when someone says poker, they are usually talking about Texas Hold 'Em, the most popular poker variant, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. More than 60 million people play poker in the United States, more than 100 million worldwide. The Texas State Legislature declared Robstown, Texas, the birthplace of Texas Hold 'Em, which is believed to have started sometime in the early 20th century and taken to Las Vegas in 1967 by Texas natives. For a long time, only the Golden Nugget Casino offered the game. Then in 1971, the directors of the World Series of Poker Main Event tournament featured it and it's been played in the Main Event ever since.
Texas Hold 'Em is both simple and complex. You're about to learn to play poker the same way I did: the basics, the rules, Five Card Draw and Texas Hold 'Em. Once we're done, you'll have 100 million potential opponents out in the world.
But first, a bonus: a clip from "Rounders" to get you excited. When you get to the end of this guide you'll know how to play, so come back here and watch it again. You'll better understand the scene and easily see how this movie contributed to the history of poker and it's trajectory into worldwide popularity.