What Is Poker?

Learn the rules and strategies for winning at Poker, one of the great classic card games.
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What Is Poker?

No one really knows how Poker came to be. Most people have concluded that it is made up of a variety of earlier games. In its earliest recorded history, Jonathan H. Green (believed to have first attached the word “Poker” to the “cheating game”) saw the game being played on a Mississippi riverboat and was intrigued. He described the game as being played by two to four people, with 20 cards—only the Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and 10s were used—and each player was dealt five cards.

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Wild Bill Hickok used to sit with his back to the wall and his face to the door of any saloon. He drank with his left hand, so he could save the right hand to draw his gun from his holster should he need it. Wild Bill had a lot of enemies. He made a fatal error one day in a crowded saloon—he couldn't get his preferred seat, so he sat with his back to the door. He was shot in the back of the head by a man seeking revenge for Hickok killing his brother. When Hickok's body slumped over, he dropped his hand to reveal pairs of black Aces and 8s. This hand is still known today as the “deadman's hand.”

Why did he call it Poker? Researchers looked into games of other countries to see if there was any game whose name sounded anything like “poker.” They came up with an eighteenth-century French game called poque, a German game that involves a certain amount of bluffing called Pochspiel, and there's even a suggestion that the word derived from a Hindu word: pukka.

Well, more realistically, the word “poker” probably finds its origins in the underworld of thieves. Some of the card hustlers may have already been using the expression since “poke” was a slang word used by pickpockets. It is believed that card hustlers, who emerged from that same underworld to cheat unsuspecting opponents, used the word in relation to their card-playing victims. The “r” might have been added to throw off players who were wise to the underworld slang. The reason Poker has such seedy origins has mainly to do with the fact that it is a simple game (sometimes even a quick game, depending on the version you're playing), it involves an element of cheating, and it's played for money.

The Wild West period is the famous Poker-playing era in the United States history—many infamous characters came out of that time, including figures like gun-slinger Wild Bill Hickok. Doc Holliday, the dentist turned killer and outlaw, was also known for his propensity for Poker.

Poker evolved over the years to include the other 32 cards in the deck. Jokers are used only when playing with wild cards. It is widely played in casinos and is a very popular home game. Poker night is often associated with cigars, potato chips, and beer-swilling men, but it can also be played by families and friends while seated around a living room coffee table. You'll find the experts playing in tournaments, clubs, and casinos.

It's a game of skill, strategy, and luck—but mostly, it's just really fun. There are several variants on the basic rules and sometimes the best way to play is to switch the version of the game from deal to deal. There are even silly versions of the game, like Strip Poker (that's for you and your loved one on a quiet, child-free night), and a version where you hold the cards behind your head for your opponents to see and bet on. The variations are endless and you may find yourself making up your own rules as you go along.