The History of Poker

(excerpt from 1829 and commentary from 1949)


The following are two excerpts regarding the history of poker from the Introduction of George S Coffin’s book, “Secrets of Winning Poker,” ©1949 Wilshire Book Co, which also quotes Joe Cowell’s, ”Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America,” ©1944 Harper & Brothers, written in 1829.  These excerpts are provided for review and discussion purposes.


From Secrets of Winning Poker:

Mr. Louis Coffin, Treasurer of the United States Playing Card Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, conducted an extensive research on the history of Poker, and we were indebted to him for his enlightening gleanings.


American Poker probably originated in New Orleans among French inhabitants who had been in the French Service in Persia circa 1800-1820.  The French name was poque, pronounced poke, and Southerners corrupted the pronunciation to two syllables to pokuh or Poker.  The original Persian game was played with 20 cards and five were dealt to each of four players.  Hands were bet and shown down.  The basic idea was the bluff.  The game spread up river via steamboats and throughout the States. As card games were originally played extensively on river boats, playing card companies used the common property trade name "Steamboat Playing Cards."  In 1835 the game was still played with 20 cards.


By 1837 the game was adapted to the full pack of 52 cards.  The draw feature was introduced widely during the Civil War.  General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Cavalry leader, was reportedly bankrupt, until with ten dollars he won several hundred in a Draw Poker game.  His wife was a very religious woman.  When he brought home his winnings, he figured that she had been praying for his good luck.


Immediately after the Civil War, Stud was introduced, probably around Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  Jackpots date from 1870 in Toledo, Ohio.


Also, around this time, General Jacob Schenk was our ambassador to the Court of St. James.  A member of the royal family became interested in Poker, and the good general ended up by teaching the game to the entire court!


The first Poker game ever reported in print occurred in December 1829.  An English actor, Joe Cowell, was touring the States at the time and, by his own pen, he enjoyed the distinction of being the first Poker kibitzer on record.  Writes Mr. Louis Coffin:


"He (Cowell) was born in England 7 August 1792 and, after a brief career in the English Navy, went on the stage.  During a trip from Louisville to New Orleans on the Steamboat Helen M'Gregor in December 1829, he witnessed much card playing and describes in particular three incidents connected with the games of UKER, SEVEN UP, AND POKER.


From Thirty Years Passed Among Players, from page 94, Volume II:

One night, while I was getting instructed in the mysteries of uker, and Sam was amusing himself by building houses with

the surplus cards at the corner of the table, close by us was a party playing poker. This was then exclusively a high-gambling Western game, founded on brag, invented, as it is said, by Henry Clay when a youth; and if so, very humanely, for either to win or lose, you are much sooner relieved of all anxiety than by the older operation.


For the sake of the uninformed, who had better know no more about it than I. shall tell them, I must endeavour to describe

the game when played with twenty-five cards only, and by four persons.

(NOTE: In the second paragraph of the extract, the author mentions 25 cards only, but the next sentence clearly proves that 20 cards only, not 25, were used. L.C.)


The aces are the highest denomination: then the kings, queens, jacks and tens: the smaller cards are not used; those I have named are all dealt out, and carefully concealed from one another; old players pack them in their hands, and peep at them as if they were afraid to trust even themselves to look. The four aces, with any other card, cannot be beat. Four kings, with an ace cannot be beat because then no one can have four aces; and four queens, or jacks, or tens, with an ace, are all inferior hands to the kings when so attended. But holding the cards I have instanced seldom occurs when they are fairly dealt; and three aces for example, or three kings, with any two of the other cards, or four queens, or jacks or tens, is called a full, and with an ace, though not invincible, are considered very good bragging hands. The dealer makes the game, or value of the beginning bet and called the anti-in this instance it was a dollar-and then everybody stakes the same amount, and says, "I'm up."


It was a foggy, wretched night. Our bell was kept tolling to warn other boats to our whereabouts or to entreat direction to a landing by a fire on the shore. Suddenly a most tremendous concussion, as if all-powerful Nature had shut his hand upon us, and crushed us all to atoms, upset our cards and calculations, and a general rush was made over chairs and tables toward the doors.........  The cabin was entirely cleared, or, rather, all the passengers were huddled together at the entrances, with the exception of one of the poker players; a gentleman in green spectacles, a gold guard-chain, long and thick enough to moor a dog, and a brilliant diamond breast-pin; he was, apparently, quietly shuffling and cutting the poker deck for his own amusement. In less time than I am telling it, the swarm came laughing back, in which snags, sawyers, bolts blown out, and boilers burst, were most conspicuous.  But all the harm the fracas caused was fright; the boat, in rounding to a wood-pile, had run onto the point of an island, and was high and dry among a never- ending supply of fuel to feed this peculiar navigation, which alone can combat the unceasing; serpantine, tempestuous current of the I -will-have my-own-way, glorious Mississippi.


The hubbub formed a good excuse to end our game, which my stupidity had made desirable long before, and I took a chair beside the poker players, who, urged by the gentleman with the diamond pin, again resumed their seats.. It was his turn to deal, and when he ended, he did not lift his cards, but sat watching quietly the countenances of the others. The man on his left had bet ten dollars; a young lawyer, son to the then Mayor of Pittsburgh, who little dreamed of what his boy was about, who had hardly recovered from his shock, bet ten more; at that time, fortunately for him, he was unconscious of the real value of his hand, and consequently did not betray by his manner, as greenhorns mostly do, his certainty of winning. My chicken* friend bet that ten dollars and five hundred dollars better!

(Note: chicken friend - So called, because in an earlier anecdote he had elaborated on the technique of fighting gamecocks. G.S.C.)


"I must see that," said Green Spectacles, who now took up his hand with "I am sure to win," trembling at his fingers' ends; for you couldn't see his eyes through his glasses; he paused a moment in disappointed astonishment, and sighed, "I pass," and threw his cards upon the table. The left-hand man bet "that five hundred dollars and one thousand dollars better!"


The young lawyer, who had ha,d time to calculate the power of his hand-four kings with an ace-it could not be beat but still he hesitated at the impossibility, as if he thought it could- looked at the money staked and then at his hand again, and, lingeringly, put his wallet on the table and called. The left-hand man had four queens, with an ace: and Washington, the four jacks and an ace.


"Did you ever see the like on't?" said he, good-humourdly, as he pushed the money towards the lawyer, who, very agreebly astonished, pocketed his two thousand and twenty-three dollars clear!


The truth was, the cards had been put up, or stocked, as it is called, by the guard-chain-man while the party were off their guard, or, rather, on the guard of the boat in the fog, inquiring if the boiler had burst; but the excitement of the time had caused him to make a slight mistake in the distribution of the hand; and young "Six-and-eight-pense" got the one he had intended for himself. He was one of many who followed card playing for a living, but not properly coming under the de- nomination of gentleman-sportsman, who alone depends on his superior skill. But in that pursuit, as in all others, even among the players, some black-sheep and black-legs will creep in, as in the present instance.