The exact origin of the game of poker is largely unknown. There isn’t a single “creator of poker” we can point to who one day sat down and decided to create a card game. Instead, poker emerged from several different games originating in various cultures, which evolved as people intermingled throughout history.
The first reported game that had a representation to poker was a game played with dominos around 900AD in China, yet in 2019 you can play poker across the globe including at Swedish online casinos. It was reported that Emperor Mu-tsung enjoyed playing “domino cards” with his wife. The domino cards and the game itself most likely had little semblance to the game of poker we play today.
In the 12th – 13th centuries the Egyptians are known to have created playing cards. The card game “Ganjifa” originated around the 16th century and consisted of 96 intricately detailed cards made of wood or ivory. Around this time the Persians played a card game called “As Nas” which may have been the first game to utilize ranked cards and include several rounds of betting. “As Nas” had the greatest semblance to poker of all the card games created up until that point in history.
In the 16th century the Spanish created a card game called “Primero” where each player was dealt three cards. This is the first recorded card game that encouraged bluffing in order to deceive opponents regarding the strength of a hand. Historians agree that this game is directly related to modern day poker.
From the card game “Primero” evolved both “Poque” created by the French, and “Pochen” originating in Germany. “Poque” became the national card game of France and spread to the New World during the 18th century when French Canadian immigrants settled in New Orleans. From there it spread throughout the colonies.
It’s very possible that the name “poker” came from either the words “Poque” or “Pochen.” Some believe it was derived from the word “poke,” used by pickpockets to describe the act of stealing from a mark. Others believe poker is related to the word “hocus-pocus.” The insinuation being that expert card players resemble magicians. Many professional gamblers at the time used “sleight of hand” tricks to increase their winnings.
“An Exposure of Arts & Miseries of Gambling” was published in 1834 by Jonathan H Green and is the first book ever written that contains references to the game of poker. Jonathan Green was a professional gambler who traveled the Mississippi River on steam boats plying his trade. He called poker “The Cheating Game” and was the first author to use the word “poker” to describe the game in a book. The poker game he wrote about was quite different from modern day poker. It used a 20 card deck consisting only of aces, kings, queens, jacks and tens.
The “river card” received its name because of poker games played on river boats. Often cheaters would deal a hidden 5th card from their sleeve in position to improve their own hand. When caught, the fraud would be thrown into the river. Therefore the 5th card became known as “the river.”