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A BRIEF HISTORY of POKER
The (So Called) "Cheating Game"

 

To this day, historians are still unable to agree on the exact origins of the card game that has come to be known as poker. One thing that they all seem to agree on, however, is the fact that poker has a shady past. This fact would be hard to deny, due to all the historical evidence.

One of the earliest written references of poker appears in Jonathan H. Green's 1834 book, An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, where the author has been frequently quoted for calling poker "the cheating game." Green never actually wrote that exact phrase, word for word, but he does offer a thorough description of different poker scams that have been known back in the day when poker was still "in diapers." This historic document would tend to suggest that in its early years poker used to be more or less on the same level as three-card-monte, the infamous street swindle which is not even a real card game. It is this aspect of poker that is of most interest to the readers of this site.

Many things have changed since Jonathan Green's infamous book, written in the 19th century. Poker players have developed rules that have become generally adopted throughout the world (basic poker rules won't be discussed here, but you are welcome to visit the general rules of card games page on our sister site Playing Cards Online, for detailed info). Also, as we all know, poker has spread throughout the virtual world of online gambling and many poker sites have been born to satisfy the needs of millions of poker players throughout the world. Online poker has become a big business. Entire networks have been built to promote and list all the poker sites (which have now become household names). These sites have become popular through massive ad networks and cross-promotion through thousands of gambling sites. If you do a quick Google search for "poker listings" you shouldn't have any trouble finding the sites that promote online poker rooms.

Due to the fact that the accurate historic information about the early origins of poker cannot be verified, a lot of misinformation appears throughout the internet. Many web pages are written by people who are neither experts nor historians, and many "authors" just copy and past whatever misinformation that they happen to find on other sites, without ever bothering to fact-check. That is precisely how Jonathan Green has constantly been misquoted for calling poker "the cheating game," in his 1834 book.

It actually bothers me quite a bit that misinformation is plaguing the internet, which may eventually end up being accepted as a historical fact, just because "everyone" says the same thing. But the truth is, this is just a single sentence that someone must have written, at some time in the past, and has consequently been cloned over hundreds of poker web sites. But who was the initial culprit that first plastered this misinformation? With some work I should be able to find the source. And with some work, and a lot of luck, one day I did find the source.

The one to blame is John Scarne. On page 23 of his book, Scarne's Guide to Modern Poker (1980), under the heading The History of Poker, Scarne says: The first reference in print to Poker which I have found is one by Jonathan H. Green published in 1834. He gives the rules of what he calls a "cheating game" which was then being played on Mississippi riverboats.

That pretty much sounds to me like the bad seed that started it all. But if you read Green's entire book (324 pages) you will find a chapter entitled The Game of Poker (page 59) but you will not find the two words "cheating game" written together, anywhere in the entire book. So, although Green did describe the game as a cheating game, he did not call it the "cheating game."

When it comes to the early origins of poker, all one can really hope to find are (pseudo) theories and speculations. We can either accept the fact that we'll probably never know where poker came from or we can simply pick a theory that sounds good and choose to believe it.

 

Poker, still the same ol' game...

As everything else in history, poker has gone through some notable changes in the past few decades, especially in the few years following the 2003 WSOP tournament. But all the changes that poker has gone through in recent years are just window dressing. Fundamentally, poker has not really changed much. To believe that the poker as it is known today is much different from the crooked game that's been around for 200 years is to believe that human nature has also gone through a drastic change in those recent years. Nonsense!

 

Poker Game Televised Poker Tournament
A 1920s poker game and a 21st century televised poker tournament look very different in appearance, but at its basic level it's business as usual.

 

There is an old poker saying: In poker you're either in, or out. I've learned that people, in general, refuse to believe that cheating goes on. Such people are generally called, skeptics. I call them, suckers.

Whatever people choose to believe will not change the facts. So, before we get into details, let's see what some of the facts are.

As mentioned above, it is a historically documented fact that early poker was a crooked game. In the 19th and 20th centuries numerous gambling supply houses, such as, Will & Finck, HC Evans & Co, Hunt & Co, KC Card Co, Mason & Co, TR King, George & Co, etc, have been selling crooked gambling supplies through their mail order catalogs. In 1894 John Nevil Maskelyne wrote the book, Sharps and Flats; a book that became an instant classic and is basically an exposé of cheating techniques used by cardsharps. All the illustrations in that book were taken from the mail order catalog of Will and Finck. All these mail order catalogs list various cheating gaffs, such as, marked cards, holdouts, shiners, inks and daubs, bugs and numerous other gaffs specifically designed for cheating. The fact the we can still purchase these old gaffs and gambling catalogs on eBay should be taken as undisputable evidence that cheating was a common occurrence in gambling games. These gaffs were mostly made for cheating private card games. But some gaffs were also made specifically for operators of various gambling venues, mostly faro banks.

In the second half of the 20th century the old crooked gambling suppliers went underground. Many of the old companies were still in business until the last decade of the 20th century. Officially they were selling gaming supplies, but special customers had access to all the goodies that were sold behind closed doors. At the time of this writing (December 2009) some companies, as well as individual manufacturers, are still in business. As a matter of fact, just in May of 2009 I called one of the companies listed above, located in California and spoke with the owner, whom I will call Mr. G. (the G. is his first name initial) because I was hoping he could sell me a specific gaff for my own personal collection. Throughout the course of our conversation Mr. G. informed me that he can no longer take any new customers because he has more orders than he is able to fulfill. I also know for a fact that Mr. G. still does business with another one of the old companies that appears in the list above, and is now owned by a Mr. T. (also first name initial); that company is located in the Midwest. On the East Coast there is another company, which is currently owned by Mr. E. and is mostly in the business of selling legitimate gaming supplies. But if you know how to ask the right questions, behind closed doors, Mr. E. will sell you anything you "need."

It should be noted that most professional cheats do not shop at any of the crooked gambling supply houses. But the point is that these places are still in business, which can only mean that there is a big interest for these products.

Gardena, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, was the poker capital during the 1970s and 80s. Although these were licensed poker rooms the games were mostly all crooked. Skeptics may have a hard time believing this bold statement, but fortunately there is undisputable evidence that proves the validity of this statement. The 1980s marked the beginning of the era of home videos and the first Betamax and VHS camcorders became available. The availability of this new technology made it possible for people with access to the catwalks to record, for the first time on video, the true nature of the Gardena poker games. Several tapes have been made during the 1980s and copies have been passed on through underground connections. To those of us who are fortunate to own copies of these tapes (or those who have seen them) it is quite clear that it was almost impossible to find a square game in these "licensed" poker clubs.

Due to local laws and regulations, California poker rooms were limited to draw games, so the games that were played in licensed California clubs were mostly Draw Poker, High-Low and Lowball. But in other parts of the US poker players were beating each other at Hold'em and 7-Card Stud.

While hundreds of poker players in California were dealing draw games (usually from the bottom of the deck), the Texas gamblers found no-limit Hold'em games in Downtown Las Vegas. For the rest of the country, however, poker remained an underground activity.

Underground poker clubs can be found in every major city in the US. In New York alone, there has never been a shortage of underground clubs, with names such as The Mayfair Club, The Diamond Club, Playstation, NY Players Club, Galaxy, Satellite, All In, Ace Point Club, Straddle, Lucky, Rounders, Fairview Elite, Acula, City Limit, The Broadway, The Country Club, etc. Many of these joints have been closed down, but with the closing of every major joint at least two new ones popped-up around the corner, oftentimes even in people's apartments.

 

NYC poker club: Playstation NYC poker club: NY Players Club
Two of the largest illegal poker clubs in New York City (Playstation, left, on 4-6 W 14th St, and the NY Players Club, right, on 200 W 72nd St) were raided on Thursday May 27, 2005; 39 people were arrested and charged with promoting gambling and profiting from a gambling activity.

 

These kind of clubs have existed for many decades, even before the masses became aware of a "new" game called Texas Hold'em, that was made popular by televised poker tournaments. Due to their nature, these unregulated joints were the playgrounds for hustlers and cardsharps. What all these joints have in common is the fact that they have been illegal and completely unregulated for decades. During decades of unregulated gambling activities these hustlers and cardsharps had plenty of opportunities to sharpen their skills. And then one day, a miracle happened. Everybody with a wallet wanted to become a millionaire overnight, by playing No-Limit Texas Hold'em, just like they've seen it on TV. And almost overnight, there weren't enough poker clubs in the cities to satisfy the masses' demand. The old foxes could not have hoped for a better opportunity.

Hustlers, cardsharps and professional cheats do exist. Those characters are not imaginary creatures, like monsters that live under the bed. Since poker was mostly limited to underground clubs, for many decades, it should not be a challenge to convince the readers that these characters have always been part of the underground poker scene. Now that the poker scene has expanded and has been flooded with an overabundance of wannabe poker players, are we to believe the old sharks have lost interest and decided to quit, or retire, or perhaps that they didn't notice there are all these fresh fruits ready for picking? To believe that the old sharks do not care about the flood of novice poker players is the same as believing that prison inmates wouldn't notice, or care, if a busload of 18-year old cheerleaders have come for a day-tour of the prison. So, now that there are more poker rooms than ever before and now that all the joints are filled with fresh and/or relatively inexperienced poker players, where do we think all the sharks have gone?

Promoters of all these poker events would like everyone to believe that poker is (now) a clean game. Let me go over some details one more time, just to make sure we didn't miss anything. Now that poker attracts more sucker than ever before in history, all the cheats have lost interest and walked away from the game, like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Those cheats must be crazy.

If you chose to believe that, feel free to join the masses. But if you think the popular belief makes absolutely no sense, this site is for you. But don't try to wise up the suckers. If you do, you run the risk of being ridiculed.

 

The Poker Utopia

The "skeptics" will tell you that all "regulated" poker games are squeaky clean. Poker is a game of skill and the leading poker players always come out on top simply because they are superior players. Anyone that even dares to entertain the thought that any of the televised poker tournaments could be rigged is just a "conspiracy theorist" and should have his head checked.

I do agree that many of the leading poker players are good at what they do and I do agree that most of the "regulated" poker games must be generally clean, most of the times (don't miss the word "generally"). But some things just don't add up in the whole "squeaky clean" poker theory.

Allow me to mix up some apples and oranges, to illustrate a point.

When people come across headlines that reveal doping scandals amongst world's leading athletes (including those that compete in the world's most reputable events, such as the Olympics and the Tour de France) no one seems to question the validity of these accusations, or let's call them "conspiracy theories." People just take the information for granted. And wy shouldn't we take these "conspiracy theories" for granted? After all, these stories were featured on TV. Not to mention that it makes perfect sense that some of the world's leading athletes would succumb to the temptation of cheating. After all, they are only human.

I don't follow sports at all, but flipping through New York Times headlines, in the past couple of years alone, I can hardy miss noticing at least a couple of headlines a week that have to do with doping scandals. In addition to doping scandals it is also impossible to miss all the headlines that reveal corruption scandals and other frauds perpetrated by "reputable" people. These frauds are all well documented facts and a couple of years ago I even assembled a short list of New York Times headlines that deal with various frauds and swindles. This list reveals only a few scams that were busted during the third quarter of the year 2007, but as most of you may recall, the world has seen many swindles in the following year, from the rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel at Société Générale, the Bernard Madoff $50B Ponzi scheme, the impeachment of Illinois' governor and later some Olympic athletes being busted for using illegal stimulants. But what we haven't seen in any of the same papers, since the beginning of the poker craze, are any headlines about poker cheating scandals. So, what does that mean? I guess we should believe that in the world of "regulated" poker, cheating simply does not occur. That seems to be precisely what the "skeptics" believe. Don't count me in, please.

So, let me see if I got this straight. We easily accept the fact that many of the world's most reputable athletes, government officials, bankers, art collectors, and so on are frauds. But when it comes to poker players, those guys are all squeaky clean. But at the same time, everyone still does pretty much accept the fact that poker has a shady past (after all, this fact has been printed in books). There must be something I'm missing.

Judging from many of the headlines we see in the papers, we can only conclude one thing: cheating is an integral part of human nature. It's who we are. It's what we do. Sorry to say this, but, it's what makes up human. That's right, traits that separate humans from animals are not just good ones. Look around and you'll see.

 


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