Ancient China, Birthplace of Poker

It’s estimated that poker might be almost as old as the Great Wall of China.

Poker is loved across the world today. Deeply strategic roots and devilishly difficult tactics make this game almost impossible to truly master, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to try. The origins of all of the different variations of the game are hotly disputed, but not as much as the root of the original game itself. Many historians believe that poker originated in ancient China; here’s how.

Let’s Go Back to the 10th Century

For many of us, the word poker conjures up imagery of glitzy casinos or men in shades all sat around a table, but perhaps we should instead be thinking of a 10th-century Chinese emperor. Some historians believe that this emperor enjoyed a domino based card game, which steadily grew in popularity until it crossed the borders of the country. This game was likely the predecessor to both Pai Gow, a matching tile game that is still widely played, and also both Chinese and ‘standard’ poker. The game existed for a long time in China, which is no great surprise as China is famed for its love of challenging card games. Eventually, though, it made it’s way to its next destination and morphed ever close to the game we know today.

16th Century As Nas

By the time the card game reached Persia in the 16th century, it was known as ‘As Nas’. The rules of this game were strikingly similar to those we use today, with just a few key differences. The most notable one is the much smaller deck of cards, just 25, but with five suits instead of four. The suits each had one court card and the remaining four were picture cards. The cards were intricately decorated and incredibly beautiful; in fact, many are kept in museums for their beauty. These cards were widely used throughout the 16th to 18th centuries, but when the world got wind of Europe’s sets of playing cards, the designs began to change. Soon the sets included four suits, hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades, and featured three court cards.

17th Century Poque

Once this change to the European deck had been made, the game migrated again; this time to 17th century France and Germany. The game was known as Poque in French and Pochen in Germany and, although it took its roots from the ancient Chinese game mentioned before and from the As Nas Persian game, it also took influence from the Spanish game known as Primero. This game was played by dealing three cards to each player and players would bet on their cards. Bluffing too was encouraged.

19th Century Poker

Perhaps the most marked move that Poque made towards the poker that we know today was when French colonists brought the game over to their North American Settlements. Whilst in

settlements they met many English speakers, who of course anglicized Poque to Poker. Thus the term was finally born, some time in the first quarter of the 19th century. By 1834 the game was being played with a standard 52 card deck and each player was being dealt five cards. If this is all sounding a little familiar now then it’s no surprise as we haven’t deviated a great deal from this version of the game. The real skill comes as you gradually improve and begin to appreciate the nuance of this fantastically exciting, but devilishly difficult, card game.

Poker as we know it today had to travel across many countries to realize its final form.

Since the 19th century, there has of course been further change to the game, with different variations each appearing and some of those gaining enough popularity to earn them a following today, but all of them share certain basic rules, like for example, the player with the strongest hand, or the final player left after everyone else folds, takes the pot.

One such variation was Chinese Poker, which is still very popular. It is thought that, like Poque, Chinese Poker made it’s way over to the states with a different name, Pai Gow, which we mentioned earlier. This game was brought over during the late 18th century by Chinese laborers and gradually merged with the poker that was being played at the time. Eventually the game became a creation all of it’s own and earned the name Chinese poker. Although it’s perhaps not as popular as Texas Hold’em, it managed to make waves at the 1995 World Series of Poker and, even though it was dropped from the schedule after a couple of years, there are still many slightly smaller tournaments that feature this fantastic game.