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Poqas To No Limit Hold 'Em: A Concise History of our National Pastime
by James McManus

Men playing poker at the Northern Club. In 2003 the New York Times declared, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn poker." The game, after all, has gone hand in hand with pivotal aspects of our national experience for more than two centuries now. The ways we've done business, fought wars, chosen presidents, and explored our vast continent have echoed, and been echoed by, its risk-loving acumen.

America has never been able to forcibly export our core values. Poker, however, along with much else in our culture, gets the job done more smoothly. With its frontier spirit intact, it's the most popular card game on earth, though the Puritan strain of our heritage remains dreadfully nervous about it. Presidents play it, tournaments are broadcast on Super Bowl Sunday and most other evenings, while the winners get showered with endorsements and take star turns on Letterman. Yet in many states, even dime-quarter games are illegal; if the stakes get too high in most others, you can be prosecuted for "aggravated gambling." You are breaking the law if you play Texas hold 'em, or any other form of poker, in Texas.

Nevada made poker legal in 1931, and Las Vegas has been the game's capital since the Eisenhower administration, but it arrived in this country through the port of New Orleans a century and a half before Ike. By 1800, French soldiers had introduced a game called poque to New Orleans, and well before the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, sailors from Persia-modern-day Iran and Iraq-were teaching French settlers As Nas, Farsi for "My beloved ace!" Eminent pokeratician Al Alvarez believes the game was invented by the French merchants and diplomats "in Persia around the beginning of the nineteenth century [who] adapted their own game of poque or bouilotte to the local As-Nas deck, then taught it to their Persian hosts." Combining poque with as,that game was known as poqas. After shuffling a twenty-card deck (aces, kings, ladies, soldiers, and dancing girls, one for each suit), five-card hands were dealt to four players, who represented (or misrepresented) the strength of their cards by saying, for example, "I poque against you for six dollars." Four aces, or four kings with an ace, were the only unbeatable hands, but even if you held no pair at all, the look in your eye combined with the size of your wager could force players holding much stronger hands to relinquish the pot, a tactic with a risk-reward quotient very much in the spirit of our wide-open market democracy.

Poker hand and hands of girl players. As more and more folks wanted in on the new risqué chancing, it migrated via steamboat up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The southern pronunciation was "pokuh," which as the game traveled north became "poker." The rules changed as well. A fifty-two card deck was brought in to accommodate up to ten players and make for more lucrative pots. Flushes and straights were soon introduced, along with the option to draw three new cards, demanding more tactical prowess.

The game's popularity exploded during the Civil War, when soldiers on both sides took it up in the lulls between bloodbaths. Several Confederate victories forced a desperate Lincoln to put the hard-drinking poker player Ulysses S. Grant in command of the Federal army. Unlike his dithering predecessors Grant had a genius for forcing the action-anticipating enemy tactics and countering with devastating ferocity. His ablest lieutenant, William Tecumseh Sherman, found himself in 1864 outside Atlanta facing a Confederate army under John Bell Hood. An officer informed Sherman, "I seed Hood bet $2,500, with nary a pair in his hand." Bluffing such a colossal sum in antebellum dollars confirmed Sherman's read of Hood as brave but impetuous; therefore, he reconfigured his troops defensively and put them on highest alert. As if on cue Hood shattered his army with three suicidal attacks on superior Federal positions.

Civil War survivors brought poker home with them to every state and territory. Since Confederate veterans had fewer prospects, a disproportionate number of them headed West, which helps to explain the modern game's southwestern twang. Back then it was played with the same reckless verve that prospectors, cavalrymen, and wagon-train scouts brought to their day jobs. When their progeny needed time off from building dams, railroads, and highways from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, a gaming Mecca sprang up to tempt them.

Poker was now fully integrated into the American way of life and had even begun to emigrate. Harry Truman learned to play in Missouri and honed his skills as a doughboy during the Great War in France. On decks issued by the Allies during World War II, Churchill was depicted as the king of spades, Roosevelt the king of diamonds, Stalin the king of hearts, de Gaulle the king of clubs; Hitler, as the useless joker, had a bomb dropping onto his head. Decks smuggled to POWs concealed escape routes out of Germany, revealed when certain pasteboards were separated and dipped in water. During shipboard games in the Pacific, Lt. Richard "Nick" Nixon won enough to finance his first congressional campaign. Farther up the chain of command, President Truman played pot-limit five-card stud with journalists almost twelve hours a day aboard the U.S.S. Augusta while finalizing his decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Secretary of State James Byrnes vigorously opposed using the bomb on any city, and Truman used the daylong poker sessions to reduce Byrnes's access to him. A UP reporter aboard the Augusta wrote that Truman "was running a straight stud filibuster against his own Secretary of State."

Rituals such as poker, says biologist E. O. Wilson, "celebrate the creation myths, propitiate the gods, and resanctify the tribal moral codes." Aces, kings, queens, soldiers, and half-naked dancing girls (chastened into Arabic tens), as well as the eight lower numbers, permutate and combine into untold variations on the theme of what our genes make us do. When we read the community cards and abide by the rules, surrendering a mountainous pot to the grandmother showing down jacks to our tens, we participate in and "resanctify" antediluvian pecking orders. We even accept that, weirdly enough, a deuce is the smallest a thing can get, smaller than even a one; that in tandem, however, deuces overmatch any ace, any face card; but that even three deuces must lose to a straight or a flush-unless, of course, another pair materializes, in which case we have a full house. Straight flushes at the top, then quads, fulls, flushes, straights, sets, two pairs, pairs, highest card, highest kicker: poker's recombinant totem pole, based as it is on money, gender, mathematical scarcity, the Arabic counting scheme, and our status hungry social order -- especially in the cathedrals of Eros and chance that dominate the evolving Strip skyline -- feels right in our market-based marrow.


James McManus is the author of Positively Fifth Street, an account of the 2000 World Series of Poker, in which he finished fifth. The full version of this essay appears in Las Vegas: An Unconventional History (2005), a companion to the film.

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