The earliest versions of poker seem to have derived from the Persian game As Nas, or else from the French version, known as As Naz. Which game developed first isn’t clear, but both can be translated as “My beloved ace!”—and what player hasn’t felt that?
We know that As Naz metamorphosed into a three-card bluffing game called poque (from the Gaelic for “kiss”) as well as a close German cousin called Pochspiel (“the bragging game”). French soldiers brought poque to New Orleans around 1820, when it was played with a 20-card deck.
After a shuffle, five-card hands were dealt face-down to four players, who proceeded to bet on the relative strength of their cards. Without straights or flushes—let alone straight flushes—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 that seemed very much in the spirit of our fledgling market democracy.
As poque spread north on Mississippi riverboats, more and more folks wanted in on the newfangled chancing. The Southern pronunciation was “pokuh,” which, as the game migrated north and east, became “poker.” The rules changed as well.
The 52-card deck was incorporated around 1837 to accommodate up to 10 players and make for more lucrative pots. Flushes and straights were soon introduced, as was the option to draw three new cards.
One early problem was that skilled, ruthless cardsharps came to dominate much of the action. When they couldn’t beat you with marked cards, a “cold deck” presequenced to deal you the second-best hand, or an ace up their sleeve, they pulled a pistol or switchblade and took your money that way.
For a long time, it seemed that only a scoundrel or fool would play what was then called “the cheater’s game.” And yet it continued to flourish.
Cleaner versions of poker became widely popular during the Civil War, when soldiers on both sides took up the game between battles and survivors brought it home with them to every state and territory. Spreading west with the Gold Rush, it was played with the same reckless enterprise that the 49ers and Comstock Boys brought to their claim-jumping. Not surprisingly, poker on the western frontier retained a few unsavory elements and picked up some new ones.
In the town of Deadwood in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory in 1876, Sheriff J.B. “Wild Bill” Hickok was playing in Carl Mann’s Saloon No. 10 when Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall snuck up and shot him in the back of the head with a .45 caliber revolver.
Hickok’s national reputation as a gunfighter had been established 11 years earlier in a Harper’s article by George Ward Nichols, so a yellowbellied knave like McCall would never have drawn on Hickok face-to-face. Being the last man to be seated in the game, however, Sheriff Hickok was forced to play that evening with his back to the door, and it cost him his life.
As the gambling lawman lay bleeding into the sawdust, still twitching, someone noticed that he continued to clutch his five cards, including two aces and two 8s, which has been known ever since as the “Dead Man’s Hand.” Today’s hold’em players routinely fold an A-8 before the flop, even when there hasn’t been a raise. They’re avoiding serious kicker trouble if an ace or two happens to hit the board, but they’re also steering clear of Hickok’s bad karma. “I ain’t superstitious,” as Muddy Waters sang, “but a black cat just crossed my trail.”
With its frontier cachet still intact, poker has become the most popular card game on the planet. Players continue to sport cowboy noms de guerre—Amarillo Slim, Texas Dolly, Kid Poker, Oklahoma Johnny—while tournaments are called things like “Gold Rush,” “Pot of Gold,” “Wild Wednesday Omaha” and “Texas Hold’em Shootout.” (As a meteorological variant, the biggest tournament in Scandinavia, held in midwinter, is called the “Helsinki Freezeout.”) Even David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth’s cerebral advice books feature a Colt .45 on their covers, perhaps because after the final card gets dealt and the betting is completed, players still in the hand must engage in a showdown.
Benny Binion launched the World Series of Poker at his Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas in the spring of 1970. The idea had been germinating ever since Nick “the Greek” Dandalos came to town in 1949 wanting to play “the biggest game this world has to offer.” Having broken every high roller back east, Dandalos had won in the neighborhood of $60 million, though he lost most of it back on the thoroughbreds. Told that Benny Binion was the man to see about no-limit action, Dandalos proposed that the Horseshoe’s impresario match him against “any man around” in a no-limit, winner-take-all poker marathon.
Benny conferred with his friend Jimmy Snyder, who also used “the Greek” as his moniker. Snyder had contended for years that poker was America’s natural game. Still played mostly in basements and kitchens, however, it remained an underground national pastime. All it needed to become more visible, Snyder imagined, was the institutional organization of games like baseball; and to get that, it needed a forum. Snyder also surmised that the best poker players were Texans, mainly because of the vastness of their landscape and how little else it afforded in the way of amusement. (More recently, David Spanier argued that poker’s wide-open betting patterns went more naturally with the “aura of adventure” in the American West, very much including the Lone Star State, while more tightly regimented games like gin rummy were better suited, as it were, to densely populated Eastern cities.) In any case, Snyder argued that the best man to stand up to Dandalos would hail from that ornery state.
Convinced by Snyder’s logic, Benny phoned up his friend Johnny Moss, the best poker player he knew. Moss’ formal education had ended, like Benny’s, in second grade, but no one could beat Moss at poker, or Benny at entrepreneurship. Legend has it that Moss was already in a pretty good game in Odessa when his friend finally reached him. He’d been playing for three days straight without sleep, but he still got on the first plane to Vegas, took a taxi to Benny’s place on a crisp Sunday afternoon in January and immediately sat down to play.
Dandalos was 57, Moss 42—so stamina was going to be an issue. So was publicity. Benny positioned their table near the entrance to his casino, where it was soon hemmed in by respectful audiences of two or three hundred. From time to time, wealthy aspirants were permitted to “change-in to” the game for a minimum of $10,000, but none lasted more than a day or two. Early on, the Greek pulled dramatically ahead, threatening to wipe out Moss’s bankroll. Apparently the Greek seldom slept, since he spent nearly all of their break time at the craps table. Once, when Moss came back downstairs from a nap, Dandalos joshed him, “What are you going to do, Johnny, sleep your life away?”
They played for five months, breaking for sleep only once every four or five days—this as fresh dealers rotated in every 20 minutes to keep the action brisk and precise. Meanwhile, the crowds of railbirds continued to grow. In one famous hand of five-card stud, the board cards were 8-6-4-J for the Greek and 6-9-2-3 for Moss. With over $100,000 already in the pot, the Greek bet $50,000. Moss, who had a 9 in the hole, moved all his available chips in, reraising. The Greek had only $140,000 left of what had recently been an eight-figure bankroll.
“I guess I have to call you,” he said, pushing the last of his chips toward the pot, “because I think I’ve got a jack in the hole.” Moss told him, “Greek, if you’ve got a jack down there, you’re liable to win a helluva pot.” Dandalos indeed had the jack, and the pot came to $520,000. By recklessly chasing Moss’ pair of 9s during the final two betting rounds, Dandalos had just won half a million dollars.
“But that’s all right,” Moss said years later, observing that the Greek’s risk-reward ratio didn’t bode well for him. “I broke him in the end.” The Greek finally succumbed with a handshake and the famous line, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” Legend has it that the Texan took between two and three million dollars from their marathon. Adjusted for inflation, this would be like winning $50 million today.
Lest all these dollar signs appear a bit crass, it’s important to understand that money is the language of poker, its means of keeping score, just as points are the language of ball sports, fire and produce the language of cuisine, and words—as Edward G. Robinson says in The Cincinnati Kid—the language of thought. And nowhere does money speak more eloquently, with greater or more precise impact, or as part of a longer tradition, than at Binion’s World Series of Poker.
Yet the tournament started out small. In 1970, Benny simply invited six of his high-rolling cronies to compete among themselves, then vote for the best all-around player. Moss was 63 now, yet he thoroughly outplayed all five younger rivals, who voted him the champion. He received a small trophy and whatever money he’d earned at the table. The current freeze-out structure, in which everyone sits down with exactly $10,000 and plays until one person has all the chips, was instated the following year. Moss won in this format too, this time taking home $30,000 for defeating six opponents.
The next year’s winner, Amarillo Slim Preston, won $80,000 for beating twice as many opponents. Much more the raconteur than Mr. Moss, the tall, rail-thin Preston put together a quickie bestseller called Maverick Poker and went on the talk-show circuit. His four appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show were a hit, boosting exponentially the public’s interest in tournament poker. Slim’s looks and downhome style captivated the vast TV audience, and he went on to do three stints on 60 Minutes and a total of 11 appearances on the Tonight Show; he also addressed the National Press Club and the United States Senate.
“This poker game here gets us a lot of attention,” Benny Binion told an oral historian in 1973. And he wasn’t exaggerating. Seven thousand stories about the World Series had appeared that year alone in newspapers and magazines. Yet Benny was just getting started. “We had seven players last year, and this year we had 13. I look to have better than 20 next year. It’s even liable to get up to be 50, might get up to be more than that…” He paused, gazing beyond his interviewer for a moment. “It will eventually.”
By the time Doyle Brunson became the second repeat champion in ’77, 85 players had entered, with first prize mushrooming to $340,000. Benny’s son Jack was running the tournament now, with Eric Drache, Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland as his principal lieutenants. This team’s boldest move was to introduce satellites, less-expensive mini-tournaments designed to democratize entry into the Big One by giving players with as little as $220 a chance to win a $10,000 seat.
First prize rose to $700,000 by ’88, the second year Johnny Chan won. This time the Orient Express narrowly defeated Erik Seidel, a lanky and pensive New Yorker who had played beyond his experience until the very last hand; in that hand, however, Chan flopped a straight and trapped his opponent into going all in with a pair of queens. Unfortunately for Seidel, this was the only hand featured in Rounders, the Matt Damon-Edward Norton vehicle that ends with Damon heading to Binion’s from Manhattan with $10,000 in his pocket.
From ’91 through ’98, first prize in the championship has been an even $1 million, with entries and total prize money steadily climbing. Almost from its inception, in fact, the dollars awarded at the WSOP have dwarfed the purses of Wimbledon, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby, not to mention baseball’s World Series. There are now 34 preliminary events, the smallest of which yields more lucrative spoils than the largest event at most other tournaments. As far as prestige is concerned, a recent poll of 15 top pros asked them to rank the 50 most important tournaments worldwide. The championship event at Binion’s received every first-place vote, giving it a perfect aggregate score of 15. Twenty of the next 30 lowest scores, in fact, were preliminary WSOP events. Golf and tennis have four majors apiece, boxing a shifting variety, horse-racing three. Poker still has only one.
The steepest buy-in at the tournament Benny invented remains $10,000, almost cheap when you consider that the same amount was required of interlopers to the 1949 Moss-Dandalos epic. These days, the majority of players gain entry by winning satellites or supersatellites. In ’99, Irishman Noel Furlong parlayed success in a super into $1 million and the bracelet. Satellites are also thought by many players to be the most legitimate route into the Big One, since they reward poker skill instead of deep pockets, though the two often work hand-in-hand.
Meanwhile, Binion-style tournament poker has taken the planet by storm. Lucrative events, most of them modelled on the WSOP, are now held in San Jose, Birmingham, Dublin, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Bregenz, Prague, Amsterdam, Malta and Moscow, as well as on cruise ships. Club Aviation on the Champs Elysees holds four big seasonal tournaments a year—four extra reasons that several touring pros now make their home in the City of Light.
One result of all this is that, after being dominated by Texans for almost two decades, the World Series has now crowned champions from The Bronx, Brooklyn, Boston, Grand Rapids, Iran, Vietnam, China, Ireland and Spain. In 1997, 12 of the 21 WSOP titles were captured by foreign-born players, and the ’98 championship went to Thuan “Scotty” Nguyen, who emigrated at 17 from South Vietnam in a very small boat, almost starving to death with his younger brother before a ship picked them up. In 2000, three of the final seven in the championship event hailed from an even smaller country, including the winner, Noel Furlong. George McKeever finished seventh and Padraig Parkinson, a fierce but good-humored Dubliner who now lives in Paris, finished, as he put it, “t’ird.”
Besides drawing record numbers of entries, the 2000 Series provided more evidence that homo pokeriens keeps evolving in salutary fashion. In the very first event, limit hold’em with a $2,000 buy-in, Hieu “Tony” Ma, another Vietnam-born maestro, defeated a record field of 496. Chick power ruled in the second event, when Jerri Thomas, a 41-year-old commodities trader from Hamilton, OH, took the $1,500 stud bracelet. Thomas’ victory was all the more impressive because she had given birth to her second child only three months earlier. As her husband, Harry Thomas Jr., and three-month-old Harry III looked on from the bleachers, she coolly dispatched her seven male opponents. The Thomases’ are now the second married couple with a World Series bracelet apiece. (Dr. Max and Maria Stern were the first.)
And then, on May 5, 2000, Jennifer Harman took home the no-limit deuce-to-seven bracelet. Because of its steep degree of difficulty, this event drew only 30 entrants and paid just five places, but the no-limit deuce is a title that poker pros covet almost as much as the Big One. No satellites are spread for it, so only by putting up $5,000 in cash can the cockiest, best-bankrolled rounders show their stuff. Harman won going away. Only the fourth woman to win a World Series title (not counting women-only events), Harman became the first to take a no-limit contest. The lean, blond, 36-year-old generated the aura of a cute but naive “li’l sis,” and opponents who read her as such were in for exorbitant lessons. Her nerves had been steeled by a decade of high-stakes lowball against the likes of Brunson, Chip Reese, Howard Lederer, Annie Duke and Huck Seed.
However unlikely it sounds, the World Series has evolved from its good-old-boy roots into a stronghold of functional multiculturalism. No championship arena attracts poker’s variety of age groups, body types, nationalities, income and education levels, inviting the dewy and working-class to compete on an equal footing with affluent and/or pointy-headed nonagenarians. Last year’s championship field was an ecumenical crazy quilt of players from 23 countries on all six inhabited continents.
Among them were Hasan Habib from Karachi; Jason Viriyayuthakorn from Bangkok via Hamilton, New Jersey; and, from Pamplona, a Carlos Fuentes. Any all-name team would also include Tab Thiptinnakon, Chip Jett, Exxon Feyznia, Sirous Baghchehsaraie, Toto Leonidas, David Plastik, Sam Grizzle, Somporn Li, Lin Poon Wang and Spring Cheong, as well as the ’96 champion, Huckleberry Seed. Among toned jocks like Seed, Jerri Thomas and T.J. Cloutier, there are about equal numbers of the obese and the skeletal, plus people in bare feet and wheelchairs and dance shoes. Evangelical Christians compete with Larry Flynt and Devilfish Ulliott, CEOs and dot-com zillionaires go up against call girls, masseuses and poker dealers.
Nanni Dollison brought the female bracelet count up to five in the big limit hold’em event, but that ball was rolling much earlier. Linda Johnson won the razz bracelet in ’97, Marie Smith the pot-limit hold’em event at the Irish Poker Championships in 2000, and England’s Lucy Rokach had become the third-ranked hold’em player in Europe. Outside the tournament circuit, cowgirls like Harman and Duke have been more than holding their own against the big—and good, and old—boys in the nightly $1,000-$2,000 “white-chip action” at the Bellagio, considered the toughest ring game in the world.
On May 7, 2000, poker’s evolution made quantum racial headway when Phillip Ivey took home the $2,500 Pot-Limit Omaha title, becoming the first African-American with a World Series bracelet. Playing out of Atlantic City, the 23-year-old Ivey had been on the tournament circuit for less than a year, but his triumph was hardly a fluke. Four weeks earlier, he’d become the youngest title-holder at Jack Binion’s World Poker Open, winning a hold’em event and “cashing” in three others.
Playing at the Binion’s mother ship, Ivey had to come back from an $85,000-to-$400,000 chip deficit to defeat Amarillo Slim, all the while pointedly ignoring Slim’s notorious coffeehousing. In 30 years of World Series play, during which he’s won four gold bracelets, Slim had never not finished first after making a final table. That night, Andy Glazer toasted Ivey’s achievement on casino.com: “Poker doesn’t belong to white American males anymore. Poker books, computer programs, and worldwide legal cardrooms with codes of conduct have cut the head off the ‘good old boy’ network, even if the body does keep flopping around for a while. Poker now belongs to anyone with the brains, guts, and nerves to play it, and there’s something about that level playing field that feels great, even to a white American male writer.”
Chris “Jesus” Ferguson beat a field of 512 in the 2000 championship event, using a 9 on the river to edge T.J. Cloutier and take home $1.5 million and the bracelet. Last year, Paul Darden won a seven-card stud event, marking the third bracelet for an African-American and the second in two years.
And a few days later the Spaniard Carlos Mortensen also rivered a 9 on the Big One’s last hand to defeat another record field of 613 and win the $1.5 million and the bracelet. Poor Dewey Tomko, who entered the final showdown with pocket aces, had to settle for second-place money of $1.13 million.
Even so, Johnny Moss, the two Greeks, and Benny would all have been rather impressed.