How One Man Changed a Centuries-Old Game
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  • Post published:13/05/2021
  • Post last modified:13/05/2021

Poker has long been one of the most popular card games in the world. An estimated 50 million Americans play the game regularly and it has been a popular pastime of soldiers dating back to the Civil War. Many US presidents and Queen Victoria embraced the game, and it was famously a staple of the American Old West.

Even though the game has a long history, future historians will single out one poker player from Tennessee as the catalyst for changing the game of poker forever.

A brief history of poker

A game of PrimeroPoker is viewed as a distinctly American game. While this is true of the game in its current form, the roots of poker date back centuries. One of the earliest examples of a vying game played with cards is As Nas, a Persian game that used hierarchical hand rankings and separate rounds of betting. It was in the 1500s that poker’s more direct ancestral games gained widespread popularity in the form of the Spanish game of Primero and the Italian game of Primera. Both of these games were played with three cards dealt to each player and various rounds of betting.

These games, especially the very popular Primero, gave rise to the German game of Pochen (which means “to bluff”) and the French game Pogue in the 17th and 18th centuries.

French colonists brought the game to Canada and then to New Orleans when the French-Canadian settlers founded the city in the early 1700s. The game evolved and eventually took on an American pronunciation, becoming poker.

In the early days of American poker, the game was played with a twenty-card deck; the aces, court cards and tens. The game proved to be wildly popular and made its way up the Mississippi River and throughout the US. Four of a kind was the best hand with four Aces or four Kings with an Ace being the top two hands.

Around 1820, the game evolved and was played with the full 52-card deck and straights and flushes were introduced. This served to further increase the games popularity.

Soon afterwards, poker as we know it today was found across the US, with poker rooms a staple on riverboats, in Old West saloons and throughout the major cities. During the Civil War the game became a popular pastime of soldiers, a tradition that has carried through to present day.

Poker was first introduced to Europe and the UK in 1800s by touring English actors and the US Minister to England. However, the game did not gain mass acceptance until World War I, when American troops introduced the game to their Allied counterparts.

Even though Queen Victoria asked to learn the game in the 1870s, it was not until about 1920 that the game evolved from being a “man’s game” to one that was popular with both men and women. While the game is still dominated by male players, the number of female players continues to grow, both recreationally and professionally.

The Man Who Changed Everything

Benny Binion with his daughter Becky - 1969Benny Binion, who moved from Dallas to Las Vegas and opened the Horseshoe Casino, introduced the World Series of Poker in 1970 partly as a way of promoting his casino. The game played was No-Limit Texas Hold’em and had a buy-in of $10,000. The game drew primarily professional players from around the country and started with a humble seven players. The game began to grow due in large part to Binion’s promotional efforts, which eventually included televised tables and press coverage of the competition.

The tournament’s appeal as a spectator sport increased in 1997 with the introduction of the “hole card” cam, which allowed viewers to see the hole cards of the players. The hole card cam was invented by Henry Orenstein, a poker player and the inventor of a wide range of items including the popular toys Transformers.

By 2003, the World Series of Poker had grown to over 800 players and included a schedule of smaller buy-in tournaments leading up to the Main Event.

That year, an amateur player named Chris Moneymaker won his seat into the $10,000 WSOP Main event by winning a $40 satellite tournament on the online poker site PokerStars. Against the odds, Moneymaker came out ahead of the field (made up primarily of long time poker players) and won the event and the top prize of more than $2 million.

Chris Moneymaker WSOP WinA combination of having the perfect name and personality, coupled with ESPN’s extensive coverage of the tournament (aided in part by the network having a lot of time to fill due to a professional hockey strike that year) ignited a boom in poker. Because of what has become known as the “Moneymaker Effect,” the number of people worldwide playing Texas Hold’em exploded.

The Results of the “Moneymaker Effect”

The year after Moneymaker’s win, over 2,000 players entered the Main Event. That number has continued to grow with over 6,000 players competing in 2014.

However, his win changed more than just the WSOP.

Major tournament events became a part of poker worldwide, with the inception of long-running events like the European Poker Tour which now offers the most prestigious poker titles in Europe.

P2006 WSOP Main Event Tablerior to Moneymaker’s win, No Limit Hold’em was played by a relatively small number of high stakes players and had limited availability outside of tournament play. After 2003, this was no longer the case. Casinos across the US in other parts of the world began to open poker rooms and expand on existing ones, which had a tendency to be rather small. No Limit Hold’em was suddenly available to low-stakes amateur players as well as high rollers.

Moneymaker’s win also provided the final knockout blow to several poker games. Five Card Stud and draw poker had both declined in popularity over the previous two decades, with Seven Card Stud holding the top spot in terms of popularity. The first two all but disappeared in casinos and home games as well, and seven-card stud became a distant second to Hold’em.

His win also gave rise to poker players as celebrities. Prior to 2003, many professional poker players avoided the spotlight. Doyle Brunson supposedly feigned an illness to avoid the publicity of winning the WSOP in one of the early tournaments. Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston was an early exception and appeared on The Tonight Show and other programs after his win, but the general public knew little about poker players – and didn’t appear to care to learn.

However, since 2003, poker players like Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, Liv Boeree, and Gus Hansen are just a few that have achieved celebrity status. Hansen was named as one of People Magazine’s Sexiest Men, and players have served as spokespeople for products ranging from fast food hamburgers to exercise equipment.

Photo Credits

A game of Primero – Wikimedia Public Domain

Benny Binion with his daughter – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Chris Moneymaker –

2006 WSOP Main Event Table – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Thumbnail – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Guest Author Bio

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley lives in twin cities of Minnesota. He likes to blog and spends his free time fishing and with his kids. He currently freelances for various newspapers and sometimes pod-casts on the local radio station.


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