Poker is a family of card games that share betting rules and usually (but not always) hand rankings. Poker games differ in how the cards are dealt, how hands may be formed, whether the high or low hand wins the pot in a showdown (in some games, the pot is split between the high and low hands), limits on bets and how many rounds of betting are allowed. In most modern poker games, the first round of betting begins with some form of forced bet. The action then proceeds to the left. Each player in turn must either match the maximum previous bet or fold, losing all further interest in the hand. A player who matches a bet may also raise, increasing the bet. The betting round ends when all players have either matched the last bet or folded. If all but one player fold on any round, the remaining player collects the pot without showing his hand. If more than one player remains in contention after the final betting round, the hands are shown and the winning hand takes the pot.
Players feel that this betting system distinguishes poker from gambling games. With the minor exception of initial forced bets, money is only placed into the pot voluntarily by a player who, at least in theory, rationally believes the bet has positive expected value. Thus while the outcome of any particular hand is determined mostly by chance, the long-run expectations of the players are determined mostly by their actions chosen based on probability and psychology.
Poker has many variations, all following a similar pattern of play and generally using the same hand ranking hierarchy. There are three main families of variants, largely grouped by the protocol of card-dealing and betting:
- "Straight": A complete hand is dealt to each player, and players bet in one round, with raising and re-raising allowed. This is the oldest poker family; the root of the game as currently played was a game known as Primero, which evolved into the game Three-card brag, a very popular gentleman's game around the time of the American Revolutionary War and still enjoyed in the U.K. today. "Straight" hands of five cards are sometimes used as a final showdown, but poker is currently virtually always played in a more complex form to allow for additional strategy.
- Stud: Cards are dealt in a prearranged combination of face-down and face-up rounds or "streets", with a round of betting following each. This is the next-oldest family; as poker progressed from three to five-card hands, they were often dealt one card at a time, either face-down or face-up, with a betting round between each. The most popular stud variant today, Seven-card stud, deals two extra cards to each player (three facedown, four faceup) from which they must make the best possible 5-card hand.
- Draw: A complete hand is dealt to each player, face-down, and after betting, players are allowed to attempt to change their hand (with the object of improving it) by discarding unwanted cards and being dealt new ones. Five-card draw is the most famous variation in this family.
- Community: A variation of Stud, players are dealt an incomplete hand of face-down cards, and then a number of face-up "community" cards are dealt to the center of the table, each of which can be used by one or more of the players to make a 5-card hand. Texas hold-em and Omaha are two well-known variants of the Community family.
Other games that use poker hand rankings may likewise be referred to as "poker". Video poker is a single-player computer game that functions much like a slot machine; most video poker machines play draw poker, where the player bets, a hand is dealt, and the player can discard and replace cards. Payout is dependent on the hand resulting after the draw and the player's initial bet.
Strip poker is a traditional poker variation where players remove clothing when they lose bets. Since it depends only on the basic mechanic of betting in rounds, strip poker can be played with any form of poker; however, it is usually based on simple variants with few betting rounds, like five card draw.
Another game with the "Poker" name, but with a vastly different mode of play, is called "Acey-Deucey" or "Red Dog" Poker. This game is more similar to Blackjack in its layout and betting; each player bets against the house, and then is dealt two cards. For the player to win, the third card dealt (after an opportunity to raise the bet) must have a value in between the first two. Payout is based on the odds that this is possible, based on the difference in values of the first two cards. Other poker-like games played at casinos against the house include three card poker and pai gow poker.
In casual play, the right to deal a hand typically rotates among the players and is marked by a token called a 'dealer' button (or "buck"). In a casino, a house dealer handles the cards for each hand, but the button (typically a white plastic disk) is rotated clockwise among the players to indicate a nominal dealer to determine the order of betting.
One or more players are usually required to make forced bets, usually either an ante or a blind bet (sometimes both). The dealer shuffles the cards, the player one chair to his right cuts, and the dealer deals the appropriate number of cards to the players one at a time, beginning with the player to his left. Cards may be dealt either face-up or face-down, depending on the variant of poker being played. After the initial deal, the first of what may be several betting rounds begins. Between rounds, the players' hands develop in some way, often by being dealt additional cards or replacing cards previously dealt. At the end of each round, all bets are gathered into the central pot.
At any time during a betting round, if one player bets and no opponents choose to "call" (match) the bet and instead "fold", the hand ends immediately, the bettor is awarded the pot, no cards are required to be shown, and the next hand begins. This is what makes bluffing possible. Bluffing is a primary feature of poker, one that distinguishes it from other vying games and from other games that make use of poker hand rankings.
At the end of the last betting round, if more than one player remains, there is a showdown, in which the players reveal their previously hidden cards and evaluate their hands. The player with the best hand according to the poker variant being played wins the pot. A poker hand consists of five cards, but in some variants a player has more than five to choose from.
See betting (poker) for detailed rules regarding forced bets, betting actions, limits, stakes, and all-in situations. See List of poker variants and poker hand rankings for order of play and other details for the most common poker variants.
The history is a matter of debate. One of the earliest known games to incorporate betting, hand rankings, and bluffing was the 15th century German game Pochspiel. Poker closely resembles the Persian game of As Nas, though there is no specific description of nas prior to 1890. In the 1937 edition of Foster's Complete Hoyle, R. F. Foster wrote: "the game of poker, as first played in the United States, five cards to each player from a twenty-card pack, is undoubtedly the Persian game of as nas." By 1990s some gaming historians including David Parlett started to challenge the notion that poker is a direct derivative of As Nas. There is evidence that a game called poque, a French game similar to poker, was played around the region where poker is said to have originated. The name of the game likely descended from the Irish Poca (Pron. Pokah) ('Pocket') or even the French poque, which descended from the German pochen ('to brag as a bluff' lit. 'to knock' ). Yet it is not clear whether the origins of poker itself lie with the games bearing those names. It is commonly regarded as sharing ancestry with the Renaissance game of primero and the French brelan. The English game brag (earlier bragg) clearly descended from brelan and incorporated bluffing (though the concept was known in other games by that time). It is quite possible that all of these earlier games influenced the development of poker as it exists now.
A modern school of thought rejects these ancestries. They focus on the card play in poker, which is trivial and could have been derived from any number of games, or made up on general cardplay principles. The unique features of poker have to do with the betting, and do not appear in any known older game. In this view poker originated much earlier, in the early or mid-1700's, and spread throughout the Mississippi River region by 1800. It was played in a variety of forms, with 52 cards, and included both straight poker and stud. 20 card poker was a variant for two players (it is a common English practice to reduce the deck in card games when there are fewer players). The development of poker is linked to the historical movement that also saw the invention of commercial gambling.
English actor Joseph Crowell reported that the game was played in New Orleans in 1829, with a deck of 20 cards and four players betting on which player's hand was the most valuable. Jonathan H. Green's book, An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (G. B. Zieber, Philadelphia, 1843), described the spread of the game from there to the rest of the country by Mississippi riverboats, on which gambling was a common pastime. As it spread north along the Mississippi River and to the West during the gold rush, it is thought to have become a part of the frontier pioneer ethos.
Soon after this spread, the full 52-card English deck was used and the flush was introduced. The draw was added prior to 1850 (when it was first mentioned in print in a handbook of games). During the American Civil War, many additions were made including stud poker (the five-card variant), and the straight. Further American developments followed, such as the wild card (around 1875), lowball and split-pot poker (around 1900), and community card poker games (around 1925).
The game and jargon of poker have become important parts of American culture and English culture. Such phrases and clichés as ace in the hole, ace up one's sleeve, beats me, blue chip, call one's bluff, cash in, high roller, pass the buck, poker face, stack up, up the ante, when the chips are down, wild card, and others are used in everyday conversation, even by those unaware of their origins at the poker table.
Beginning in 1970 a series of developments lead to poker becoming far more popular than it was previously:
- Modern tournament play became popular in American casinos after the World Series of Poker began, in 1970. Notable champions from these early WSOP tournaments include Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, Bobby Baldwin, Doyle Brunson, and Puggy Pearson.
- Later in the 1970s, the first serious strategy books appeared, notably Super/System by Doyle Brunson (ISBN 1-58042-081-8) and Caro's Book of Poker Tells by Mike Caro (ISBN 0-89746-100-2), followed later by The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky (ISBN 1-880685-00-0).
- In 1987, community card poker games were introduced in California, home of the largest poker casinos in the world. These games proved far more exciting to players than the draw poker variants that were played up until that time.
- In the 1990s, poker and casino gambling spread across the United States, most notably to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
- In 1998, the poker-themed film Rounders starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton was released.
- In 1999, Late Night Poker debuted on British television, introducing poker for the first time to many Europeans.
Poker's popularity experienced an unprecedented spike at the beginning of the 21st century, largely because of the introduction of online poker and hole-card camera, which turned the game into a spectator sport. Viewers could now follow the action and drama of the game, and broadcasts of poker tournaments such as the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour brought in huge audiences for cable and satellite TV distributors. Because of the increasing coverage of poker events, poker pros became celebrities, with poker fans all over the world entering into expensive tournaments for the chance to play with them. This increased camera exposure also brings a new dimension to the poker professional's game—the realization that their actions may be aired later on TV.
Since 2003, major poker tournament fields have grown dramatically, in part because of the growing popularity of online satellite-qualifier tournaments where the prize is an entry into a major tournament. The 2003 and 2004 World Series Of Poker champions, Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, respectively, won their seats to the main event by winning online satellites. After the passage of the UIGEA in October of 2006, attendance at live tournaments as well as participation in live and online cash games initially slowed, however they are still growing and far more popular today than they were prior to 2003.
The Poker Players Alliance was formed in 2006 as a lobbying organization for poker player interests.
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