The Evolution of Poker: From Saloons to Online Casinos

By Paul Seaton
March 31, 2023

Poker has grown into the biggest card game in the world. From its humble beginnings on the Mississippi riverboats of the 19th Century, poker burst through saloon doors and onto online casinos with the help of modern online poker software, poker has welcomed new generations of poker players around the world.

Poker’s evolution on a global scale is nothing short of a phenomenon.

Old West poker

The Early Ages of Poker

Poker was never supposed to become a game played by civilised people. Originating on American riverboats, poker is now widely believed to have descended from the French card game Poque, which arrived in New Orleans with French sailors in the 1800s. The Gold Rush of the late 19th Century brought the game into the saloon bar, introducing poker as a bona fide way of gambling.

Saloons were the hub of a local town and travellers passing through would stop at saloons to socialise, drink and gamble. Poker was the perfect game and at round tables of four or five players, the game flourished. To say that it was a male-dominated game would be an understatement – women simply didn’t play poker. The number of saloon bars to feature poker were on the rise.

The American Civil War was a brutal war but an oddly beneficial conflict for the game of poker, with new variants of the game spreading throughout the many soldiers who fought. Formats such as stud, flush and straight poker, as well as unique versions such as wild card, lowball and split-pot poker all became commonplace following the four-year battle.

As the United States flourished in the age of the motor car, the early 20th Century brought with it perhaps the greatest and most captivating innovation in terms of game rules – the community cards that each player could use along with their own hand. This improvement to the game of poker welcomed more and more players into the game and widened the boundaries for betting within each hand.

Post War Poker and the WSOP

As poker thrived in the 20th Century, it rode out periods of conflict as a first half of the century dominated by two World Wars took its toll. Post the Second World War, poker was a luxury that many in the civilised world could not afford to indulge in. Rationing affected much of Western Europe, but the United States would grow slowly into a superpower in economic terms during the 1950s and 1960s, with poker continuing to be enjoyed by young people and old.

The ‘cowboys’ of the golden age of poker were travellers, heading from town to town playing cash games, looking for the next big gamble, the next table with a free seat. Tournaments were not on the cards, however, until 1970. The World Series of Poker began in 1969 as the Texas Gambling Reunion, an invitational event in Reno that was won by Crandell Addington. The following year, the World Series of Poker was born, courtesy of Benny Binion. Held at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas, six players gathered to play cash games in formats such as five-card stud, deuce to seven low-ball draw, razz, seven-card stud, and Texas Hold ’em.

After playing, the half dozen elite players in the world took a vote to decide who among them ranked as the best. The first vote went as you might expect – each man voted for himself. But after a second vote where voting for yourself wasn’t allowed, Johnny Moss, a.k.a., The Grand Old Man of Poker, was voted as the world champion, receiving a silver cup as his reward.

A Whole New Game

Since the inception of the World Series of Poker, the game has changed in so many ways. The World Poker Tour, the European Poker Tour and the Aussie Millions are just three examples of ‘legacy’ event series that have gone down in poker history, inspiring millions to take up poker.

There is, however, no event bigger than the 2003 WSOP Main Event for changing the face of poker forever. The winner of that year’s event, Chris Moneymaker, won $2.5 million from playing an $80 satellite using online poker software on PokerStars. Moneymaker, formerly an accountant, became a household name and a sponsored professional poker player.

Chris Moneymaker

Moneymaker’s success led to a huge boost in the number of players playing online poker, with sites such as Full Tilt Poker welcoming hundreds of thousands of poker players. The growth of online poker rooms grew poker’s player base exponentially, with conservative observers now believing 6% of the world’s population have played the game at one point in their lives.

From cash games to tournament poker, live event satellites to online poker festivals, millions of players worldwide now use online poker software to play the game we all love. Almost every WSOP Main Event winner in recent memory has enjoyed online poker, too, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Poker has come a long way from the saloon bar to the modern casino, and is now a bricks-and-mortar game as well as an online pursuit that is worth billions globally. Choosing how you play is the only issue, with so much variety. Finding a game? That’s never going to be a problem again.



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Paul Seaton poker author
Written By.

Paul Seaton

Paul Seaton has written about poker from all over the world, and has interviewed the most well known poker players in the world in the pursuit of the perfect poker stories. Having worked events such as the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour, Paul has worked as Editor of BLUFF […]

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