Poker is a game with a colorful past. Its history and traditions are filled with interesting stories, characters, and coincidences. Below, we list ten facts about poker that may surprise even its most diehard fans. Keep these bits of trivia in mind for the next time you need to break the ice at the poker table, be it in a casual game with friends at home, a live tournament, or an online match on sites like GGPoker, the world’s largest poker room.
Let’s get right into it.
1) Poker is over a millennium old.
For all the excitement poker generates, it might be a surprise that this card game is quite old. The first poker or poker-like games are believed to have been played in 10th century China with domino cards. Other theories believe the game originated from “As Nas,” a 16th-century Persian card game with rules similar to the poker we know today.
2) Early variations of poker were played with only 20 cards.
Poker, as we know it, is played with a 52-card deck. But this was not always the case—early games were played with only 20 cards equally distributed among four players. These matches had no draws and were played with a limited range of card combinations.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the 52-card deck was introduced as the game evolved to include draws and more hands like the flush and the straight.
3) Poker chips are a relatively new addition to the game.
It’s hard to imagine a game of poker without stacks of colorful chips. But it may shock many that these round game accessories were only introduced in the 1900s.
Before poker chips, players used anything they had on hand to bet with—coins, pieces of paper, or gold, among others. Poker providers like the Old West saloons eventually standardized this part of the game with ivory, bone, and wood pieces. Unfortunately, these materials were prone to counterfeits, so companies started creating clay composition versions, which evolved into the poker chips we have today.
4) Poker’s popularity exploded during the Civil War.
Like many things in America, poker’s popularity surged during the Civil War. The card game was a popular pastime among soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Civil War historian Bell I. Wiley wrote about it in his books like “The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy,” citing entries from soldiers’ diaries describing poker as a favored activity as it provided an escape from the tedium and horrors of combat.
After the Civil War, surviving soldiers passed the game on to their friends and families back home, ultimately hastening the game’s spread across America.
5) The first World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament had only seven players.
There is no tournament as large and prestigious as the WSOP today. The annual poker event takes over Las Vegas every summer, attracting tens of thousands of players from all over the world competing for a chance to win a coveted WSOP bracelet.
But it wasn’t always this way. The first-ever WSOP tournament was held in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino (now the poker room at Binion’s Gambling Hall) with only seven players. They were well-known professional poker players invited by casino owner Benny Binion.
The victor of that first tournament was Johnny Moss, who won not by besting his opponents but by being elected “best all-around player” after playing for multiple days.
6) Historical figures inspired the four King cards in a deck.
The King of Hearts is believed to be based on Charlemagne, the King of France during the Middle Ages. The King of Spades is said to be inspired by David, the second king of Israel. The King of Diamonds is supposedly modeled after Julius Caesar, while the King of Clubs is believed to be based on Alexander the Great.
These references faded into oblivion through the years, but they were thought to have come from the 16th-century French merchants who created the poker cards we know today.
7) The first real-money online poker game happened on January 1, 1998.
Poker took off online in the 1990s among members of the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) system. However, it was merely a game played for fun with no real money at stake.
This all changed on January 1, 1998, when poker made its debut as a real-money online game on Planet Poker. The site amassed a considerable following but wound its operations down as competitors emerged. It offered free poker games from 2007 until 2017 when it finally shut down for good.
8) Poker is recognized as an official sport.
A mind sport that is.
In April 2010, poker was officially recognized by the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA) as a sport along with chess and bridge. Poker’s addition to the list acknowledged its status as a game of skill and strategic thinking.
9) There is a poker tournament that takes place underwater.
The Lady Luck Underwater Poker Tournament is an annual event held in Florida. It’s a free Texas Hold’em game played atop the Lady Luck, a 324-foot tanker that was intentionally sunk into the water as part of an underwater conservation park in the Fort Lauderdale area.
The tournament holds qualifying rounds online to select six players competing for the championship deep below the surface. The players need to wear full scuba gear and use special poker cards and chips during the game.
10) The longest poker tournament lasted 48 hours and 55 minutes.
Guinness cites the Iron Man Poker Challenge of 2013 as the longest continuous poker tournament, having run for two straight days.
The event was organized by the Asian Poker Tour and took place at Resorts World Manila, Philippines, from December 13 to 15, 2013. American player Damon Shulenberger won the tournament’s main event, taking home $18,240.
There’s always something new to learn about this game, and we hope you continue to find reasons to be fascinated by it.