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The origins of poker are still debated by historians of the game. The clues that guide the historical detective work range from the possible etymology of the word "poker" to certain distinctive features of the game, such as bluffing and betting.
Some historians look back as far as the 15th century and the German game Pochspiel, others point to the 16th century game Primero that was played across Renaissance Europe with famous regional variations in Spain, England and Italy. The French games of Poque and Brelan and the Persian card game As Nas all have a lineage stretching back centuries and are all cited as significant precursors to modern poker due to their inclusion of bluffing elements and hand rankings respectively.
Despite the disputes relating to the earliest ancestors of modern poker it is generally agreed that recognisable precursors to the modern games were being played on the steam boats that travelled up and down the Mississippi River during the 19th century. The crucial aspect that set the games played on the riverboats apart from earlier precursors was the element of structured betting.
The close association of the development of poker with the formation of the United States has lead many to see poker as a distinctively American game. The poker games played on the Mississippi spread across the United States along with the pioneers finding a home in the frontier towns and saloons of the Wild West.
Poker is reported to have gained massive popularity amongst soldiers during the American Civil war, many of whom took the game back home with them at the war’s conclusion. Along the way regional variations and new game play elements were added to poker and importantly many of these developments were recorded in literature from the time. This allowed a distinctive, shared language of poker to develop.
Much of this language has seeped into American and other English speaking cultures. Expressions such as "poker face", "blue chip", "up the ante", "ace up one's sleeve", "beats me", "call one's bluff", "pass the buck" and "when the chips are down" all owe their existence to poker even though they are commonly used in other contexts.
Poker’s association with the lawless cheat-ridden Wild West and with other casino-style card games that required only luck to succeed, resulted in the game getting an unwholesome reputation. This had the effect of pushing the game underground.
In many respects the emergence of poker from the shadows began with the legalisation of gambling in certain US states in the 1930’s, most notably in Nevada, the home of both Las Vegas and Reno.
Poker’s public image began to shift and rehabilitate with the growth of Las Vegas but even by the 1960’s there were only 70 or so poker tables available to play at in the whole state of Nevada. To put that in perspective bwin at any given time has hundreds of poker tables available.
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