The History of Poker’s Gambling Question

September 25, 2017

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Poker has established itself firmly as the supreme card game of the world, but the question over whether it is truly skill or gambling has hung over it throughout its existence.

Poker itself had humble beginnings. Mostly played by the working class and the military in the American deep south in the early 19th century, the sociability of the game and the ability to play without a dealer, meant poker was not only massively appealing, but also sluggish to take off.

The fact that there was little to no money to be made consistently from the house meant there was no real enthusiasm to include the game on the casino floor, and as a result, the game meandered on the edges of society played mainly in people’s homes, places of work, and most significantly, on Mississippi riverboats.

As the cross-country migration ramped up from east to west across the United States during the 1850’s California Gold Rush, poker became part of the frontier pioneer ethos dispersing itself along the Mississippi River where it found its way into new towns and new surroundings. The American Civil War a dozen years later only helped to scatter the game further, and only then did the strangle of poker begin to really take hold across the States.

The Game of the Working Class

Poker soon solidified itself as the number one game for the working-class, and though there were other games like cribbage and piquet that were significantly popular at the time, they didn’t offer the risk or spectacle that poker could provide.

The risk that’s involved with poker is fundamentally gambling, and gambling itself is something that’s fully ingrained in the American DNA. Even back to the first ships that landed on American shores, the Europeans migrating during that period were risking everything by leaving their former life behind, and gambling on finding a greater existence to the west.

That gambling and risk-taking culture stayed with the American people throughout the following centuries: during the aforementioned California gold rush in the mid-19th century, the depopulation of the rural Great Plains from 1900, and the large-scale African-American migration from the agricultural south to the northeast in the early 20th century.

That gambling and risk-taking ethos, along with poker’s parallels to US capitalism – the urge to seize the chance, the risk and luck involved in capitalising, and the developing and utilising of skill in order to be successful – meant poker was always likely to take off in America, no matter what held it back, and that utilisation of skill is where poker differed from the majority of other prevalent card and casino games.

Poker has all the characteristics of a sport, and in contrast to the likes of roulette, blackjack, baccarat, and slots; poker relies on whit and skill much more than it relies on luck or gambling.

At the turn of the 20th century, poker fleetingly became legal in Nevada until the nationwide anti-gambling bill was passed in 1909. At this point, poker was driven back underground into homes and illegal establishments, even though the advocates tried to argue the fact that poker was a game of skill, not a game of gambling.

The History of Poker’s Gambling Question

Poker never went away after the gambling abolition, but once Nevada re-legalised gambling and gaming again in 1931, poker started out on a path which would eventually lead it to becoming coined, ‘America’s pastime’. By the 1970’s, when the world was slowly getting smaller and smaller through the process of globalisation, poker was ready to truly take off.

In 1970, the World Series of Poker was founded which started off with an initial 7 entrants but grew to over 100 by 1982. These days the WSOP sees over 7,000 entrants from all over the world who all pay $10,000 to enter with prize money totalling over $10,000,000 for the winner. Since the 1980’s the tournament has been broadcast on the gigantic sports network ESPN in the USA, with average figures now totalling over 600,000 viewers per event.

Major poker tournaments are commonplace all over the world today, all of which are broadcast in countless countries including the likes of the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, France, and Germany. The top players in the world can win millions of dollars a year, “The most skilful professionals earn the same celestial salaries as professional ballplayers,” said Judge Jack B. Weinstein in 2012.

Poker in the Courts

Judge Wernstein at the time was presiding over a case to determine whether poker was more a game of skill or chance. Throughout poker’s existence, no federal court has ever ruled directly on whether poker strictly constitutes as gambling.

A player’s skill had a statistically significant effect on the amount of money won or lost,” Wernstein concluded, paving the way for poker to be truly recognised as a game of skill, and therefore to become legal to play in the States, where it is still banned today.

“Today’s federal court ruling is a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it,” said John Pappas, the executive director of the Poker’s Player’s Alliance, an organisation who are working to decriminalise poker in the US.

The poker fans of America are still fighting for true legal recognition. Only in Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey is poker strictly legal and regulated, whereas in the remaining states, the legal ground is dodgy.

John Pappas of the Poker’s Player’s Alliance is unwilling to stop anytime soon, though, “The PPA’s mission is to establish favourable laws that provide American poker players with a secure, safe and regulated place to play one of America’s oldest past times.

“Through education and awareness efforts aimed at policymakers, the media and the public, the PPA will keep this game of skill free from egregious government intervention and misguided laws.”

The continued question over whether poker is truly gambling remains open for now, but for how much longer, who knows.


Author: Tom M.

Tom has been creating online content for over 10 years now starting way back as a small, impressionable 16-year-old. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.

Twitter @TMortimerFtbl


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