US Poker History
From the Wild West to State Regulation – A US Poker Timeline
Poker is quintessentially American, and has a long and often fascinating history going back to the Civil war. More recently, the online poker boom bought the game into the homes of millions – before this was restricted by federal laws. Today there is a patchwork of State regulated online poker, live poker laws which vary from State to State and offshore internet poker rooms which legally offer games from their own jurisdictions. This page takes you from the origins of poker through to the modern day.
History – The Civil War, The Wild West and Road Gamblers
The first recorded poker games were in the deep south at the time of the Civil war. With plenty of time to kill, soldiers of both sides enjoyed playing cards for money. The game was spread via the Mississippi and its infamous steamboat casinos, reaching the north east – and spreading West with gold prospectors too.
Tales of Deadwood in 1876 and gunfights in smoky saloons during the gold rush to the West Coast are the stuff of legend. At this point, draw poker was the main game – along with early variations of 5-card stud.
By the turn of the 20th century, prohibition was the prevailing political climate – and poker was pushed underground. By the 1950’s a new breed of gambler has appeared, traveling from game to game. Texas road gamblers organized an annual meetup in Las Vegas in 1969. Starting off an annual event that would soon turn into the World Series of Poker. During the 1970’s the likes of Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson and Bobby Baldwin would battle it out for the title of world champion in the $10,000 buy-in ‘Main Event’.
Online Poker – Part #1 – Boom Time
In the later 1990’s poker was enjoyed in home games and at casinos around the US. The first online poker sites – which included Party Poker – would soon capture the imagination of millions of players. The game of choice started out as Fixed Limit Holdem, with No-Limit gaining momentum in the early part of the new millennium. Online poker triggered new interest in the game. TV shows with World Poker Tour events and high stakes cash games made celebrities overnight of the winners.
Chris Moneymaker’s victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker is credited with sending the poker boom to a whole new level. The key factor was that Chris was an amateur player (an accountant), and had won his seat into the WSOP in a $30 online satellite. This story captured the imagination of millions more players – and the online game became a frenzy, with new sites, new games and more chances to win entry to live poker tournaments growing fast.
This ‘boom’ phase of the online poker world was bought to a close in 2006. A federal bill was passed which restricted the banks and gambling sites’ financial transactions. Fearing prosecution, the big and trusted names quickly pulled out of the US.
Online Poker – Part #2 – The Second Coming
Instead of killing off online poker, the UIGEA laws simply caused play to shift to a new generation of sites. PokerStars was the main beneficiary - by continuing to accept US players, they were able to scale quickly, using that size to offer bigger and better games (which spurred more growth). Other sites popular during this period were Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet.
At this point a new generation of player also emerged. People realized that by playing many tables at once, and making a small and steady profit from each – a decent living could be made. Sites reacted to this trend by offering rakeback, which incentivized high-volume play. While this increased the number of games, it also had a negative effect. Many sites became so full of ‘grinders’ that the games became tough, meaning fewer new players could break through. Eventually this started to suffocate the games – causing several sites to refocus their platforms to recreational players.
In 2011, the second part of the US online poker boom was bought to an abrupt halt by enforcement actions from the NY state attorney general’s office. This episode was known as ‘Black Friday’. It forced PokerStars to leave the US and several other sites to shut down. Poker has recovered from the UIGEA in 2006, though recovering from Black Friday was not so easy.
Online Poker - #3 – The Current Setup
There are still online poker sites which welcome US players. These operators are based in countries where online poker is regulated and legal – for example Antigua or Curacao. They maintain their right to accept players from the US (or anywhere else) under free trade laws. Deposits to these sites are still somewhat restricted by the UIGEA laws, though they do get through and many thousands of US players can be found on these sites at any point in time.
In parallel with these offshore sites, there are also state regulated poker sites in 3 states. Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey each issued licenses to poker site operators. Online games are licensed in conjunction with land based casinos. To play at these sites you need to be inside the state borders. Hopes were high that many other states would soon follow with regulation of their own. The limited financial success of the first regulated sites seems to have dampened enthusiasm – and at the time of writing no other states have passed regulation.
With the sites focused on recreational play there is every chance that poker will recover from the era of ‘grinders’ and become popular once again. If there is one thing that the history of the game in the US has shown us, it is that predicting the next move is very difficult!