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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Brief History of Poker and Playing Cards by Kaye Spencer

I've always been interested in cards and poker, so when my western romance, Gambling with Love, was originally published (rights reversion status with a 'sometime in the future' re-release date with Prairie Rose Publications), I researched the history of cards and poker for an interview, since poker playing is an important component to the plot.

For today's post, I’ve revisited this information in preparation for the fandango scheduled for Jacquie Rogers’ Pickle Barrel Facebook Party on May 18, 2014, since I’m featuring this book during my 15 minute time slot.

Gambling with Love is set in 1883 Wyoming and Colorado. The heroine, Lainie Conrad, is a professional poker player. Lainie wants revenge against the man who was responsible for the death of her husband. To exact her vengeance, Lainie meets him across the poker table in a high-stakes draw poker game with the intent to ruin him financially.

In order to write the poker scene in Gambling with Love with historical accuracy, I researched cards and poker. I was not disappointed in the plethora of websites, blogs, and books on both topics.

For trivia fans, here are a few tidbits about playing cards:
  • Playing cards date historically from as early as 10th century Asia;
  • 14th century Europe saw a variety of playing card designs develop;
  • By the late 15th century, the 52-card deck was popular as the standard preferred deck even though many card games only called for 20-32 cards, which limited the number of players in a game;
  • 15th century England and France saw the evolution of  the four suits of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs; and
  • Court Cards—King, Queen, Jack—were influenced by English and French royalty.
Another interesting aspect of cards is the Joker, also called the Jack of Trumps, Imperial Trump, and Wild Card. This card may have evolved from an Americanized version of the European card game, Euchre, which required an extra card (called the trump card or Jack of Trumps). Consequently, in keeping with the royal court cards, the Joker came to represent the Court Jester or Fool.

The Joker has a paradoxical appeal because it carries special properties as the Imperial Trump or Wild Card and, in that role, can resolve problems and win “tricks”. The Joker is as powerful as it is insignificant. It can represent any card and yet it represents nothing without a purposeful designation.

And a bit more trivia about poker...

Poker’s hazy origins are of some debate among those who study this sort of thing. There are arguments supporting its creation in the ancient Orient to the game evolving as a pirate’s pastime. However, there is some agreement that poker’s historical roots reach back to a French card game of vying, bluffing, and betting called “Poque” in which one said Je poque to open the betting. In America, Poque dates back to the French settlers of early 1800s New Orleans. As the game of poker spread northwards along the Mississippi River, it followed the expansion of the American frontier with the rush to the California gold fields in 1849 and later with the further opening of the west after the Civil War. “Brag”, a three-card British betting card game with a drawing component, influenced the rules of Poque and the “draw” was incorporated into the game. By the mid-1800s, the game was known by its American name, Poker, and was increasingly played with all 52 cards to allow for more
players. The term “Draw Poker” was first recorded c. 1850.

According to the Hoyle 1854 edition, these were the accepted hands:
  • one pair
  • two pairs
  • straight sequence or rotation
  • triplets
  • flush
  • full house
  • fours
Apparently, Draw and Stud Poker rules appeared for the first time in the card games rule book, The American Hoyle, in the 1875 edition. The 1887 edition noted that four of a kind was the best hand when straights were not played. Interestingly enough, for many years, straights were not generally accepted poker hands.

Hoyle’s rules stated that when a straight and a flush came together, it outranked a full house, but not fours. Until the 1890s, the highest possible hand was four Aces or four Kings with an Ace kicker (a.k.a. wild card, imperial trump or “cuter”). Not only was this hand unbeatable, it could not be tied. Obviously, the player holding four kings and an ace couldn’t be beaten, however, a ‘cuter’ was a specific type of wild card in that it often bore a dangerously close resemblance to the ace of spades. More than one old west legend sprang up about gamblers losing high stakes pots to this clever imposter when they erroneously thought they held all four aces.

I incorporated a ‘cuter’ into a poker game as a nice little twist in Gambling with Love, so the heroine could use it to her advantage.

To read more about the history poker in the American Old West, refer to the Time-Life Books series on The Old West, specifically the volume devoted to “The Gamblers” or visit the innumerable internet sources devoted to the game of poker, which are too numerous to list here.

Until next time,


Fall in love…faster, harder, deeper with Kaye Spencer romances

Twitter - @kayespencer


  1. Interesting post, Kaye. It makes me think of my childhood and learning to play poker. Always an important skill to have! I've yet to use card playing in a story, probably because of all the different rules than today. Sometimes it makes my head hurt trying to get all the facts straight. But if I ever do, I'll use your post as a reference. :-)

    1. Kristy, I certainly learned to play poker by rules that were much different from how it was played way back when. I wouldn't have a clue how to play it with the current rules, either. My family played Pitch and Gin Rummy more than Poker. I love to play Cribbage, but it's been a long time since I've played it with a 'real' opponent. I'm stuck with computer Cribbage. lol

  2. Kaye, what a great post! I have to admit, I'm woefully ignorant about poker. I played a lot of card games growing up, but never learned to play poker. I love the different names for the Joker. I've never heard it called the Imperial Trump--learned something new today--well, a lot of "somethings"! Your GAMBLING WITH LOVE sounds great! Another one to add to my stack of TBR! LOL

    1. I was never any good at playing poker, but it was fun to play anyway. ;-) I still have my dad's plastic poker chip holder/organizer. It's round and has slots all the way around the outside to hold stacks of poker chips. It has a Lazy Susan bottom and a little handle on the top. I used to twirl it and twirl it. I think my interest in poker had something to do with my crush on Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum in the movie '5 Card Stud'. Whew! Dean and Robert in the same movie...

  3. Wow, Kaye! I lived in Las Vegas for several years, and I never heard most of the trivia you included here. Thanks for sharing all your hard work with us. Now...who's gonna deal this hand? ;-)

    1. I love trivia, especially tidbits related to history. I tell people that I have a wealth of useless information and senseless trivia.

  4. I have a feeling the heroine is in for a surprise. LOL
    I love to play poker. I first learned how to play in the beginning of my nursing career from a quadriplegic who worked for Nassau. He was driving from Washington, DC back to Houston when his car hit an icy patch on a bridge. He lay beside the road for over 12 hours before someone found him. He was my first patient as a student nurse--ever. He had a great sense of humor and we played poker. I taught my niece to play when she was 5. We drank lemonade in martini glasses and ate cookies out on the deck for years. She's going to be 13 this month and she's pretty dang good at poker now.
    I did not know all these little tidbits, Kaye. I sure didn't know it was a pirate's game, or that it originated in Asia--now that's interesting.
    Gambling With Love looks like a book I could really get into.

    1. That is such a sweet and precious memory of drinking lemonade in martini glasses and eating cookies. ;-) My grandfather taught me to play Cribbage and I have similar memories of playing into the wee hours of the night with him. And WOW! on your student nursing experience. That's another memory that will always have an extra special place in your heart.

  5. What great and fun information. As much as I enjoy playing poker (not very good at it) there is a lot here I didn't know. I thank you so much for sharing your research with us. I'll keep this on hand for future reference. Doris

    1. I have a set of Time-Life books on the Old West. I bought them one at a time in a book-of-the-month type set-up way back in 1976 (or so). I've carted them around several houses in several different states, they made it through a basement flood, a partial house fire, an aquarium leaking on the shelf above them, toddlers with crayons, and puppies with sharp teeth. lol I rely on the information in them a lot in my writing.

      Here's the Amazon url so you can get an idea of what the whole set looks like.