Talking to Don Jenkins for his 1981 biography Johnny Moss: Poker’s Finest Champion of Champions, Moss described first encountering hold’em in two Dallas clubs, the Elks Club and the Otters Club, “around 1930.” Moss mentions having played both fixed-limit and no-limit versions of the game.
A little earlier Moss had moved the date back a bit when talking to Jon Bradshaw for his great 1975 collection of sketches of famous gamblers titled Fast Company. Moss tells of initially working at a Dallas gambling house for $3 a day at the age of 16 (i.e., around 1923), then after “about three years” moving on to the “Elks Club ’cause there was some shrewd players in there who could learn me hold’em.”
There are scant other references to hold’em being played as early as the 1920s, and in fact the game doesn’t turn up at all in the story of Moss’s most famous poker game, his later high-stakes heads-up match with Nick “the Greek” Dandalos at Binion’s Horseshoe often pointed to as a kind of precursor of the World Series of Poker. (Of course, there’s a lot of historical uncertainty surrounding that game, too.)
Generally speaking, just about all of the cultural expressions of poker considered thus far in this series have featured the game’s earliest and most popular variants — draw and stud.
We’ve discussed poker games in 19th-century saloons, on steamboats and in frontier towns. We’ve considered stories of gunslingers, politicians and soliders playing poker, including some famous fictions and literary treatments of the game as well as early strategy primers and applications of the game to business and military planning.
Other representations of poker in paintings, music, literature, film and “old time radio” carrying up through the mid-20th century (and a little further) have pushed the story closer to the present. And in most cases, the poker games described have continued to be either draw or stud.
That’s because, of course, the variant most of us think of first when we think of poker — Texas hold’em — had yet to arrive. But like the details of a poker hand being remembered differently by everyone involved, there exists significant conflict among accounts of just when and where hold’em emerged as an option among available variants.
A few weeks back when (1951).
Doyle Brunson‘s 2009 memoir The Godfather of Poker offers more first-hand evidence as he details his early poker experience playing in underground games on Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth, “one of the toughest, meanest streets in America.”
“Back in the early to mid-fifties, we played a lot of deuce-to-seven lowball, ace-to-five lowball, five-card stud, and five-card high draw — those were the main games,” Brunson recalls.
“Hold’em wasn’t played yet; at the time, no one had heard of the game.”
“Round about 1958, I first learned about a game called hold’em,” Brunson later explains, adding that most called it “hold me darling” at the time. “I suppose the game was spreading some because I started hearing of games” in other places, he recalls. “Some thought hold’em originated in Waco, although I’ve heard it said that hold’em might have begun in Corpus Christi.
Brunson acknowledges hold’em could have been played elsewhere and earlier, but his extensive experience “fading the white line” gives him deserved authority on the matter.
“I’m not really sure where the game began, but given that I’d never heard of hold’em before and I was playing games all over Texas and the South, I think the game must have started right about that time.”
Castle Hills, early 1960s
“Exhibit B,” says Holden, in the search for hold’em’s origin story is Crandall Addington‘s entertaining essay for Brunson’s Super System 2 (2005) describing “The History of No-Limit Texas Hold’em.”
Truthfully, however, Addington’s contribution isn’t so focused on the actual origins of the game, but rather picks up the story around the time he first was introduced to hold’em in Castle Hills near San Antonio in 1963. Like many others, Addington credits fellow Poker Hall of Famer Felton “Corky” McCorquodale as chiefly responsible for hold’em’s journey westward to Las Vegas around that time.
The situation remained unclear by the time LIFE magazine told the world about hold’em in 1968. “Exactly how widely Hold Me has spread is hard to determine,” admitted Livingston. But within a couple of years the World Series of Poker would debut at Binion’s, and not long after that no-limit hold’em was chosen as the game best suited for determining the WSOP champion.
“Hold’em… didn’t overtake draw and seven-stud as the most popular game until the late 1980s,” explains McManus, though even then the most frequently spread version of hold’em was the fixed-limit variety. Not until the twin catalysts of online poker starting in the late 1990s and hole-card camera enhanced televised poker in the early 2000s would no-limit hold’em become the most popular poker variant.
Whatever town or city or campfire was the site of hold’em first being played, the state of Texas rightly lays claim to the game. And despite Moss’s recollections, the most persuasive commentators position hold’em’s debut some time around mid-century or perhaps just after.
But like hold’em itself — with its two cards down and the rest in plain view — the challenge to locate its origin remains a partial information game.
From the forthcoming “Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game.” Martin Harris teaches a course in “Poker in American Film and Culture” in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.
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