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Poker History

Three games successively dominated poker, particularly as limit-betting games in the USA, during the first century and a half of poker history: draw, seven-card stud, and holdem, with each game cornering over 2/3 of the market during their ascendancy. Draw was far ahead in popularity until sometime in the early 20th century, when seven-card stud took the lead, which it kept until about 1980, thriving in the armed forces during WWII, and then during the rise of the Nevada casino industry in the fifties and sixties.

Five-card stud played a role as a major big-bet game from it's invention in the 1850's right up until holdem really took off in the 1970's, but it was never as popular as either draw or seven-card stud, which are both excellent limit-betting games and as such appealed to a mass market which five-card stud does not suit.

In the late-seventies or early eighties sometime, holdem overtook seven-card stud in popularity, helped on it's way to the top by the huge leap in status it gained through being used as the world championship game from the early seventies, and also by a surge in player numbers as US gambling laws were liberalised. Unlike seven-card stud and five-card stud, holdem plays equally well with any form of betting from limit to no-limit. It quickly made five-card stud more or less obsolete, and steadily reduced seven-card stud's share of the market from about 70% in 1971, to less than 20% today.

While holdem's huge success shows that it was an excellent choice as world championship game, it is interesting to speculate how different things might be today if no-limit seven-card stud had been invented in 1960 say, instead of 1998. Like holdem, mississippi plays equally well at any limit and it is arguable that if it had been an established game back then, it may well have been selected in 1971 to decide the world championship instead of holdem. After all, holdem had been around for thirty or forty years in 1971, but even on it's home ground in the south-west of the USA it remained far less popular than seven-card stud until it was made world championship game.

Holdem partisans (and I like the game myself) may find that hard to swallow, but the case is, I believe, reasonable: no-limit holdem was unknown to the vast majority (probably over 95%) of spectators and players in the early 1970's, while seven-card stud was by far the most popular game and was considered by the majority of players to be the best poker form.

As well as having a player base then probably fifty times the size of holdem's, seven-card stud is a very interesting game to kibbitz and commentate because of the large number of exposed cards in every round of play, and the same can be said for no-limit mississippi, in which there are even more exposed cards. Holdem by contrast reveals very little to even a well-informed spectator, and is totally incomprehensible to non-players. Being more widely understood and more interesting to watch and commentate would have ensured that no-limit seven-card stud attracted far more spectators than no-limit holdem, if it had been played at the inaugural WSOP, when no one game was use to decide the championship. Seeing as drawing spectators to his casino was Benny Binion's aim in running the tournament, no-limit seven-card stud would have had a big edge over no-limit holdem in the contest for championship status in the following years, if it had been available.

As it was, after a couple of years of experimenting with different multi-game formats it was decided to use just one game to decide the world championship, no-limit holdem, and it has gone from strength to strength ever since. While holdem's success is well deserved, if it hadn't been chosen as the world championship game it is questionable whether it's subsequent rise to the market domination it now enjoys would have occurred. If the tables were turned, and no-limit seven-card stud had been declared the championship game in 1971 and gained all the status which goes with the job, holdem, with it's then tiny market share, would have had a very difficult task in overtaking stud as the major form.

Poker has been dominated by games based on seven live cards for most of a century now, and there is no reason to suspect that that will change. How much of the poker market holdem and it's variations will surrender to mississippi and it's variations remains to be seen. It seems reasonable to suggest that the natural division of the market between stud and communal-card games will become more equal, now that stud is available in a form which can compete on equal terms as both a limit and a big-bet game.

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