The Origins of Texas Hold'Em - The Bend Magazine

The Origins of Texas Hold’Em

The history of Texas Hold'Em takes a long and winding road through Robstown … and a few other Texas cities.

A resolution in the Texas state legislature proclaimed Robstown the home of Texas Hold‘em in 2007.  But, governmental documents aren’t research papers, and they didn’t cite their sources in stating that it was “traditionally held that the first hand” was dealt in Robstown in the early 1900s — the “traditionally” perhaps referring to the fact that this assertion is based on local lore. The resolution cites no names or locations as to where it all started. The early 1900s would make the game a century old, or close, and as old as Robstown itself. That’s a lot of time for people to tell stories or write down what they know. However, none of that made it into the official document.

Let’s start at the beginning and see if we can end up in Robstown …

With hundreds of years since the invention of the 52-card deck, there’s been lots of time for the development of games. Several that served as precursors to modern poker developed separately across the globe as long as 500 years ago. As people moved around, so did their games. Card playing helped pass the time during long voyages and cold winters, so decks of cards made voyages across the Atlantic and were in soldiers’ packs as they went to war.

Standardizing the rules of games meant having to spend less time explaining the rules to new players with every few groups you played with, but several regional variations tended to coexist simultaneously. It’s not until a game becomes entrenched in culture and becomes the “classic” way of play that it is documented in rule books. This means official documentation sometimes happens decades later, long after the source of the rules is forgotten — or really, sources.

There was no single person who sat down at a table with fully developed “new” rules to the classic game of poker and declared “This is a new game I call ‘Hold ‘em.’” There were games played wherever people gathered — in saloons of frontier towns, in sophisticated homes after dinner and everywhere in between — and a handful of variations became popular, developing gradually as poker players traveled around, learned different rules, then shared them with others.

Such is the likely story of Texas Hold‘em.

So, presumably, people in Robstown in the 1900s were gathering to play cards and surely played poker. But did they play Texas Hold‘em first? How do we know? Any historian’s first stop to answer such a question is to look for documentation — the older the better. This is relatively recent history, after all.

The poker world is a community. There are pros and amateurs, famous and infamous. Some of the biggest stars have been interviewed and had biographies written about them, and rule books and strategy guides were published through the decades. It is from these sources we can capture when some of poker’s biggest names first learned about Texas Hold‘em. Let’s see how far back they start…

During a 1975 interview, Johnny Moss said he encountered the game in about 1926, but told his biographer in 1981 that he first played in 1930 in Dallas. Memories aren’t as reliable as finding a newspaper article or a mention in a strategy book, no matter how old, and recollecting an exact date of something like when you learned a card game 50 years later would be incredibly difficult for anyone. On the other hand, no one asked these players about Texas Hold‘em until the game had taken hold in Vegas, so a 50-year-old memory is what we have recorded.

Two Texan poker legends mentioned in the 2007 Robstown resolution recall learning about Texas Hold‘em: Doyle Brunson in Fort Worth in 1958 and Crandell Addington in 1959. Brunson knew it by “hold me darling,” and he started to hear of games in other places, and of the mysterious origins of the game being Waco or Corpus Christi. Getting there!

Neither man has any ties to Robstown, but both traveled the state and the country to play poker. If anyone would run across a new set of rules, it would have been them. Plus, the absence of details of the game is evidence in itself. Books are regularly published about poker, detailing the development of the game, and in books published into the 1950s, there’s no profile of Texas Hold‘em. Different variants that inch close to it are captured in these books, but no Hold‘em…yet.

Here we are closing out the 1950s, and some of poker’s biggest names know how to play the game. It’s reached beyond the locale where it started — wherever that may be — and has crossed the country to reach the pros. Corky McCorquodale, another Texas pro, is credited with taking it to Las Vegas in 1963 when it was played at the California Club. It spread to a few casinos before the Gold Nugget Casino became the only place to play. It fit the “Texas” nature of the game with its floors covered in oiled sawdust, but the Gold Nugget didn’t bring in the rich clientele that could help elevate the game to the mainstream.

Doyle Brunson, who heard of the mysterious origins of the game being Waco or Corpus Christi, plays his way to the 1976 World Series of Poker championship’s $300,000 payday in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: UNLV Special Collections

Many in the public learned about it from an August 16, 1968, LIFE Magazine story by A.D. Livingston. Here, the American public was introduced to a version of poker called “Hold Me Darling, Tennessee Hold Me or Texas Hold‘Em.” So, no Robstown, but we’ve added Tennessee to the mix.

The story detailed the mechanics of the game, pointing out the enormous difference that this variation could be played by up to 22 people; the author called it “a major event in the history of poker.” Livingston was a pro with a huge collection of card game rule and strategy books, and at the time of his story had found no evidence of the existence of Hold‘em or Hold Me in those publications. So, we are closing in on the 1970s, and still no written record of the game outside of Livingston’s article.

Texans were at the core of what eventually became the World Series of Poker (WSOP), which catapulted Texas Hold‘em’s popularity into the mainstream. The forerunner of the WSOP was the Texas Gambler’s Reunion, where players including Doyle Brunson and Johnny Moss traveled to Reno to play. Texans were integral to the development of the game, from organizing and playing to publicizing the WSOP on “The Tonight Show.” It’s not at all surprising that Texas Hold‘em is the name that stuck. We just don’t know exactly who coined it … or where.

There’s no doubt that local lore, and the 2007 Texas House resolution, name Robstown the home of Texas Hold‘em. The story is widespread, given that Doyle Brunson, who was traveling the country to play poker, remembered Corpus Christi being among its potential origin cities even though he wasn’t from the Coastal Bend. What we don’t have is history written in the moment — card games grow and change organically. There isn’t a governing agency tracking new games, or reporters catching every different game played in private spaces across the state. Through its history, the game has been various degrees of legal to play within Texas, after all.

What we know is what archives can tell us — or not — about its origins, and what people who were there remember. The ones who are there heard a handful of different origin stories, and Robstown just falls alongside the rest of the potential origin cities.

So, we’ve arrived at Robstown, but also at Fort Worth, Waco, Corpus Christi and Dallas.

Just like in the game itself, the story of the origins of Texas Hold‘em has truths and it has bluffs.  We may never be able to pin down exactly who named the game Hold Me Darling or Hold me or Texas Hold‘em. We may never know who dealt the first hand of a game different enough to merit a new name. What we do know is the love Texans had for the game that has resulted in it spreading worldwide, and to the most famous poker tables in the country.

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