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The Old West mythos is populated by images of gunslingers, cowboys, and general lawlessness. Every dusty Old West saloon offered the 3 basic frontier necessities known as the 3 Ws: whiskey, women, and wagering. At first, Faro was the western game of choice due to its simplicity. Any cowpoke or fur trapper with a pocket full of coins could play the simple game without learning any complicated rules.
But some of the wealthy patrons of these early saloons came from the gambling riverboats plowing the mighty Mississippi River. They traded their walking sticks for the horsewhip and their diamond-studded vests for a dealer’s table in an Old West saloon. And with them came a ‘new’ card game called poker. Winning this game relied on wits, strategy, and the psychology of the bluff. And the pioneers took to poker like a fish to water.
The Old West was built on boomtowns; sudden centers of wealth which sprung up from the dust in the form of gold and silver mines. And the hotel/saloon was one of the first buildings erected in the towns after people grew tired of living in muddy tents. Poker flourished along with the towns in which it was played. Fortunes dragged from the earth in nuggets were wagered and lost at the poker table. And more than a few men were shot and killed over a turn in luck.
By the time poker made its way to Deadwood, South Dakota, its reputation as the professional gambler’s favorite was solidified. One such gambler was “Wild Bill” Hickok, a trapper, tracker, gunslinger, and serious poker player. One night in a saloon, Wild Bill cleaned out an opponent’s pockets while playing poker. The angry man screamed obscenities and left the saloon.
Later on, the broke gambler returned to the scene of his losses, crept up behind Wild Bill while he was seated at a poker table, and shot him in the back of the head. When they checked his body, Wild Bill was holding 2 pairs made up of 8s and aces. From that moment on, that particular poker hand was called the ‘Dead Man’s Hand.’
In 1891, a company based in Brooklyn, New York, patented a type of slot machine that used cards as symbols. The Sittman and Pitt Company invented a machine with 5 drums (reels) that rotated with the pull of a lever and delivered random playing card images.
Players inserted a coin, pulled the handle, and spun the drums. Each drum contained the images of 10 playing cards, and when the drums all stopped spinning and clicked into place, the cards were used to create a poker hand. These crude versions of slots did not pay out automatically, and required an attendant to record the winning hands and dole out the coins.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast in San Francisco, an inventor named Charles Fey was working on his own version of a slot machine in 1898. He was a skilled electrician and mechanical engineer, and his big boon was a slot machine which spewed out coins into a metal hopper when triggered by winning symbols.
The first of his machines was called the Liberty Bell Slot Machine, as it featured Liberty Bell symbols on its reels. But later, he created a Card Bell slot machine using playing card symbols. The machine paid out 20 coins for a royal flush.
And the card slots continued to evolve along with the popularity of poker. When Fey’s machines expanded to include draw options and pay tables, people were hooked. Simple slots offered no skill, only random luck. But poker slots gave punters a choice while gambling. They could choose which cards to dump and which to keep.
People also found that poker machines were less intimidating than playing at a card table surrounded by people. The ‘reel thing’ was better than the real thing because there was no bluffing and no poker faces to wear. Just a punter, a machine, the luck of the draw, and wise choices.
In the mid-1970s, the first personal computers were starting to make the rounds. These were crude by today’s standards, but the basic technology present allowed real video poker to emerge. Computer companies combined the existing technology of television monitors with a central processing unit to give us video poker without mechanical reels.
A company called SIRCOMA introduced Draw Poker in 1979, and video poker became firmly established. Soon, standard slot machines in casinos had a new cousin in the form of video poker. People could choose from spinning video fruit symbols or play video poker proper.
Soon the casino floors around the world became lined with row after row of slots and video poker machines. Their popularity would grow to represent 70% of all gaming action taking place on casino floors. And it didn’t stop there.
Bars across America offered tabletop versions for their patrons. In states where gambling was illegal, these machines were labeled ‘for entertainment only.’ The only legal payouts were fruit-flavored candy or gum (hence the British slang ‘fruit machine’). But almost everyone knew a bartender who would trade video poker wins for drinks – or even cash.
Realizing that lawmakers were dragging their feet on the whole gambling issue, a few mavericks decided to buck the trend and embrace the emerging technology of the internet. Countries and states argued over the legality and morality of gambling, so a few casino cowboys took their show on the road – to offshore locations.
In 1994, the Caribbean island nation of Antigua-Barbuda enacted a law which changed gambling forever: the Free Trade & Processing Act, which allowed the sale of casino licenses. With the advent of the internet, you could operate a casino offshore while offering games online. Gambling broke free of its borders and online casinos ushered in the new frontier of gaming.
Another band of geniuses based their online software company, Microgaming, on the Isle of Man. These purveyors of the first online casino games paved the way for an explosion of online gambling action in the years that followed. By 1996, InterCasino operated the first online casino which accepted real money wagers. By 1999, over 700 online casinos offered your favorite games.
The first online casino games were crude by today’s standards. But technology keeps expanding exponentially, and when you play online video poker today, you get real odds from random number generators (RNG), superior sound, and gorgeous graphics. And you get dozens of exciting variations of video poker, from Deuces Wild to Jacks or Better, and more, zooming through the internet to your device at the speed of cyberspace.
Online casinos simply moved to jurisdictions more interested in economic development than the U.S., which turned down billions in potential tax revenue in one misguided decision against online gambling.
But the tides are turning. Just as Prohibition ended and alcohol could once again be enjoyed by popular demand, gambling laws are also changing. As many U.S. states are beginning to relax their laws on land-based casinos and sports betting, online gaming is soon to follow. The need for new revenue has led remote areas of the U.S. to embrace casinos as a viable economic solution. Online casinos also provide much-needed tax and licensing revenue to countries which allow them to operate.
Online gambling software is used all over the world on home computers, tablets, and mobile phones. The potential for global reach is impossible to ignore. Soon, virtual reality applications will provide a full 3D casino environment, all online.
Even though 3 dozen countries currently forbid online casino gaming, on top of other forms of gambling online for real money, the total revenue is growing in countries where it is legal. A study by Juniper Research predicted that by the year 2021 the online gambling market would reach revenues of $1 Trillion.