The precise origins of poker in the United States are hard to pin down. The all-American game was a mixture of French, German, and Persian card games that emerged from the New Orleans area in the form of draw poker around the first half of the 19th century, but no one can put a time or a date to it, nor can any individual from history claim to be the originator of the game.
In Europe, however, we can clearly state when and where the game of poker arrived on our shores, the most significant export from the New World since the potato. And we also know the name of the man who successfully introduced the game to a bunch of eager British aristocrats 132 years ago: an American soldier, diplomat, and lawyer by the name of Gen. Robert C. Schenck.
Schenck, born in Ohio in 1809, was an attorney who became a U.S. congressman in his 40s and then fought on the Union side during the American Civil War. The game of poker flourished during the War, and it is well documented that soldiers played a great deal of poker during this period. If he hadn’t already discovered the game, Schenck would surely have been a keen player by the end of active service.
If he ever skipped his deal, it is because Schenck suffered a severe injury to his right hand, requiring him to shake hands with his left for the rest of his life. Schenck sustained his injury in 1862 at the Second Battle of Bull Run, a murderous battle in which the Union side was crushed, just as they were in the First Battle of Bull Run. This suggests that Schenck’s skills were more political than military, and he swiftly returned to congress once the war was over. After several years of distinguished service, he was rewarded in 1870 with the prestigious post of U.S. Minister to Britain.
Contemporary records indicate that Schenck was a man of considerable social skills, able to work the room and charm the right people. He quickly became a popular figure at the Court of St James, according to Vanity Fair (19th-century London’s high-society magazine): “Despite lacking that grand air which is the result of tradition … he has been adopted by a certain influential section of society. Schenck is shrewd, energetic, full of hardy sense, the master of much acquired knowledge, provincial in tone, and a player in his time of many parts.”
Shrewd he most certainly was. He had arrived in London toward the end of a gambling binge that had begun with the economic boom that followed the Battle of Waterloo and did not go into decline until the late Victorians began to impose their set of values, which did not include gambling. Perhaps bored with the new morality, London society was ready for something new and a little exotic, and Schenck was the man to provide it.
Looking to seduce Great Britain to his favourite pastime, Schenck did what any sensible poker player would do and went straight for the easy money. He was attending a reception hosted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, when he fell into conversation with a wealthy Duchess with a weakness for a flutter. According to writer W.J. Florence, Schenck wasted no time guiding her onto his favourite topic: “He described to her the beauties of poker is such a way that she became intensely interested, and begged him to write her out a set of rules and directions for playing the great American game.”
Schenck complied with the wishes of the Duchess, and in 1873 produced a pamphlet titled A Flowery Path to Wealth: The Game of Draw Poker as Taught to the English Aristocracy. Not only did this marvelously titled work provide the British with their first education in the game of poker, but it is also the earliest known situs poker guidebook published on either side of the Atlantic. As the founding textbook of the game, it does not add up to much, being simple in tone and stretching to just four pages, but for poker enthusiasts, The Flowery Path is a work of immense historical significance. It is now forgotten that the game was known in Britain as “schenck poker” for years afterward.
The publication of this pioneering work was to bring Schenck instant celebrity followed quickly by scandal and shame. He was so excited by the pamphlet’s success in London that he republished The Flowery Path in the United States, happily accepting the sponsorship of a new silver mining company that was allowed to put its name on the front cover. When the company proved to be entirely fraudulent, Schenck was severely embarrassed.
“He laid himself fairly open to criticism by embarking with a strange folly in a commercial speculation of a kind no Minister should adopt,” reported Vanity Fair, before adding in his defence that “the charges commonly made against him, that he is a professional writer on gambling, are too trivial and baseless to affect his reputation.”
Sadly, the affair was enough to bring the curtain down on Schenck’s diplomatic career, and he resigned soon thereafter to resume his private practice in Washington, DC. Schenck, who never returned to London, died in 1891. Many American writers and gamblers have helped popularise the game of poker among their limey cousins since the 19th century, with some significant success, but Robert C. Schenck has no rivals for the position as the father of British poker.