Explosions and rifle shots echo through the countryside at a Civil War encampment. 

  • Several soldiers huddle around a small table.
     
  • Playing cards and money toss around as they pass the time with a game of poker
     
  • War may be right in front of them. 

But these men are focused on the game at hand…

This scene isn’t from a fantasy movie. It was a likely afternoon for many soldiers during the American Civil War from 1861-65. 

Unfortunately, war and armed conflict have been a significant part of mankind’s history. From world wars to civil wars to fending off would-be conquerors, the life of a soldier can be a violent existence.

Read on as 888poker traces the history of poker during times of conflict.

Table of Contents

Poker as an Escape from War

At times, war can be a boring existence as troops wait for the next battle. For many soldiers throughout history, a game of poker offered a great way to kill time. Perhaps, war could take young men’s minds off the real task at hand – killing and defeating the enemy.

Imagine the stress that comes with securing your own survival in hopes of seeing loved ones again one day.

Battlefields and barracks may seem like unlikely places for a game of poker. But for many soldiers throughout history, playing cards during wartime has been the perfect escape. 

It provided a release from the mundanity, violence, and frayed nerves that come with living in a war zone.

American Revolution

American Revolution

While the game the world knows as poker didn’t arrive until the early 19th Century (nice opportunity to know more poker history, by the way), Americans gambled throughout colonial times. It was a carryover from the popularity of wagering throughout Europe. 

That included card games like piquet, whist, faro, and others. These stand in contrast to what many considered to be early Puritan sensibilities.

“In fact, gambling, whether at cards, dice, backgammon, or billiards, became a hallmark of elite Virginian culture,” author David Schwartz writes in Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling.

The author tells the story of a French visitor to Virginia in 1686 who observed his host’s continual penchant for gambling. The visitor noted that his host got the card game up and running immediately after dinner, something he found strange.

“By midnight, when the traveller’s impatience was finally noticed by one of the absorbed card players, he was advised to retire to bed, as the game was just getting good,” Schwartz writes. “The next morning, the Frenchmen awoke to find the gentlemen still intent at their game.”

By the time war broke out in 1775 between the American colonies and Britain, it’s a good bet at least some young soldiers were fans of gambling on card games. 

Even General George Washington was known as a regular gambler and kept a complete record of his wins and losses at the card table.

Washington

But during the war Washington, asked his troops to leave the gambling behind and focus on the nation’s freedom. He once even described gambling as “the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief.”

While gambling among troops probably continued to some degree among soldiers, many may not have actually had the cash to play. Washington regularly had to beg Congress to pay his soldiers. 

By November 1781, British blockades of American trade and the inability to secure more loans from France meant Congress could not to pay troops.

The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the war and making the U.S. an independent country. Even Washington, who would soon be the young nation’s first president, was astonished at the result. 

Like hitting a two-outer on the river, he considered the young country’s victory over such a dominant power “little short of a standing miracle.”

Mexican-American War

This war from 1846-48 was the United States’ first battle fought mostly on foreign soil. It saw a significant expansion of U.S. territory. Texas had become independent from Mexico in 1836, and by 1844, was being annexed into the U.S.

U.S. President James Polk positioned troops along the Texas-Mexico border to protect the annexation of the Lone Star State. Minor skirmishes eventually escalated into almost two years of fighting. 

Lone Star State

More than 1,700 American and 5,000 Mexican troops died, with thousands more injured.

An extra 4,000 civilians may have lost their lives in the war that saw fighting in Texas, New Mexico, California, Mexico, and even Mexico City.

“A border skirmish along the Rio Grande started off the fighting and was followed by a series of U.S. victories,” History.net notes about the war. “ When the dust cleared, Mexico had lost about one-third of its territory, including nearly all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.”

The Mexican-American War also brought about the growth of poker among soldiers. By this time, the game had grown out of New Orleans. It became popular among Americans taking ships up and down the Mississippi River. Young men carried that interest in the game over to troop encampments in the U.S., Mexico, and the Southwest.

It’s a good bet many of those young soldiers heading to war against Mexico had experienced the game on those ships. Or at least, they had learned the game from players who’d dealt cards and bet cash somewhere along the Mississippi.

That interest in the game apparently spread throughout the war and afterwards. Poker practitioners taught others how to play in between fighting.

“Though many officers and chaplains discouraged it, a growing number of Mexican War veterans and younger recruits carried a deck of cards in their knapsacks,” author James McManus notes in Cowboys Full: The History of Poker about soldiers entering the American Civil War. 

Many of those new territories gained after the Americans won the war would play a crucial role in the growth of poker in the coming years. With westward expansion and gold and silver mining rushes, poker grew in popularity throughout the western states. 

Games could be found in mining camps, saloons, billiards halls, back rooms, and bunkhouses. 

And anywhere players were willing to put up a few bucks, there were card games.

American Civil War

The U.S. Civil War was a violent and brutal event, pitting family members against each other. Experts estimate that more than 750,000 soldiers lost their lives between the Union and the Confederacy.

Many others lost limbs or sustained debilitating injuries. One can easily imagine poker as a way to get one’s mind off the loss of fellow soldiers, facing that same prospect yourself.

It wasn’t unusual to see soldiers around a table playing poker, trying to run up some of their meagre wages. These scenes were even depicted in photos from the time. Soldiers often faced hours and hours in camps waiting for the next battles. Many took up a bit of gambling to pass that time.

“For hundreds of thousands of troops in Civil War camps, the game provided an upgrade from entertainments such as drinking, bare-knuckle boxing, chuck-a-luck (a three-dice game similar to craps) or betting on the outcome of a race between lice,” McManus notes in Cowboys Full: The History of Poker.

114th Pennsylvania Infantry

With many soldiers facing a significant chance of death, saving those earnings may not have seemed like a major priority. The photo above offers a step back in history as field officers in the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry take in a poker game.

The photo was taken in August 1864 in Petersburg, Virginia, and offers insight into poker life in a Civil War camp. These Union soldiers are studying their cards with canvas tents to house troops visible in the background.

The men have their pipes lit up with a liquor bottle on the table. With the prospect of facing cannonballs and rifle fire soon, a friendly game of cards was a way to relax and take their minds off the reality of what was ahead.

World Wars

As in previous wars, soldiers in World War I and II looked for ways to pass the time. Boredom could set in between battles, and poker often seemed like a solution. This goes for troops from many countries involved in the world’s two great wars of the 20th Century.

A pivotal figure in ending World War I was also an ardent poker player. Herbert Yardley was a gifted cryptologist who spent years at the poker table. He served in the U.S. Signal Corps during the war and helped lead the country’s military intelligence efforts.

World War

Yardley and his team began cracking German codes, contributing mightily to the war effort. At the end of the conflict, he was named head of the U.S. Cipher Bureau and began cracking Japanese codes. But the department was eventually phased out, and Yardley started life as an author.

His memoir, The American Black Chamber, offered readers insight into the country’s intelligence service. The book’s content was, much to the chagrin of the federal government. 

Yardley is remembered as a real-life James Bond-like character that even included a love for gambling. In his 1957 book The Education of a Poker Player, he detailed his own life at the tables in one of the first modern poker strategy guides.

This poker-playing federal agent wasn’t shy about his success at the tables. His reflections on his time playing the game harken back to that James Bond comparison. The military intelligence, travelling the globe, and seemingly never losing all played a factor.

“I have consistently won at poker all my life – in my hometown, in Indianapolis, Washington, New York, Hollywood, London, Paris, Cairo, Rome, Hong Kong, Chungking, and on boats and trains and airplanes,” he writes in the first line in The Education of a Poker Player. “And I’ve never lost at three consecutive sittings.”

During World War II, servicemen throughout Europe and the South Pacific dipped their toes in the poker waters occasionally.

The U.S. Playing Card Company even partnered with the U.S. government to send decks to soldiers. Plenty of games like spades and hearts were on the cards. But soldiers with time on their hands also mixed in poker between battles.

In fact, soldiers’ interest in poker even played a role in rescuing those caught behind enemy lines. 

“It was the company’s signature brand, Bicycle, that did the most for troops in the field,” Business Insider notes. “During World War II, Bicycle teamed up with British and American intelligence agencies to create a deck of cards that peeled apart when wet. The cards then revealed secret escape maps, so downed pilots and captured soldiers could navigate their way back to Allied lines.”

Bicycle even reproduced those decks, called the “Escape Map Deck”. The cards honour the secret circumstances surrounding the original map deck. The decks feature original artwork on the front and back of the cards.

Poker must have been a popular pastime among troops. After the war, these servicemen returned home and continued playing the game. 

Poker saw a real boom in the 1950s, with fathers playing the game with friends and relatives. Many also passed the game on down to their children.

Poker in the Military

By the time of the Vietnam War and later conflicts around the world, the game had grown. Many soldiers were already familiar with poker. One of those was long-time World Poker Tour commentator and Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton.

Sexton, a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, entered the military during the Vietnam War. Poker immediately became a significant part of his Army life. He jumped in a $1 ante, $5 limit Seven Card Stud game during his first week of airborne training in 1970 in Fort Benning, Georgia.

There were no poker chips, just cash, and players dealt the cards on the lavatory floor instead of a table after lights out. But the game was shut down after just ninety minutes with KP (kitchen police) duty handed out to all the players in the game.

Sexton’s gambling time on the floor proved profitable, and he left a $43 winner. The story was one of his favourite memories of jump school and his time as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“You really grow up when you spend time in the service,” he told WSOP.com in 2019. “It's a life-changing experience. You also really appreciate those who served and became disabled or made the ultimate sacrifice because you're well aware it could have been you.”

No doubt, many other soldiers and infantry have similar stories. Jessica Dawley, 2018 World Series of Poker women’s champion, was a member of the U.S. Air Force from 2001-07. She looks back fondly at those games in the barracks while deployed in the Middle East and other locations.

When it comes down to it, Dawley played poker in the military for many of the same reasons civilians love the game and enjoy playing cards.

“Poker was our go-to for entertainment when I was in the military,” she says. “Whether overseas or at bases in the U.S., we always found a way to play. It was a healthy way to blow off steam and have some fun.”

About the Author
By
Sean Chaffin is a poker writer who appears in numerous websites and publications. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast