Wednesday, September 07, 2011

According to Whom? Edmond Hoyle and the Poker Hall of Fame

Edmond HoyleI think I’ve mentioned recently how I’m once again teaching my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course. I’ve tweaked my syllabus a bit this time, adding a few items and omitting others. The basic outline of the course remains largely the same, though, which means we’re again spending the first part of the semester mostly reading Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus.

This week we read the chapter in which McManus talks about how poker first made its way into those rulebooks for games published during the 19th century as part of the “Hoyle” franchise. Edmond Hoyle, of course, was the author of important books about games like whist, backgammon, chess, and others back in the 18th century. After Hoyle died in 1769, similar books bearing his name continued to be published, thereby helping the phrase “According to Hoyle” become synonymous with any reference to a recognized authority.

(By the way, for those with an interest in Hoyle, the scholar David Levy is keeping a neat blog devoted to him, called “Edmond Hoyle, Gent.”)

Reference to poker in 1845 HoyleIt was in 1845 that poker gets its first mention in a “Hoyle” book, appearing in the American version of Hoyle’s Games. Shows up as “poke” in the table of contents but the name of the game is spelled correctly in a brief blurb about it near the end of the book. That 20-card version, incidentally, can be readily compared to the old French game poque, one of poker’s most primary precusors.

The 1857 Hoyle’s Games (American version) has a two-page section on “Poker, or ‘Bluff’” which speaks of playing with “a full pack of cards” and with as many as 10 players. What’s described there is basically “Old Poker” with a full deck -- i.e., five-card draw but with no draw (just one deal and a round betting). There’s also included a list of hand rankings as well as a short glossary of terms like “pass,” “call,” and “double head,” the latter referring to how the stakes get doubled if a hand goes by in which no one is willing to bet.

The 1864 Hoyle's Games expands the “Poker, or Bluff” section a little further, adding a prefatory paragraph noting how “success in playing the game of Poker (or Bluff, as it is sometimes called) depends rather on luck and energy than skill.” The reader is also warned that with poker “there are easier ways of cheating, or playing with marked cards, than in any other game.”

'According to Hoyle' by Richard L. Frey (1985)All of these mentions of poker are, of course, quite meaningful to the early history of the game. The “Hoyle” books continued to be published in the 20th century, with the poker sections becoming increasingly detailed. Indeed, it was more likely than not that the majority of poker players who came along mid-century and after probably had a “Hoyle” book pass through their hands at some point or another. (I know I did.)

Reading and thinking about Hoyle again got me wondering about his election to the Poker Hall of Fame. And how exactly that came to be.

Hoyle was part of the first class of Poker Hall of Famers elected in 1979. He went into the Poker Hall of Fame along with six others, all of whom were poker players: Johnny Moss, Nick “the Greek” Dandalos, Felton McCorquodale, Red Wynn, Sid Wyman, and Wild Bill Hickok. Of the 40 currently enshrined, only Hickok and Hoyle lived prior to the 20th century.

And Hoyle, of course, is the only one of the 40 never to have played any poker whatsoever.

We all know how the Poker Hall of Fame was first started by Benny Binion. I believe the idea was in some way connected to it being the 10th WSOP that year (1979). And of course, it is worth noting how Binion’s idea to start a Poker Hall of Fame wasn’t simply to honor its inductees, but also to draw more traffic into Binion’s Horseshoe. (Much like the original idea for the WSOP, in fact.)

I’d never suggest Hoyle should not be in the Poker Hall of Fame -- heck, by now his inclusion is itself part of poker lore. But I do wonder sometimes just how much thought was put into the decision to include him.

Doyle Brunson refers to the creation of the Poker Hall of Fame in his memoir, The Godfather of Poker. There he notes how including the 18th-century author "was an odd choice, considering Hoyle and died some one hundred years before poker was invented." Wasn’t quite a hundred years, but certainly well before poker came to be.

It would be an interesting bit of historical detective work, I think, to discover how exactly it came to be that Hoyle got included in that charter group. Was it really his “contributions to the world of gaming” (as often get cited) that got the Englishman in? Or could it have been a mistaken belief that Hoyle himself had actually penned books of poker rules once upon a time?

My feeling is that it could go either way. Perhaps with some luck and energy -- and maybe a little skill -- an answer can be determined.

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