It is perhaps surprising to learn, then, that the person often credited with writing one of the earliest rulebooks of poker was in fact a U.S. Congressman.
It was almost by accident, really, that Robert C. Schenck, a former member of the House of Representatives, came to author a short book explaining how to play five-card draw.
After representing his native Ohio in Congress from 1843-1851, Schenck served as an ambassador in South America, supported Lincoln in the 1860 election, fought with the Union as a general in the Civil War, and served once again in Congress as one of Ohio’s representatives from 1863-1870.
Upon losing a close race for reelection in 1870, Schenck was then appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Minister to the United Kingdom and the following summer he sailed to England where he would remain for the next five years.
It was while in London that Schenck would pen his brief primer, Draw. Rules for Playing Poker. Some have suggested he wrote the book in order to introduce the American game to Queen Victoria, although in truth it was following a weekend of card-playing with friends in Somerset that Schenck had been asked to write down the rules by his host. Complying with the request, Schenck was later surprised to see his rules having been reprinted and circulated by his friends as a book.
Schenck’s little “how-to” book came some time after editions of the American version of Hoyle’s Games began including references to poker, with poker’s first mention coming in the 1845 edition of the “American Hoyle.” Schenck’s slim volume nonetheless stands as what many regard the earliest example of a book entirely devoted to poker.
It is tempting to think that an ex-Congressman and U.S. ambassador having authored such a book must indicate that poker -- at the time still a game played in saloons, gaming dens, and on steamboats and rife with cheaters, cardsharps, and various ne’er-do-wells -- had become relatively accepted in American popular culture.
That wasn’t quite the case.
As it happened, by the time Schenck wrote that “Apology,” his reputation had already suffered somewhat thanks in particular to his involvement in a speculative venture gone wrong -- the Emma Mine Company of Utah.
It hadn’t been long after Schenck got to London in 1871 that he was recruited by Emma Mine to try to sell shares of the company in England. Unsurprisingly, the Minister drew criticism for having done so, although when Schenck asked Grant for guidance the president told him he could continue as long as he conducted himself honestly.
In early 1876, the Emma Mine Company collapsed, which meant ruin for those English investors to whom Schenck had sold shares. The House’s Foreign Relations Committee met to discuss the situation, and it was decided Schenck would have to relinquish his post as Minister. Soon he was back in Washington, D.C. practicing law.
All of which means when Draw. Rules for Playing Poker was republished by a private Brooklyn printer a few years after his return, Schenck had already drawn “the wrath and reprehension” of some outside of his endorsement of draw poker. Still, his statement shows how when it came to the culture at large, many Americans still weren’t too sure about the game.
Despite being a Congressman, Civil War general, and an ambassador, when Schenck died in the spring of 1890 it was that tiny book about poker that appeared destined to be his most lasting legacy. A note by the editors of Life just a few weeks after his passing shows how the name Schenck would forever be associated with America’s card game.
“Many a man makes his fame out of the most unexpected materials,” they wrote. “Who ever thought of General Schenck without thinking at once of poker? And yet General Schenck’s poker was only an incident in a pretty active life.”
Schenck’s book lays out the rules for five-card draw while including some strategy advice as well. The rules are essentially what we know of the game, describing the deal, an opening round of betting, the draw, a second round of betting, and (if necessary) the showdown. Meanwhile, the strategy tips also conform pretty well to what we know of the game today.
The Congressman explains the role bluffing can play in the game, too. “It is a great object to mystify your adversaries,” writes Schenck. “To this end it is permitted to chaff or talk nonsense, with a view of misleading your adversaries as to the value of your hand, but this must be without unreasonably delaying the game.”
Schenck makes reference to tells as well, noting how “a skillful player will watch and observe what each player draws, the expression of his face, the circumstances and manner of betting, and judge, or try to judge, of the value of each hand opposed to him accordingly.”
Toward the end come some specific suggestions about how to play certain hands, and while these pointers hardly reach Mike Caro-levels of detail they do articulate commonly agreed-upon ideas about frequently-faced situations in five-card draw.
Schenck’s concluding summary of advice to the draw-poker player indicates the former Congressman possessed not only a solid understanding of the game but a certain level-headedness that probably helped him at the tables as well: “The main elements of success in the game are: (1) good luck; (2) good cards; (3) plenty of cheek; and (4) good temper.”
In his historical survey of games’ impact upon American culture Sportsmen and Gamesmen, John Dizikes tells how “Schenck had come back to America in 1876 in what would have conventionally been thought of as a state of disgrace. But he seems not to have felt this or to have been the least bothered by his dismissal, keeping throughout the good temper that he had identified as one of the poker player's most necessary attributes.”
Schenck would be officially cleared of any wrongdoing with regard to his representation of the failed Emma Mine Company. Dizikes suggests he lived out his remaining days continuing to play poker in the nation's capital where a number of elected officials were known to enjoy the game as well.
As many still do. When not battling over legislating the game, that is.