The Birth of Video Poker

Following the gold rush of 1848, California became a gambler’s paradise, and in no other area in the world was gambling carried on more openly or on a larger scale. Coin-operated gaming devices, which had been developed in the East in the late 1880s, enjoyed immense popularity in the saloons and cigar stores of San Francisco. Poker machines first appeared in the city by the bay as early as 1890.

In 1891, Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn began to manufacture the first nationally known poker card machines, and by 1896 they could be found in virtually every one of the town’s 3,117 licensed liquor establishments (one license for every 96 residents).

The machines maintained their enormous popularity until just before World War I. They would experience occasional resurgences in popularity until the 1980s when Video Poker mania struck.

Most of the early models, called drop card machines, employed 50 cards on 5 drums, two cards short of a complete deck. Usually the cards missing were the Jack of Hearts and the Ten of Spades, cutting the possibility of a Royal Flush in half. Cards could also be rearranged on the reels to further reduce wins. Award cards were often printed on both sides with seperate pay schedules for free drinks and cigars. Upon inserting a nickel and pushing the handle lever, the drums would spin and flip the cards. A winning hand could pay up to 100 cigars or drinks for a Royal Flush, 40 for a Straight Flush, and lesser awards for a pair of Kings or better.

In 1896, the New York Company and their agent, cigar dealer Charles Leonhardt, Jr., formed the Monarch Card Machine Company and quickly introduced two of the most prominent games of the day. The Monarch Brownie was the first machine to utilize a front bottom window to display all nickels played, and to hold the last one in sight. The latter feature was incorporated to discourage the use of counterfeit coins, a scourge that had menaced the industry since it’s inception.

Pioneer slot manufacturer, inventor and operator, Charles August Fey, was an intimate participant in the first half-century of the industry. His three-reel Liberty Bell, built in 1899, was the forerunner of more than a million bell slot machines that would be manufactured over the next half century.

In 1896 Fey had opened a factory at 406 Market Street, a location he proudly referred to as “the best-equipped shop west of the Mississippi.” Included in the lines he created here were the wheel machines, capable of a cash payout, and the prevalent card machines. Two of these 50-card poker machines were the 6 Way Paying Teller, using 5 rows of drop cards, and a companion model called The Duke, which had the cards mounted on 5 reels. While the ultimate poker machine would be one capable of paying awards automatically, this was not mechanically feasible with five-reel machines. The Superior Court decision in December 1897 decreeing slot machines to be legal devices, opened the door for a cash paying poker machine. The following year Fey introduced the three-reel Card Bell. This was the first “bell” machine, a term which for many years was the common trade parlance for the three-reel slot machines used in casinos today.

The first century of coin-operated game devices ended in 1990 with animated video poker machines becoming one of the hottest sensations of modern-day casinos.