What do Poch and Karnöffel Have to Do with Poker?

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There is no doubt that Germany has always made a strong showing in the poker world. As of March 2016, there are 10 German players in the top 100 of the Hendon Mob Database All Time Money list. That puts Germany in second place for having the most players in the top 100, second only to the U.S.A.

And, among them we have some incredible players like Fedor Holz currently ranked #1 globally on the G.P.I. Then there's 888poker Ambassador Dominik Nitsche ,Philipp Gruissem and Tobias Reinkemeier, who still take down EPTs and WSOPs on a regular basis. Most recently, Holz took 1st and a $4,981,775 pot this past July in the WSOP High Roller for One Drop event.  

You certainly know these fantastic players, but you may not know that Germany’s poker talents have existed for a lot longer than recent memory. In truth, Germany played a great role, historically, in the development of not just modern poker, but modern card games in general.

These contributions often get forgotten as it is easy to take the modern game for granted. But, at 888poker, we have a long memory. So we would like to take a moment to give proper credit to the great additions Germany has made to the evolution of cards.

Without further ado, these are Germany’s achievements in the game of cards.

Poch it Up!

Germany's first, and possibly most significant, contribution to the world of cards and poker is the game called Poch. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, that might because the game has 7 different names that have come into use since its invention. These include Pochen, Pochspiel, Boeckels, Bocken, Bogel, Bockspiel, and Pukk. Regardless of whether or not you know it, Poch holds a crucial spot on the poker history timeline. Simply put, it was the very first recorded card game to have a vying round in it.

But what is a vying round you ask. It is a round where players may wager money or back out of the game. That’s not such a big deal, you might think, but you forget the most important thing; a chance to fold means an opportunity to bluff. That’s right! Poch is the first historical game ever to include bluffing.

I would say that's a pretty illustrious honour. Can you imagine what the world would be like without bluffing? I’d be out of a job, for one thing. This small addition of mid-round wagering set off a chain of games that eventually led to the creation of modern-day poker, among other things. It started in 1441 with Poch, and then continued with Primero, Brag, As Nas, Poque, until finally we got Poker. At least, this is the chain of forerunners most often agreed upon by historical scholars.

Even without the brilliant invention of vying, Poch is still a very entertaining game because it combines 3 different styles of wagering into one hand of play. For those who have never heard of it, the first round in a hand of Poch is a simple game where you can flip up trump suit cards to claim antes.

The second round is a vying round where players can bluff. The third round involves players building sequences while trying to empty their hands. The trick is, players keep the same hand of cards for all three rounds. So what you reveal to claim or showdown in the first two rounds will be open information for the last round.

Imagine playing War then 5-Card Stud, and then Bridge in order without changing your hand. You could know every card at the table by the time the final pot comes around! And, while this sort of information/money exchange is not unique to Poch, it is rare. I consider this game to be among the best examples of the mechanic.

What's All the Karnöffel About?

Though Poch is the most cited game when talking about German contributions to card games, it is often the only game cited on the topic, and this is a great loss. There is another classic German card game that is well deserving of mention; that game is Karnöffel.

The game, now most often played in Switzerland under the name of Kaiserspiel or Kaiserjass, is credited with being Europe’s oldest card game. While it is possible that older card games may have come to Europe from the Middle East at an earlier time, no written record of them exists.

However, there is a healthy written record for Karnöffel because when the game first found popularity, a number of towns tried to ban public play. Public officials, as well as the Catholic Church, thought card games, Karnöffel in particular, were dangerous pastimes! Can you imagine having to play your Hold’em in a hidden tavern room or secreted down in your basement? 

We now know of Karnöffel’s early existence specifically because of the big huff people made over it. We still have records of the public ordinances passed trying to ban the game. References to Karnöffel first appears, in print, in a town ordinance dated 1426, from Nördlingen, Bavaria, saying that the game could be legally played in public.

After this, there is a trail of laws  – forbidden in Augsburg in 1446, permitted in Balgau in 1448 – that show the game slowing sweeping across the country. While a popular pastime, the game was generally condemned as a symbol of social unrest because, unlike most card games, in Karnöffel the face cards are not always the highest ranking cards in the deck.

Bishop Geiler, in 1497, condemned the game for just such a reason. According to him, ordinary card games at least reflect a sensible social order: ‘

“But now we have a game called Karniffelspiel in which everything is turned upside down: the 3’s beat the Ober (Queen), the 4 beats the Unter (Jack), the 2 and the 6 beat a king, and a card is turned over so that now one is Kaiser, now another becomes Kaiser, as luck will have it.”

This idea of Karnöffel being representative of chaos or promoting civil disobedience is so prevalent in historical documents that David Parlett, author of The Oxford Guide to Card Games once wrote, “Karnöffel was evidently enjoyed as a substitute for anarchy, and whether it was forbidden or permitted… obviously hinged more on political perceptions than on the ethics of gambling.”

The Devilish Mechanics of Karnöffel

As for what the game actually is, it is a trick-taking game with, as mentioned above, a rather unusual card hierarchy. It is a four-player team game played with the classic German 48-card deck lacking aces. The goal for each team is to be the first to take 3 tricks. A quasi-trump suit is determined with the first trick played, but players need not follow suit; in this way the game is like a game of Spades, Hearts, Euchre, or similar.

However, that quasi-trump suit is a wrench in the cogs. Cards of the trump suit from highest to lowest are as follows: U, 7*, 6, 2, K, 3, O, 4, 5, 10, 9, 8, 7*. That's quite a peculiar lineup. Stranger still when you notice that the 7 appears twice. This is because the 7, called the Devil, beats all other cards, but only if it is led. Otherwise, it loses to everything.

German Finicky Record-Keeping Pays Off

While these two games are the only firsts that Germany has contributed to the history of card games, there have been a host of other worthwhile games to come from the country since then. Perhaps the only thing to rival the number of games Germany has invented is the number of written records on the self-same subject that Germany has produced.

Admittedly, on this list, I include many authors who wrote about or catalogued card games while writing works of other scholarly importance. However, regardless of whether they all studied the history of cards, Germany has had an incredible impact in providing first-hand sources for this little field of study.

Honestly, we would not know about half the games that we know about today if not for pieces of German literature detailing their play. It is a not a contribution one often thinks about, but as a scholar of the subject, I owe the country a great debt of thanks.

Our short foray into the past must end all too soon. While the two games we have talked about may seem small, Germany lays claim to both the first European card game as well as the first vying game ever recorded.

Without these, one can only guess if poker would have come to be at all.

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