Sunday, April 4, 2021

Illicit Card Games at Phillips Exeter Academy- an antedating of "Strip Poker" to 1904

The earliest known references to the game of strip poker, albeit under a different name, are reports of Freshmen at Yale University walking home “at all hours of the night with hardly enough clothing on to cover their limbs.”

(See my earlier post, “Who’d’a ‘Tunk’ It? – How a Yale Researcher Helped Discover that Yale Freshmen Invented Strip Poker in 1904.”) 

The earliest known reference to “strip poker” (by that name), however, appeared two years later, in reports of “chorus girls” of a “comic opera company” introducing “young bloods to a new fascinating game called ‘strip poker.’”

A recent contribution by Peter Morris on the Listserv message board maintained by the American Dialect Society,[i] revealed a previously unknown example of “strip poker” in print from 1904, in PEAN 1904, the yearbook of Phillips Exeter Academy for the academic year ending in June 1904.  Other than the year, the book is undated, but presumably was published at the end of the year.[ii]  “Strip poker” appears in the closing pages of the book, in a poem entitled, “A Parting Petition,” which makes a plea for looser rules – apparently “strip poker” was illegal; one might easily imagine T. S. Garp’s mother raiding the dorm and putting an end to the silliness.  

A Parting Petition

Must I attend recitations?

   Why can’t I cut when I choose?

Why is “strip poker” forbidden?

   Why can’t a man have his booze?


Must I, then, keep study hours?

   Can’t I go fussing instead?

Can’t a man go down to Portsmouth?

   And not get permission ahead?


What! Did you say I am fired?

   Why can’t I take “special Pro.?”

When a man hasn’t done nothing,

   Why in the deuce must he go?

The PEAN 1904, page 190.[iii]

The location of the poem near the end of the yearbook, and title of the poem suggesting that it was written just before leaving school, together suggest that it was written late in the academic year.

Without a precise date on the poem itself, the question remains open as to whether the preppies of Phillips Exeter learned the game from their friends at Yale, or whether their friends at Yale taught them the game; or did they all learned it from a cousin at Harvard who had the decency to keep it out of print.

It’s not clear who coined the specific name, “strip poker.”  It seems to be an obvious coinage, but it did not appear in print elsewhere for two years.  The name, if not the game, may have been coined at Phillips Exeter; a lasting legacy from the “men who wear the E” – or at least wore the “E” when they had good cards.




[ii] The 1904 edition of PEAN begins with a report from an alumni event in June 1903, and a school calendar in the book includes events through June 1904.  Presumably, the yearbook was not finished or published before the end of that academic calendar year.

[iii] The Pean, 1904, Yearbook for academic year 1903-1904, Phillips Exeter Academy, The News-Letter Press, Exeter, New Hampshire, page 190.

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