Texas hold em was first played in Las Vegas in the late 60's (66 or 67). The card room manager at the Golden Nugget in downtown, Bill Boyd introduced the game to the players. Bill was from Texas some rounders had been playing the game in underground and back room games. I believe Bill can take credit for naming the game, or at least bringing the slang for the name with him. The Golden Nugget Poker Room was the first commercial poker venue to offer and play Texas Holdem anywhere.
It was not a huge hit, but they did play it and the game gradually grew in popularity to become a minor offering of most poker rooms. At the time the only other legal poker in the United States was California card rooms. Texas holdem was considered by California state statue to be a form of Stud poker. Stud poker was not allowed in the state of California. The only games considered legal poker at the time were draw poker.
In 1985 when I arrived in Las Vegas, the typical main game in a Las Vegas card room was Seven Card Stud. Most Poker rooms were small affairs, a large poker room was ten tables, a mega poker room was 20 tables. Most had 2 to 6 tables. The two biggest rooms in town were Caesars Palace and The Stardust, both with about twenty tables. Caesars played nothing but Seven Card Stud and the Stardust half the room was Holdem. Typically a six table room would have five stud tables and a holdem table. A small room of a table or two would just have stud tables and maybe play a little holdem once in awhile.
Montana and Washington had legal poker rooms, and it is my understanding that they all offered Texas Holdem on a slightly later time frame then Las Vegas. Montana legalized poker around 1980 (Proposition 92, thus the slang Montana Banana for 9-2), and holdem was the game of choice.
Poker in Las Vegas at the time I arrived was popular, almost every casino had a poker room. However it was as on a general slow decline. The game had a sleaze factor to it. Casinos were different, they did not particularly like t-shirt locals mixing in with well dressed customers. The tended to not like poker for many reasons, mainly they did not like anybody coming to their place and winning from their customers. The only reason they had poker rooms at all was that some good customers would only go where they could play poker.
1988 was a landmark year for poker in general, and Texas holdem specifically. The first thing that happened is that The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Gaming_Regulatory_Act). Basically the Act compelled states to come to an agreement with the Indian tribes in their state concerning gaming. A tribe was given the right to offer any game in a casino that the state allowed in any form already. Like if a church could have a casino night, the Indians could have all those games. California had poker (and much more in some form or the other) and the Indians jumped right on poker. One of the first things they did was to sue the state over Stud and Holdem, essentially saying they are poker games and allowed under the act. The courts agreed and with the beginning of the largest expansion of legal gambling in US history came the beginning of an acceleration in the popularity of Texas Holdem.
The Act, had an influence in all the poker Markets. As the Indian casinos grew from tents to real casinos poker in general grew in popularity. Atlantic city opened poker rooms, Small rooms in the west started closing as the bigger rooms in the Indian casino became more popular. In Las Vegas small rooms kept closing and larger rooms opened. Hold em kept up its creep, mainly because in new markets it was the preferred game. The reason it was the preferred game, is because the main WSOP NLHE event was about the only poker seen on TV. Binions thought it was a good ideal to get it on TV. ESPN did not think it was a great ideal so they partnered with Binions on production costs (Binions paid ESPN 125k a year). At any rate it was the variant of poker starting sometime in the eighties that made it way to TV once a year.
The WSOP starting in 1996 was also about the only thing about poker on the Internet. The main event was the most popular online. (This I know well because I was one of the first few people with a website that put results online. I was the first person to use a digital camera to take pictures of the final table for online, and I was the first guy using an internet connection through a cell phone to place the results in real time). This online presence of poker, little as it was helped the growth of Texas Holdem Poker. It was about this time that the WSOP started growing. The first year I sat at the WSOP was 1997, the year Stu Unger won his third and final championship. That year there were 312 entrants, 1998 saw a little over 500, 1999 saw a little over 800. These came from the new markets in the US, and also a few came from new markets in Europe.
But still while Texas Holdem had grown, maybe even at this point in the late nineties had become the dominate variation of poker played in casinos, NLHE outside of the WSOP final event was not played but rarely. You would not expect to come to Las Vegas and find a game. Indeed if you’re a card room manager you would not even dare to suggest that we spread a NLHE game. You might get fired suggesting it because the casino manager would think you are the dumbest on the planet.
And that is the terse history of Texas Holdem, pre online poker.
The OP asked about hold em poker, and it is not really hold em poker that became dominate, it is No Limit Holdem that became dominate. So I am going to address the question as if he asked about NLHE instead of simply Holdem, because it’s the same answer.
The media exposure helped make holdem grow but this was a minor factor in the boom. It was minor because it was one factor in place long before the boom. The media in all forms, just exposed more people to poker, it helped to make poker a seemingly more legitimate past time. The big media exposure that poker received was during the boom. Poker became a cultural phenomenon and the popular media capitalized on it. The media witnessed it they did not make it. They fueled the boom for sure, it would never had been the boom that it was without all the media but they did not spark the boom.
There are three key things that all came together to allow NLHE to dominate poker.
The first and by far the biggest thing is “The Moneymaker Effect”. You all know about it, it was huge. You can read more I am not going to say much about it.
The day before I went to cover the first event at the WSOP in 1997, my website ranked top of the fold at yahoo and google with the keyword “poker”. I had 80 unique users that day. The day of the main event I had 4000 unique users. The year Money maker won, previous to his win I had an average of 1500 unique user a day, the second half of that year daily unique visitors climbed to between 10,000 to 15,000 daily, and stayed in that range until late 2006. On keyword poker I dropped to the Nederland’s of 3rd page or worse with the search engines.
That year according to Wiki and Bluff, the WSOP main event had 839 entrants. Meaning the state of poker was stagnant. 1999 had over 800. Poker in Las Vegas at this time was in death throws. 911 had hurt the whole town and online poker was becoming hugely popular with existing poker players. The poker rooms were emptying in Las Vegas and in the other markets as well. That changed with Moneymaker.
The second thing that lead to the rise of Texas Holdem dominating all other forms of poker is a technical truth. Texas Hold-em was first online. It was easier to program, and it was the only game offered at every poker site the first day they went online. It was the only game offered at *Planet Poker for the first year or two that they were online. As these sites became more advanced they started offering other games. But by then it was too late, most the new players were hold em players. *PlanetPoker.com was the first real money poker site.
The third thing was brilliant! Placing caps on buy ins in NLHE. No limit poker online before the Moneymaker effect was rare. Offline and online the conventional wisdom is that you want the money going around the table past the drop slot, and No Limit tends to bust weak players much quicker than limit. This allowed the brick and mortar rooms to have No Limit Texas Hold em. This is the game the yahoos (as we lovingly call the online players) were demanding. Without this simple ingenious concept of placing caps on the buy ins, it is doubtful that most of us could have ever beat this game before we were busted out. It is doubtful the boom would of boomed as loud as it did without buy in caps.