Poker enthusiast and
wordsmith, Dr. Richard Lederer, Ph.D., (in English and Linguistics)
and the world's most prolific poker champion
breeder (father of Howard Lederer and Annie Duke) has sent me,
Dr. Hope, J.A.P.D. (Just A Pretend Doctor) an article that I like to
Colorful Poker Words
to Paint the Landscape of
Here it is:
My Kids the
My son Howard Lederer and daughter Annie Duke live and
move and have their beings in that windowless, clockless pleasure dome
known as Las Vegas. I’m pleased to report that they are the only
sibling pair ever both to reach the final day of a World Series of
Poker event and to have won national tournaments with capacious and
impressive names, such as the Diamond Jim Brady Texas Hold'em
Shootout, the Four Queens Poker Classic in High-Limit Omaha, and the
Hall of Fame Classic Deuce-to-Seven Lowball Draw No-Limit. Phew.
children’s achievements in the gaming halls inspire me to deal from a
full deck of vivid words and phrases that have made the trip from the
poker table into our everyday conversation and writing. The color and
high-risk excitement of poker have made the language of the game one
of the most pervasive metaphors in our language.
elements of poker are the cards, the chips, and the play of the hand,
and each has become embedded in our daily parlance. Beginning with the
cards themselves, the verb to discard descends from decard,
"away card," and first meant to reject a card from one's hand.
Gradually, the meaning of discard has broadened to include
rejection beyond card-playing. A cardsharp who is out to cheat you may
be dealing from the bottom of the deck and giving you a fast shuffle,
in which case you may get lost in the shuffle. You might call such a
low-down skunk a four-flusher. Flush, a hand of five
cards that are all of one suit, flows from the Latin fluxus
because all the cards flow together. Four-flusher characterizes
a poker player who pretends to such good fortune but in fact holds a
worthless hand of four same-suit cards and one that doesn't match.
All of these
terms originated with poker and other betting card games and have
undergone a process that linguists call broadening. A good example of
movement from one specific argot to another is wild card berth
or wild card player as used in football and tennis. In these
sports, a team hopes for back-to-back victories – from a
fortuitous ace-down-ace-up as the first two cards in a game of
Now that I've
laid my cards on the table, let's see what happens when the
chips are down. Why do we call a gilt-edged, sure-thing stock a
blue-chip stock? Because poker chips are white, red, and blue, and
the blue ones are the most valuable. Why, when we compare the value
and power of two things, do we often ask how one stacks up
against the other, as in "How do the Red Sox stack up against the
Yankees?" Here the reference is to the columns of chips piled up
before the players around a poker table. These stacks of plastic
betting markers also account for the expressions bottom dollar
and top dollar. Betting one's bottom dollar means
wagering the entire stack, and the top dollar, or chip, is the one
that sits atop the highest pile on the table. Indeed, the metaphor of
poker chips is so powerful that one of the euphemisms we use for death
is cashing in one's chips.
The guts of poker
is the betting. You bet! has become a standard affirmative in
American English, and it is far from being the only betting metaphor
that has traveled from the gaming halls to our common vocabulary. If
you want to call my bluff on that one and insist that I put up or shut
up, I'll be happy to put my money where my mouth is.
involved in a big business deal. You let the other guy know that
you're not a piker running a penny ante operation and that he'd better
ante up big. One theory traces piker, one who habitually makes
small bets, to westward migrants from Pike County, Missouri. These
small farmers were less inclined than hardened veterans to risk high
stakes, and the county name became eponymously synonymous with
penny-pinching cheapness. Ante, from the Latin for "before,"
refers to chips placed in the middle of the poker table before the
betting begins, so a penny ante game is fit only for pikers.
continue, and you sweeten the pot by upping the stakes. You don't want
to blow your wad and go in the hole or in hock, but you don't want to
stand pat either. Rather than passing the buck, you play it close to
the vest without showing your hand, maintain an inscrutable poker
face, keep everything aboveboard, and hope to hit the jackpot.
The hole in the
phrase in the hole refers to a slot cut in the middle of poker
tables through which checks and cash are deposited into a box, to be
transferred later to the coffers of the house. In hock descends
from the game of faro, a cousin of poker. The last card in the box was
known as the hocketty card. The player who bet that card was said to
be in hock, at a disadvantage that could lose him his shirt.
comes from the strategy of keeping one's original (pat) hand in draw
poker rather than making an exchange. Because card sharps are known to
engage in chicanery when their hands are out of sight and under the
table, or board, aboveboard has come to mean open honesty and
under the table the opposite. Playing it close to the vest
ensures that no one else will peek at the contents of a player's hand.
Jackpot originally described the reward to the big winner in a
game of progressive poker, in which you need a pair of jacks or better
to “open the pot.” Because the stakes grow higher until the requisite
pair is dealt, jackpot has gradually expanded to include the
pots of gold in slot machines, game shows, and state lotteries.
Pass the buck
is a common cliché that means "to shift responsibility." But why,
you may have asked yourself, should handing someone a dollar bill
indicate that responsibility is in any way transferred? Once again the
answer can be found in high-stakes gaming halls and riverboats. The
buck in pass the buck was originally a poker term
designating a marker that was placed in front of the player whose turn
it was to deal the next hand. This was done to vary the order of
betting and to keep one person from dealing all the time, thus
transferring the disadvantages of being the first to wager and cutting
down on the chances of cheating. During the heyday of poker in the
nineteenth century, the marker was often a hunting knife whose handle
was made of a buck's horn. The marker defined the game as Buckhorn
Poker or Buck Poker and gave us the expression
pass the buck.
In the Old West,
silver dollars often replaced buckhorn knives as tokens, and these
coins took on the slang name buck. Former president Harry S.
Truman, reputed to be a skillful poker player, adopted the now-famous
motto "The buck stops here," meaning that the ultimate responsibility
rested with the president.
The cleverest application of poker terminology that I
have ever encountered appears on the truck of a New Hampshire plumbing
company: "A Flush Is Better Than a Full House." In poker that isn't
true, but a homeowner would recognize its wisdom.
Great poker players must have a firm grounding in
the statistics of card distribution and probability. But, as my son
and daughter the poker champions explain, “To play poker at the
highest level is to read people – their faces, their body language,
and their behavior patterns.” Language and people are inextricably
intertwined. The democratic poetry of poker that pervades our American
language is a vivid emblem of the games that we, as a civilization,
watch and play.
It's in the cards. You can bet on it.