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 call:


How Colorful Poker Words

Came to Paint the Landscape of

Everyday Conversation

Here it is:

My Kids the Poker Players

      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.

            My 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.

      The basic 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 five-card stud.   

      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.

      Say you're 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.

      The negotiations 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.

      Stand pat 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.




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