Words and Expressions from Poker

By Maeve Maddox

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Perhaps the quintessential American card game, poker gained its first popularity on the riverboats and in the saloons of the 19th century West.

Based on a European card game that involved betting and bluffing, the game was called poque in French. “To place a stake or bet” was poquer.

Words and phrases associated with the game have added to the English store of figurative expressions.

ante
The word comes from classical Latin ante, “before.” An ante is the stake put into the betting pool before play begins. Ante can also be used as a verb, “to put the stake in before play begins.”

ante up: “to pay out money for the privilege of doing something.”

Example: Organizers think they can find 25 players willing to ante up the $200,000 entry fee.

ace
An ace is a card that has one spot on it. Before that meaning, an ace was the side of a die marked with a single dot.

to have an ace up your sleeve: to have a secret Plan B that can be used if Plan A fails. The expression “to have something up one’s sleeve” has been in the language from the sixteenth century. Having an ace up the sleeve derives from cheating at poker.

Example: Waterford volleyball The Ravens have an ace up their sleeve, and his name is Dave Richards, their new coach.

bluff
Originally, a bluff was a blinker for a horse or a blindfold. As a verb, to bluff means “to hoodwink or deceive.” In poker, to bluff is to pretend that one’s hand is the best one at the table. In the 19th century, another name for poker was bluff.

to call one’s bluff: to challenge someone to act on a threat or to prove a claim.

Example: Chavez may not follow through, but in light of the current energy crunch, few in Washington would be willing to call his bluff.

buck
The buck was any inanimate object used to designate the next person to deal. One common object was a buckhorn-handled knife, hence the name. If the person didn’t want to deal, he passed the object to the next person.

to pass the buck: to shift responsibility to another person or entity. President Truman is noted for having a message on his desk in the Oval Office— “The buck stops here”— to indicate his willingness to take responsibility for decisions coming from the White House.

Example: We cannot afford to pass the buck or push the burden onto the states.

buck-passer: a person who refuses to take responsibility.

chip
A chip is counter, often made of wood, used in games of chance. In US slang, chip has meant “a piece of money.” Most familiar nowadays are the colored disks we call poker chips. Having few chips left indicated that a player was in danger of losing the game. To arrange one’s chips in neat piles is to stack them. The size of the stacks indicates the relative worth of the players.

the chips are down: a situation has become dangerous and difficult to recover from.

Example: Obviously, it takes both courage and strength to lead when the chips are down.

in the chips: flush with money

Example: Its total value has far exceeded $1 billion, keeping its studio, Warner Bros., in the chips for years

to cash in one’s chips: to die

Example: Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers Cashed In His Chips At the age of 81

to stack up: to measure up

Example: Consequently, buyers don’t know how their bids stack up against the competition.

to stack against: to reduce someone or something’s chance of success

Example: Marshall said North Carolina’s laws were stacked against half of the population.

jackpot
The first use of jackpot (1865) referred to a hand or game of draw poker in which a pair of jacks or better is required to open. Another poker meaning is a large pot of accumulated stakes.

to hit the jackpot: to have a sudden, unexpected success, especially the acquisition of money.

Example: That same year he hit the jackpot when he accurately forecast 8 inches of snow between Jan. 23 and 30.

Example: Two pitchers hit the jackpot this winter with contracts that will pay a combined $49 million this year.

to throw in one’s hand: to give up on some endeavor; to quit or abandon something

Example: Financial fraudster Andrew Caspersen finally threw in his hand Wednesday [and pled guilty to fraud].

poker-face: an impassive expression that hides one’s true feelings.

Example: Dennis maintained a poker face as the verdicts against him were read.

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