It’s pretty much impossible to read or speak English without regularly bumping into gambling phrases. 'Beginner’s luck', 'odds-on favorite,' 'poker face,' 'up the ante,' 'high stakes,'Basil Nestor is the author of the new Playboy Complete Guide to Casino Gambling. This wonderful book teaches players how to avoid sucker bets and win more when playing gambling games. He is also the author of The Smarter Bet Guide series for video poker, slots, craps, and many other books about gambling. Basil's website is www.smarterbet.com 'luck of the draw,' 'stacked deck'… Hundreds of gambling expressions infuse our language.
Kenny Rogers once told us, 'You’ve go to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.' Ironically, there are many more people who remember Kenny’s musical musings about poker strategy (and can flawlessly repeat them in a karaoke bar), than people who can tell you if a full house beats a flush. That’s the way it is with gambling. Life itself is a game, so gambling phrases inevitably percolate into everyday thoughts and expressions. Everyone uses them, gamblers and non-gamblers. Here is the history behind some of our most ubiquitous sayings.
Bet your bottom dollar/Bet your boots – These phrases were popular long before Little Orphan Annie sang 'Tomorrow' on Broadway. Basic necessities in the American West of the nineteenth century included a horse, a gun, boots, and money, usually in that exact order. Your 'bottom' dollar was the last precious coin left in a formerly towering stack. A poker hand had to be very good for you to bet your bottom dollar. If the wager failed then your boots were next to be put on the table. The gun and horse might be necessary to get the boots and money back. As the frontier faded, bet your boots and bet your bottom dollar lost their literal meaning. The phrases became synonymous with any bet that was supposedly worth a special risk.
Penny-ante – These days it means cheap or small-time. The original meaning was literally a poker game where the ante was a penny. Games with such low stakes were a waste of time for poker professionals. People who played at those tables were beginners or busted losers.
No dice – This one comes from craps lingo. It’s the older equivalent of the modern 'no roll.' If dice leave the table or a roll is otherwise fouled then no decision is allowed. The game is temporarily suspended. So, let’s say your spouse wants to see Cirque du Soleil, but you want to play in the casino… no dice, pal.
On a roll – Craps is the source for this one, too. The phrase describes a shooter who is consistently rolling winning numbers. Being on a roll is a magnificent nirvana-like experience for a craps player. Old guys who smoke cigars and remember when Truman was president will tell you with meticulous detail about that night in ’45 just outside Paris when the dice were hot and the money was piled high. Craps was once the most popular casino game (way ahead of slots and blackjack), and everyone was hoping to be on a roll. The phrase was everywhere. It eventually came to mean any long string of successive victories.
At sixes and sevens – This is primarily a British term, but I’m including it here in case you watch a lot of PBS and wonder what the heck is so bad about sixes and sevens. The modern phrase means upset, in conflict, or out of sorts, but the original meaning comes from hazard (the forerunner of modern craps). It goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. In fact, Chaucer used the term in Troilus and Criseyde around 1385, 'Lat not this wrecched wo thin herte gnawe, but manly set the world on sixe and sevene.' In other words, have courage even when the odds are against you. Six and seven can be very bad when playing hazard. To be at sixes and sevens invariably puts you in a rotten mood.
Four-flusher – This is yet another poker phrase that developed in the late nineteenth century. Was Slim holding a flush (five cards of the same suit), or was it a worthless busted four-flush? Players who bluffed with a busted flush were despised by opponents who had folded if the bluff was exposed in a showdown. Let’s say $1,000 is in the pot, enough to pay off a mortgage note and buy a good horse. Tex is holding three kings, but he thinks Slim has a flush because the board is showing four diamonds. Slim bets. Byron, the highfalutin English feller, raises while showing an anemic pair of fours. Tex folds. Slim re-raises. Now the pot is up to $1,500. Byron calls and turns over triple fours. Slim has a four-flush. Ouch! Tex threw away the winning hand. The money goes to Byron, and Slim is a dirty-rotten-stinkin’ four-flusher!
Close but no cigar – Cigars were a typical prize in the nineteenth century. Slot machines often paid off in cigars as did carnival contests. So, if you barely missed a ring toss or you were one symbol short on the slot then people would say, 'Close but no cigar.'
According to Hoyle – Hoyle’s name adorns a multitude of modern books and software programs. Is he a reclusive Silicon Valley game-master? Nope. Edmond Hoyle was an English attorney and writer who was born in 1672 and died 97 years later in 1769. His breakthrough best-seller was A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist published in 1742. Hoyle also wrote about backgammon, brag, and a few other games you’ve probably never played. He was long dead and buried at the Old Parish Church of St. Marleybone by the time poker, blackjack, and slots came along. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have an immutable standard. Hoyle was the authority on popular games back in the days of George III. Two and one-half centuries later a host of contemporary writers, editors, and software developers work to maintain Hoyle’s reputation.
Ace in the hole/Ace up his sleeve – The 'hole' in seven-card stud and hold 'em poker are the first two face-down cards. Having an ace in the hole is a very powerful hidden advantage. Having an ace up one’s sleeve is not the sort of thing you see in a modern poker room, but it was more common in the days when two or three players would collude to swindle an unsuspecting newcomer. Thus you could have an ace in the hole, but your opponent might have an ace up his sleeve. This was the sort of dispute that went beyond the scope of Hoyle. It required consultation with Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.
Jackpot – These days a jackpot is any large prize, and it’s commonly associated with slots, but the word originally came from nineteenth century draw poker. Each player contributed a minimum bet (ante) before the cards were dealt. At least one player had to have a pair of jacks or better for the round to continue. If nobody had the minimum hand, then the cards were collected, and the antes were held for the next pot. Two or more rounds with no opener would build a nice prize. Everyone was hoping to hit an uncontested jack-pot.
Keeping it close to the vest/chest – Modern casinos don’t allow players to handle cards much. You can touch them in some cases, but lifting them off the table and holding them close to your chest is an absolute no-no. That wasn’t always the case. In earlier centuries a player might hold his cards close to the chest and peak down at them. Was the player cheating? Was he guarding his cards to prevent cheating? It was one of the two, but you really didn’t know. Playing close to the vest/chest became synonymous with circumspect secrecy.
Inside track – This phrase comes from the world of horse racing. The animal with the inside track had less distance to run and thus an advantage.
Straight from the horse’s mouth – Yet another gem from horse racing. It was a clever phrase to imply that information about a horse’s condition had been accurately delivered. Who could report more reliably than the horse himself? No, the horse couldn’t talk, but the condition of his mouth would tell you a lot about his health and history.
Pressing your luck – This was an expression your mother might have used when you were misbehaving in front of company. Mom had no idea that it was a gambling metaphor. Pressing means to increase a bet. Pressing one’s luck means taking the original bet plus winnings and risking it all once again, going for broke, raising the stakes, putting it all on the line. . .
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