This week’s post is written by Sophie Jackson, a freelance journalist specialising in politics, modern history and pop culture. You can find her on Twitter.

Sophie contacted me a few weeks ago and asked if she could contribute an article on poker idioms to this blog. I was delighted and honoured she chose English with a Twist and was only too happy to agree. She chose the topic of poker as part of her research into the historical and cultural implications of gambling.
Since you, my readers, are no strangers to posts about game and sports idioms used in everyday English, I felt that Sophie’s article would fit in naturally.

So without further ado, I present you Sophie Jackson. 

From its origins in early 19th century America, poker has evolved into a universally loved game played by all kinds of people. It’s not surprising that the game’s terminology has come to manifest itself in everyday language. Most of us aren’t even conscious of referencing the timeless betting game when we say phrases such as raising the stakes or hitting the jackpot. Whether you’re ‘calling someone’s bluff’  or stacking the cards or decks’ , you might be surprised as to how many poker idioms you commonly use.

Here are 6 more idioms with poker connections.

1.“The Cold War made everyone fear a political showdown.” (Confrontation)

The term ‘showdown’ is often used to describe a moment of truth in which two or more people will face each other in a final confrontation. The word is often used in sports commentaries when there is a final match or fight, but can describe any kind of conclusive climax-stage of a competition. The term was popularized by poker, where ‘showdown’ refers to the moment players throw down their cards face upward, revealing who has the winning hand.


2. She went home around midnight. I followed suit and left shortly thereafter.

In simple terms, ‘follow suit’  means to copy the actions of someone else. The phrase originates from card games. In poker, cards in the same suit can result in a Flush, Straight Flush or Royal Flush.

It was the French who invented the modern suits popularly used in card decks today. Some believe each suit symbolises a social division of Medieval society. Hearts represent the clergy with its associations to virtue, Spades depict the spear of a weapon and therefore nobility, whilst Diamonds is associated to wealth and represent traders. Clubs, lastly, might represent clover leaves and harvest – therefore symbolising farmers and peasants.


3. Mr Dale is an unusual candidate. He’d be a total wildcard in government.”

You might have heard someone describe an unpredictable factor in some situation as a ‘wildcard’. What they are referring to is an undeterminable or risky element which could affect the outcome of a situation. You might describe the weather as a wildcard if it is always changing. In card games, a wildcard can be any card from the deck (usually a joker) determined by all players to be ‘flexible’. If the wild card gets dealt (deal = shuffle and distribute a hand of cards), players can then decide what the wildcard represents to best benefit their hand.


4.“The museum is great, but the kicker is you have to queue for hours to get in.”

Similar to a wildcard, a ‘kicker’ (US and Canadian slang) can be used to describe an unexpected, sometimes disadvantageous factor, for example a clause in a contract or as in the example above, a disadvantage.
In poker, the ‘kicker’ is the highest unused card in a hand. The kicker is only needed if there is a tie between players, in which case the kicker card will determine the outcome. If the two strongest players have identical hands, the winner is therefore determined depending on which player has the highest leftover card.


5. “Don’t pass the buck by blaming your colleague.”

‘Passing the buck’ is a common phrase which describes shifting responsibility in order to avoid blame or conflict. President Truman’s famous sign on his Oval Office desk stated ‘the buck stops here’, implying there was no place with greater responsibility than the White House. Though commonly used in everyday language, few people are aware that the term originates from poker.

Usually, the responsibility to deal cards in a poker game shifts from player to player each round. This is to ensure no single player ends up always having to be the first or last to bet. Today, dealer responsibility is typically symbolised with a simple ‘dealer button’, however in the past a hunting knife made out of buck’s horn is believed to have been used, hence ‘pass the buck’.


6. “David bought pizza for the event but we all chipped in”.

‘Chipping in’ means contributing money to cover part of an overall cost. Of course, chips represent cash in poker, as you have to place chips in the middle of the table to take part in the game. ‘Chip’ was a 19th century English slang word for ‘shilling’.


Poker is one of those games which has come to develop strong cultural ties and has, as such, influenced the way we speak. Maybe the next time you tell someone to cash in your chips, play their cards right or  that they are ‘poker -faced, you’ll come to think how curious it is that the English language has incorporated such poker idioms into everyday speech.

Thank you, Sophie.

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Ciao for now