Poker Idioms: What Do They Mean and Why?

Throughout history and all over the world, people have gambled as a past time. It’s no surprise then that this has had an interesting effect on language. Many of the idioms commonly used in poker and other gambling activities have passed into every day language. As such, you might not even realize that there ever was a gambling connection at all! There are many idioms that come from poker and card games, but do you really know what they all mean? Some of them are pretty obscure, to say the least. Help is at hand, as our countdown will straighten things out for you. Discover all the slang, where it comes from and find out which is your favorite. You’ll be surprised at how many idioms have their roots in card games.
A woman with playing cards.
Published on: 14 August 2019

Let’s get started on our favorite poker idioms. Learn what they mean and where they come from as we count down. Which one will be your top pick?

Poker Face

A poker face is expressionless, emotionless and gives away nothing. It is essential if want to keep your hand a secret or bluff your opponent in a game of cards. The phrase is commonly used to describe someone who shields his or her motives by keeping a deadpan expression. From business deals to bad dates, poker faces are useful if you’re set on not giving the game away. Most of you will also associate the saying with Lady Gaga’s earworm hit of the same name. The song is all about keeping a poker face in the bedroom, and not letting on about the fantasies in your head. If you think that you have a bad poker face, and so don’t want to play the game against opponents, you can check out popular casino poker sites instead.

Trump Card

A trump is a card that ranks higher than any other in the game, so it’s a winning card. A trump card isn’t usually the highest card in the deck normally though. It is a card that has had its rank elevated. In everyday life, if you’re about to play a trump card, you are about to beat someone else. Having a trump card might mean you have some persuasive dirt on someone or that you know something they don’t know. It often implies a shady kind of victory, although not exclusively. The term has no relation to the president of the USA.

Kitty

A cat with poker chips and playing cards.

This kitty is not the mewing kind. We’re actually talking about the slang term for a money pool. To cover the expenses of hosting a poker game, players will often put some money in a pot. It can also be used to refer to the money bet that contributes toward the winning cash. In everyday language, the term has become broader. It can be used to talk about any kind of piggy bank or pot of cash that has been gathered for shared use. There is speculation about where this term really comes from. In cockney rhyming slang, a kitty cat is a hat. Could this be the hat that players collected money in? Or was it the prostitutes, collectively known as Kitty, who collected the money? Is it just a coincidence that kitty can also be used as slang for prison? Prison is a kind of locked box, much like the one cash might go into. The word ‘kit’ has been around since the 1300s and refers to any kind of container. That’s the reason we have words like toolkit and first aid kit.

Chip In

Following on from the kitty, this idiom describes how you might contribute towards something. Chipping in generally means, either giving some money towards something or joining in to help do something. You can also chip in with an idea if you’re having a discussion. If everyone chips in, we can get the job done. In a gambling sense, to chip in is literally to put your chips in. You’re ready to bet your cash or chips. These will all eventually contribute to making a bigger stack of winnings, so the idea has stayed pretty constant.

Pass the Buck

If you’re passing the buck, you’re shirking responsibility and handing it over to somebody else. Chances are there’s something you don’t want to do, for instance, some annoying task at work. Persuading a colleague to do it instead would be passing the buck on it. The origins of this common saying might not seem obvious at first, but they are rooted in poker. We all know a buck is a dollar, right? The original buck that the saying is referring to is a buck’s horn. To avoid cheating in poker back in the 1900s, players took it in turn to deal. To keep track of who was dealing next, a marker was used – a knife. The knives used often had buckhorn handles on them, and so ‘passing the buck’ came into use. President Harry Truman popularized his own twist on the saying – the buck stops here!

Wildcard

It’s not hard to see the connection to card games here – but what does a wildcard have to do with poker? A wild card is a card that can be substituted as any other card. Wildcards can be used to improve your hand, but can also distort the game. Wildcards are people that are little crazy or unpredictable – you can’t ever be sure what they’re going to do next. Life might deal you a wildcard in the form of a thunderstorm or a surprise proposal – they can be good and bad things. According to Taylor Swift ‘love is the one wild card’, but what does she know about poker. She’s definitely thrown a few wild cards herself over the years. If you think that you could also do with some brushing up on the rules of poker before playing, check out our handy guide.

A Card Up Your Sleeve

A man in a suit jacket with a card up his sleeve.

This is a phrase that you might have heard in lots of different ways. Some people say you’ve got an ace up your sleeve, it could just as likely be a trick that’s up there. Whichever way you spell it, it’s clear you’ve got some secret advantage. This is an old gambling phrase, although people are just as likely to do this today. Sneaking a trump card, like an ace, up your sleeve is an excellently deceitful way to cheat. It does require a little practice to get the card out unnoticed, but if successful it could be very lucrative. It’s still popular with the original truth-twisters in the game – magicians.

Call Your Bluff

Let’s get things straight – you can’t call your own bluff, whichever way your facing. A bluff is something that you can only call on someone else, although they might do it right back at you. But what does it mean? Calling someone’s bluff is a way of challenging someone. The consequences are usually embarrassing for the other party, for instance catching them in a lie. In poker, if you’re bluffing, you’re trying to pass your hand off as better than it is, in the hopes that someone else will fold. Calling another player’s bluff means that they have to show their hand, often exposing their lie.

Follow Suit

To follow suit essentially means that you’re copying someone else’s actions, probably because you see them in a good light. For example, when someone says ‘on Wednesdays we wear pink’; you turn up on Wednesday in a specially chosen pink outfit designed to impress. Following suit is just a way of fitting in. In card games, following suit has a more literal meaning. It means playing a card that is the same suit as the one that preceded it. This could help you to win a game of poker if you get a flush.

Bet Your Bottom Dollar

Cards stacked up into a "house of cards".

If you’re betting your bottom dollar on something, then chances are it’s a sure thing. This is because, in poker, the bottom dollar is the very last dollar you have. Normally, you’d make your bets from the top of your pile of cash. If you’re betting the dollar at the bottom of your stack, you’re so sure that you’re willing to stake your every last penny on it. This idiom really equates to saying that you’re all in.

Above Board

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this idiom has its origins at sea. Some people have said that above board are the sailors and below board are the hidden stowaways. This is actually a false rumor and it doesn’t mean board in the ship-faring sense at all. Board actually signifies a table, specifically in a game of cards. If everything is above board, it is honest and out in the open. Everyone’s hands can be seen, so you can be sure that the game is fair. This is also where the idea of something dishonest being underhand comes from – hands cheating under the table.

Square Deal

A square deal is an honest and fair arrangement, which two parties can both benefit from equally. The word square indicates that it’s well-founded and strong. A square is equal on all sides so we can see why it infers that something is fair to all parties. In poker, a square deal is a deal that hasn’t been tampered with. You could square up the cards to show that they were honest and hadn’t been tampered with. People also say fair shake to mean the same thing, as in a fair shake of the dice.

House of Cards

Much like the political theme of the TV show of the same name, a house of cards is something that can be easily destroyed. A house of cards is built by stacking up playing cards higher and higher. Much like the little pigs’ houses built from straw and sticks, a house of cards can easily be blown over. To describe something as a house of cards is to say that it has no foundation and will soon collapse. Most commonly, we describe political ideas as houses of cards – when they are ill-founded and don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The Hand is Dealt

There we have it! That’s our list, which did you like best? This is only a selection of some of the poker idioms that we liked best. Now that all our cards are laid out on the table, do you think we missed any? Have fun sprinkling these into your conversations like a true poker pro. Check out our list of the best online poker sites if you are itching to get playing after reading this guide.

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