Posted by: episystechpubs | November 17, 2015

Editor’s Corner: Poker Face

I am swamped today! Rather than write for you, I’m sharing a portion of this article from the San Diego Union-Tribune. For the full article, you can see Richard Lederer’s column here.

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 journey 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 throw away a card from one’s hand. Gradually, the meaning of discard 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.

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 the blue ones have traditionally been 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 Chargers stack up against the Broncos?" Here the reference is to the columns of chips piled up before the players around a poker table. These stacks 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 your opponents wish to call your bluff and insist that you put up or shut up, you’ll be happy to put your money where your mouth is. Rather than passing the buck, you play it close to the vest without showing your hand, maintain an inscrutable poker face and hope to hit the jackpot.

Pass the buck is a cliché that means "to shift responsibility," but why should handing someone a dollar bill indicate that a duty is transferred? Once again, the answer can be found in the gambling pleasure palaces. The buck in pass the buck was originally a poker term designating a marker placed in front of the player to the left of the dealer, the player who must bet first. During the heyday of poker in the 19th century, the marker was often a hunting knife whose handle was made of a buck’s horn. The knife defined the game as Buckhorn Poker or Buck Poker and gave us the expression pass the buck. After each deal, the buck was passed from the first wagerer to the next player, from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage.

In the Old West, silver dollars often replaced buckhorn knives as tokens, and these coins took on the slang name buck. 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 I’ve encountered appears on the sides of some plumbing trucks: "A Flush Is Better Than a Full House." In poker that isn’t true, but a homeowner would recognize its wisdom.

You can bet on it.

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