7 Gambling Terms Used as Metaphors
Nov 22, 2014
Gambling is so popular in English-speaking countries that it has infiltrated the way people speak about everything from dating to business.
A large section of American society likes to think of itself as puritanical: no drinking, no gambling, no sex, nothing potentially harmful (or enjoyable) whatsoever. The mentality of the “no fun” crowd dates back to the country’s Calvinist roots in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
But as much as Americans take pride in joylessness, little bits of vice shine through in everyday situations. Americans claim to be opposed to gambling, but talk about the activity constantly, even when they’re not gambling! Here are the most frequently used gambling metaphors in American vernacular:
#1: Play one’s cards right
This metaphor is most commonly used in dating: “If Scott plays his cards right, he has a good chance of landing a second date with Sandra.” However, it is useful to describe situations related to careers, politics and sports as well.
Origin: The expression is also commonly used in British English, and it is not clear on which side of the Atlantic it was first used. One can safely assume that it is a reference to either poker or blackjack strategy.
#2: Play the hand you’re dealt
This expression is usually combined with the first on this list. It was mostly famously used by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” It can be a reference to blackjack or poker.
This is a common idiom which is used as either inspiration or consolation, depending on the situation. Many times as a child I remember complaining about this or that, just to hear my mother say: “Stop bitching and play the hand you’re dealt.”
Origin: Uncertain, but the oldest use of the quote came from baseball manager Miller Huggins during the early 20th Century. It has also been used famously by British author C.S. Lewis, as well as Nehru.
#3: Ace in the hole
An “ace in the hole” refers to a hidden resource or weapon which an individual is hiding until it is absolutely necessary. It can be a reference to a dealer’s hole card in blackjack, in which a useful blackjack trick is to anticipate the dealer’s hole card.
I can also be a reference to stud poker, in which players keep one of their cards facedown.
Origin: The use of this expression apparently became widespread in America during the 1920s, a time in which casino gambling was illegal in most states but still extremely popular.
#4: Double down
To double down means to increase commitment in a given situation with the purpose of increasing rewards. It is a reference to a strategy commonly used for winning at blackjack. When the player senses that he has an advantage over the house, he doubles down, doubling his bet, and in the event of a win, his payout.
This expression is used in any situation in which competition is involved, politics, sports, business, even dating. The most common usage of this idiom currently, however, is in business. A company will “double down” when investing in a new technology, product or service.
Origin: This phrase is used in both the US and Britain, both countries in which blackjack and pontoon are popular.
#5: Hit the jackpot
This idiom means to “win big” and can be used in pretty much any context. To return to our dating scenario, one could say that “Scott really hit the jackpot with Sandra.” It usually implies an element of luck as well, dating back to its roots as a metaphor about playing slots.
Origin: The term “jackpot” is an Americanism first used in the poker game “Jack’s or Better” during the 1870s. It became synonymous with playing slots during the mid-20th Century.
#6: Raise the stakes
This idiom appears to be a reference to poker, in which players increase their bets when they feel that they have a strong hand, or when they are attempting to influence their competitors to fold. A common synonym is “up the ante.”
It is used most often in politics, when describing competition between politicians, political parties and countries. Raising the stakes means increasing the investment in a given competition, increasing both risk and potential reward. A recent headline from Business Insider read: “US war against IS steadily escalates, raising stakes.”
Origin: The first usage of “raise the stakes” is not known, although it is believed that be original to American English.
#7: Tip one’s hand
According to the Cambridge dictionary, to tip one’s hand means to “say what you are going to do or what you believe.” The expression is a reference to poker, in which “tipping your hand” means to accidentally show your cards to a competitor, ruining the necessary element of surprise.
This is most commonly used in politics, business and sports, all fields in which success depends on concealing one’s true motives. A recent headline from the Washington Post read: “Did the Supreme Court already tip its hand on Obamacare subsidies?”
Origin: It is an Americanism, and reflects the historical popularity of poker in American culture.