Upping the Ante: Top English Idioms That Come From Poker

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Four aces behind stacks of poker chips and two dice.
BetMGM Jan 01, 2024, 3:21 PM

Many popular poker phrases are used by people who’ve never even placed a single bet in a live or online poker game. Yet, they are some of the most popular playing card idioms commonly used today. Carry on reading to learn about some of the most widely used poker terms and their meanings, as well as examples of how they might be used outside of the game.

1. An Ace in the Hole

The first of the popular sayings in poker commonly used in English is “ace in the hole.” This refers to having an ace as one of your hole (face-down) cards and means that the player has a hidden ace (or another highly valuable card) that can shift the game in their favor and improve their odds of winning. This phrase is often used in day-to-day English to refer to any situation where an individual has a hidden advantage that others don’t know about. 

Example of Use Outside of Poker

If a coworker decided to help themselves to some of your cookies at work and they denied it, but you have video footage of them taking a few while you were in a meeting, the video footage would be your “ace in the hole.”

2. Call One’s Bluff

In poker, players sometimes try to bluff about the strength of their cards to manipulate other players into folding, resulting in a win for them despite their weak hand. However, skilled or bold players will often stand their ground and challenge the other player who is bluffing to reveal their cards. This action is known as “calling one’s bluff.” Today, people often use this term when they believe someone is lying and want to force the accused to reveal their lies. 

Example of Use Outside of Poker

If a person accuses an innocent individual of stealing something, but the innocent person tells them to prove it, this would be an example of “calling one’s bluff.”

3. Holding All the Aces

When someone is “holding all the aces” in a poker game, they have a strong hand. In other contexts, to “hold all the aces” means to have an advantage in a particular situation.

Example of Use Outside of Poker

If a company experiences a decline in business and is forced to lay off staff, an individual with unique skills and knowledge necessary to its day-to-day operations could be said to “hold all the aces” since they are unlikely to be retrenched.

4. Poker Face

“Poker face” is a term from poker slang that refers to someone who has an emotionless expression when playing a poker game in person. Maintaining a poker face is considered important when playing poker face-to-face because many players accidentally leak information about the state of their hands through their expressions. For example, a player may briefly look concerned when taking a look at their hole cards because they have a weak hand. Outside of poker, one may refer to someone hiding their true feelings as having a poker face.

Example of Use Outside of Poker

If a person receives bad personal news while at work, they may put on a poker face to avoid being unprofessional in their work environment.

5. Put Your Cards on the Table

In a game of poker, any players who remain during the showdown (the final round of poker) must put their cards on the table face-up, revealing their hand so that a winner can be decided. This phrase is commonly used outside of poker to describe a person being honest and open. 

Example of Use Outside of Poker

If a person has been hiding romantic feelings for a friend and they reveal their affections to that friend, that could be understood as them “putting their cards on the table.”

6. Tip One’s Hand

Poker is based on hiding your strength to get the maximum winnings from other players. The most obvious way to do this is by ensuring no other players see your cards. However, when you lift your cards to look at them, you might accidentally “tip your hand,” allowing others to glimpse what you’re holding. 

This phrase is primarily used in poker but is also an example of playing card slang that could apply to other card games. When not playing card games, it’s used in different contexts to describe someone accidentally revealing something, like their opinion, plans, or some other secret.

Example of Use Outside of Poker

If you’re planning a surprise birthday party for a friend and you ask them to make sure they’re free at a specific time, you might “tip your hand” about the fact that you have a surprise party lined up for them.

7. When the Chips Are Down

The last of the popular gambling idioms on this list is the phrase “when the chips are down,” which refers to the critical moments in a game of poker when you’ve placed your bets, and no other actions can take place, sometimes due to your lack of additional poker chips. The phrase is often used when someone has few or no options left.

Example of Use Outside of Poker

For example, a person who’s lost their job and used up all their savings could be described as being in a situation where the “chips are down.”

Embrace Your Love of Poker and Other Gambling Thrills at BetMGM

With a better understanding of the meaning and roots of these poker sayings, it’s time to hit the tables at the best online poker site, BetMGM. Players can take a seat at BetMGM’s virtual poker tables to play quick cash games or to test their poker skills in competitive poker tournaments. These poker games can be enjoyed in the ever-popular Texas hold’em, seven-card stud, or Omaha variants, depending on your tastes. 

Gamblers who like a wide range of games can also enjoy other betting experiences at BetMGM, including casino games like online slots, roulette, and blackjack, as well as super sports bets on many exciting sports teams and athletes.

Register at BetMGM to find out what luck has in store for you.

Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.