To the outsider, poker has an incredibly dense and complex set of insider terms. For players new to the game all that talk of “hitting the nuts on a rainbow flop from the cut-off against a limping fish with a gutshot,” can be a little overwhelming. What’s more, every day young internet players are generating new terms and abbreviations to describe their world.
This list contains 10 key phrases from the poker lexicon, and should get you on your way to being fully fluent in poker-speak. The history of poker is habitually shrouded in mystery, but we’ll also take a look at the theories behind the origins of these words.
The flop is quite simply the first three community cards dealt in a game of Texas Hold‘em, Omaha or any other variation of poker where community cards are used. In Texas Hold‘em, the hands are dealt, there is a round of betting, and then the flop is dealt. After another round of betting the turn card is dealt, with the river card following a third round of betting. The fourth and final round of betting comes after the river.
The origin of ‘The Flop’ is unclear, but many people believe it has something to do with the way the dealer slaps the cards onto the table. The motion used by some dealers is akin to a flop, but there is no hard historical evidence to confirm this idea.
If you have the nuts you have the very best hand possible at that moment in time. No other hand could be beating yours because it is “the nuts”. It is worth noting that a hand that is the nuts on the flop might no longer be the nuts when the next card falls.
The origin of this intriguing term has nothing to do with cashews or testicles. In the American Old West poker players would often wager their wagons on a hand. To stop them from skipping town should they lose, the nuts and bolts would be removed from their vehicle and be placed on the table. To bet the nuts was considered a sign that you had the utmost confidence in the quality of your hand.
The blinds are bets made by two players before the cards are dealt. They were introduced to prevent players from being overly conservative. Usually there will be a big blind and a small blind. In tournament poker the blinds increase at set intervals. This is not only to encourage action, but also because as players are eliminated, the remaining competitors will have more and more chips. To remain useful, the blinds need to stay relative to the average number of chips.
It is fairly obvious where ‘blinds’ get their name from. The mandatory wagers are made before the cards are dealt and so are considered “blind bets.” Some players like to make “blind bets” during
a hand; perhaps announcing that they will raise while the flop is being dealt, but before anyone has seen the cards. This tactic is designed to upset an opponent and prevent him from reading your reaction to the flop.
The button is a symbolic disc or other item which moves one place clockwise every hand in order to indicate who is the nominal dealer. Although online and in casinos someone else does the dealing for you, the position of the button dictates which players must pay the blinds. In home games it is common for the players to take turns dealing the cards, and so the button is actually used to determine whose turn it is.
In the 19th Century it was commonplace for unscrupulous players to fix the deck, or deliberately misdeal to unfairly turn the game in their favor. For this reason, it was decided that the dealer should change every hand. A token was introduced to avoid confusion and in time it became standard to use a round disc reminiscent of a button. It is worth remembering that these players would have most likely been playing draw poker, where there are no blinds. Instead, each player is required to pay a small ante every hand.
Undoubtedly the most commonly used insult in poker is ‘Donkey’. “You are a donkey,” or “He was such a donkey.” Usually directed at a player who is consistently bad, or who engages in some particularly sub-optimal play. However, as with any insult, its uses are wide and it can generally be employed in any vaguely derogatory fashion.
The much-maligned Donkey is not a very noble creature. It has long been an animal of labour, and it is generally considered to be drab, grey, boring, and unattractive. It’s negative reputation makes being compared to one a very clear insult.
Experienced players will often talk about the time they went “On Tilt”, or the time when they profited from another player “Tilting”. To be on tilt is to lose control of your sensible poker playing faculties. Players who are on tilt will make bad decisions and generally play very poorly by doing things they would not usually do. Players are often put on tilt when an opponent gets very lucky against them - known as a Bad Beat.
It seems likely that ‘Tilt’ found its way to poker via pinball. Poor pinball players are known to literally tilt the machine to ensure the ball roles into the desired position. As a result, most machines have sensors built in to detect movement and will shut down use of the flippers when tilted. The machine is then be said to be “On Tilt.”
You might hear someone telling you that you should never limp into a pot, or that limping is generally a weak play. Sound advice, but fairly useless if you have no idea what the word means. To limp is to make a call in the first round of betting - i.e. before the flop has been dealt. In general this will mean equalling the amount put in for the big blind. Limping is considered a weak play because you do not assert any control over your opponents and rely solely on the cards on the flop to help you win the hand.
This probably derives from the physical act of limping. Losing the use of one leg is a pretty sorry state to be in, and the poker term was likely coined to reflect the weak, placid nature of the pre-flop call.
Coming a close second to Donkey in the poker insult stakes is ‘Fish’. The use of ‘fish’ in poker is similarly broad, but most commonly refers to inexperienced players. A fish is someone whose knowledge of the game is sub-par and who can be exploited for profit by the other players. Cash game pros will often seek out tables filled with “fish” in order to maximize their skill advantage.
Although the fish is a slightly nobler animal than the donkey, it is far from dignified. Aside from the ignominy of being compared to a slimy scaled creature, the term most likely originates from fishing. Poker fish are to the seasoned poker player what real fish are to the fisherman: easy targets to be reeled in.
As mentioned above, the river card is the last community card to be dealt. It proceeds the final round of betting and is responsible for administering more than its fair share of bad beats. A player might say that he “hit an Ace on the river,” meaning that he paired an Ace from his hand with the river card.
If true, the origin of the ‘river card’ is one of the most interesting of all. In the 1800’s poker games were regularly held aboard riverboats, where cheating players were known to deal an extra community card in order to give themselves an advantage. Such miscreants were often tossed overboard into the water, and hence the final community card become known as ‘the river card’.
Poker players will often say that they had this many outs on that hand or that many outs on this hand. What they mean is, there were that number cards in the deck which would put them in a winning position. For example, if I had a pair of eights against your Ace and a four, then you would have 3 outs on the next card to go ahead of me - namely, the three remaining aces in the deck. Mathematical players often use the number of outs to calculate whether or not they should call an opponents bet.
There is no identifiable origin of the use of ‘out’ in poker. Although, the fact that the cards you’re looking for will get you ‘out’ of trouble, or that they will put you ‘out’ in front, most likely has something to do with it.
Of course, there are many more poker lingo phrases than just these 10, but if you start be become more involved in the poker community I guarantee you will come across these 10! To see a more comprehensive list of popular poker lingo terms, check out our Poker Lingo
definition page, or search our new and ever-growing Poker Dictionary