The Folklore of Poker

A Survey in Modern Folklore



Donald W. Gillette



             The game of poker most certainly evolved from earlier card games; however, it is believed to have been first played in the United States on Mississippi riverboats.  The memoirs of British actor Joseph Crowell touring American in 1829 describe a game being played in New Orleans in which each player received five cards and made bets; however, the first direct reference to poker is found in An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, a book written by Johnathan H. Green in 1843.  Green described poker games on a steamer running between New Orleans and Louisville and indicated that poker began in New Orleans about 1830.

             There are to main forms of poker; straight poker and draw poker, but the variations on these two forms are as limitless as human imagination.  Every week, millions of poker players lose more money collectively than many nations spend in a year which suggests a large majority of the population is familiar with the game.

             This paper will analyze several of the uniquely traditional aspects of the game of poker, drawing on both interviews and personal participation, emphasizing the folkloristic qualities the game has developed through its 150 year history.

             Poker lore appears to be broken down into three distinct categories:  the naming of the various cards in the standard 52 card deck, the naming of different poker sets or “hands”, and the myriad variations on the two main forms of poker.

             In an attempt to discover the extent of poker lore in modern oral culture, a questionnaire was made available to the 545 members of the 3rd Battalion, 109th Armor, Tennessee Army National Guard.  Of the 212 questionnaires taken, 84 were returned.  Of these 84 responses, 60 were culled for inclusion in this paper.  The other 24 were discarded for various (mostly pornographic) reasons.  Of the 60 responses, the mean age was 29.5, the average military rank was E-5 (Sergeant), and there was no direct correlation in either regional context or civilian occupational context.

             Listed below are the cards in a poker deck along with the various names given them by respondents:








Big Boy





Suicide King*




The Man
















One-eyed Jack***










Niner from Caroliner



Eighter from Decatur

Eight, Skate, and Donate



Hockey Stick










Fours, Whores, and Moustache Growers


Devil’s Bedpost****









             *The “Suicide King” (King of Hearts) is so named because the character is holding a sword above his shoulder giving the appearance of stabbing himself in the head.

             **The depiction of the Queen as a woman with a morally casual attitude suggests a certain exclusiveness in the masculinity of the game.

             ***The “One-eyed Jack” is so named because his character is in profile, exhibiting only one eye.  Other characters exhibited in profile are known as “one-eyes”.

****The four of clubs.


There are several similarities in the naming of the cards; the implied familiarity with “face cards” suggesting anthropomorphism (Bull, Stud, Lady, Jackson, etc.), the reference to places (Decatur and Carolina), the addition of the “er” to lengthen a one syllable word to two and enhance verbalization, and the rhyming of cards (Eighter from Decatur and Fours, whores, and moustache growers).

The origins of the naming of cards in a poker deck are unclear; however, the reasons for the names are usually inherent in the card of the card’s characterization.

The Ace of Spades is shaped somewhat like a bullet and is the highest card in a poker deck, thus, “Bull”, “Bullet”, and “Big Boy” are appropriate.  It would appear that terms referring to the Ace of Spades lent themselves to all cards of the same value, obliterating the differences in suits.  An exception to this rule is the name of the Ace of Clubs, which can also be referred to as a “Puppy Foot” owing to its configuration.

The King, a decidedly masculine character, has decidedly masculine names.  “Cowboy”, “K-Boy”, “Stud”, and “The Man” all infer the King’s place as the patriarch of the poker deck.  The King is also representative of the highest male office possible; he rules the deck as the supreme characterization and while he can be beaten by an Ace, an Ace is not characterized by human form.

The Queen is often referred to in terms which would be unsavory in mixed company.  “Bitch”, “Slut”, “Whore”, and “Baby” have negative connotations that suggest the masculine dominance perceived in the game of poker.  The Queen is a welcome card in the game to be sure, and the names given her suggest she is “right at home” in a game for men in much the same way a woman of questionable morals would be welcome in a locker room.

The Jack is another masculine figure in the deck; however he is given names to indicate his youth such as “J-Boy” or “Jake”.  These names, while still indicating familiarity, are not as regal as the names given the King, the Jack’s only male counterpart in the deck.

The names of the lesser cards decline in both familiarity and number to the point of merely adding a syllable (-er) to some and excluding some from the naming process altogether.  The physical appears of a card leads to imaginative naming as in the case of the Jack (fishhook), the nine (pothook), the seven (hockey stick) and the eight (racetrack).

Notable exceptions to this lack of differentiation in names are the rhyming names given to the eight (Eighter from Decatur or Eight, Skate, and Donate) and the nine (Niner from Caroliner).  The origin of these two rhymes can be traced to the game of dice or “craps).  The most probably theory of their usage in naming poker cards is in the cross-over of gamblers from one game of chance to another, bringing with them terms common to both games.

In addition to those cards shown above, there are names given individual cards in the deck which depend entirely on their suit.  For example, the two of spades is known as the “Curse of Mexico” for unknown reasons.  The nine of diamonds is known as the “Curse of Scotland”, according to one source, because of an implied connection between the card and Mary, Queen of Scots.  When jokers are used in the game of poker they are called “Freaks” or “Bugs”.

Poker sets or “hands” share the phenomenon of naming with the individual cards themselves, often surpassing card naming in their originality and implied history.  The following list is a ranking of poker sets from the highest to the lowest with the commonly used name for the hand:








Royal Flush

10-Jack-Queen-King-Ace of the same suit

Quint Major


Straight Flush

Any numerical progression of cards in the same suit

Quint or Routine


Four Aces

Four Aces and an additional card

Four Bulls or Four of ‘em


Full House

Three cards with the same numerical value with two  cards of the same value

Full Boat or Full Barn



Five cards of the same suit

Flushed, All Blue, All Pink



A numerical progression of cards

Straighten Out or a Stringer


Three of a Kind

Three cards with the same numerical value

Trips, Gleek, Tricon


Two Pair

Two sets of two cards with the same numerical value




Two cards with the same numerical value



Ace High

An incomplete hand with an Ace



King High, etc.

An incomplete hand with a King



The unique characteristics of naming hands in a poker game are not necessarily visible when used for winning hands, rather the uniqueness comes in naming hands that consist of specific cards in the deck or in naming those hands that are not winning sets, in other words, the sets that “don’t quite make it.”

If the player hoped to have a flush, but failed by one card, he might refer to his hand as a “Toilet Flush” or a “Monkey Flush”.  The so-called “Arkansas Flush” is an incomplete flush with only four of the five cards in the same suit, giving vent to the player’s feelings concerning the State of Arkansas or possibly alluding to Arkansas’s early alliance with New Orleans as a French trade center.

Certainly hands have their own names such as the “Bicycle”, a straight with an Ace, one, two, three, four, and five.  A “Blaze Full” is a full house using only picture or “face cards”.  Four queens are often referred to as “Stenographers” again exhibiting the chauvinism inherent in the game.  A high value hand, usually consisting of Aces and “face cards” is referred to as a “Holy City” and the appearance of three Kings in a hand might tempt the player to name his hand “Ku Klux Klan” for obvious reasons.

One of the most unusual names for a hand supposedly traces its origin to Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876.  According to the survey, six respondents named a poker set consisting of Aces and eights (two pair) or Aces and eights (full house) as a “Dead man’s hand.”  The reasons given were the same:  When Wild Bill Hickock was shot and killed during a poker game, he was holding the “Dead man’s hand”.  An interesting note is the name given to cards already played in a deck—those cards are referred to as “Deadwood”.

The two basic forms of poker, straight poker and stud poker, are governed by strict rules, however players often depart from these rules in inventing games that do not fit the mold of the accepted games.  The addition of a “wild card” or joker which can be adapted to any value or suit desired by its holder is recognized as a viable deviant from poker, but there are a significant number of variants to the game which use a “wild card” or cards in their rules.

Straight poker or “draw poker” is played by dealing each participant five cards, face down.  The player looks at his cards and then places a bet on his chance of winning the hand.  After bets are made, the player may choose up to three cards in his hand for which he wishes replacements from the deck.  He then relinquishes the cards and receives a like number from the dealer.  Upon examining his new hand, bets are placed again and each player has the option to either match the bet of a previous player, “fold” or withdrawn from the round, or “raise” the bet.  Once this procedure is finished, the remaining player match hands to determine the winner.

Stud poker is played by dealing each player two cards face down and an additional card face up.  The player examines his “hole” cards and the player with the highest card showing places a bet.  The betting procedure continues around the table, again giving each player the option of matching the bet, folding his hand, or raising the bet.  This procedure is followed for the next three cards dealt face up.  The last card in the seven card hand is dealt face down and betting is done in a like fashion.  At the end of the round, players form their highest poker hand from five of the seven cards in the set, matching hands to determine the winner.  Stud poker can also be played with five cards, following much the same rules except that the last card of the five is dealt face up.

Of the variants in straight poker, the survey named twenty, including “wild card” games.  The rules listed in five of the twenty games were extremely complex (leading the surveyor to believe they were invented by respondents solely for inclusion in the survey), however, corroboration existed in fifteen of the twenty.  Those fifteen variants are listed below along with a brief description of their exclusive rules:







Deuces are wild.  The opening bettor must win or match the pot.  The game continues until there is a winner.



Fives and tens are wild.



All picture cards are wild.


No Peek or Mexican Stud

Cards are turned up one at a time by successive players until such time as the preceding hand is beaten.


Australian Poker or In The Dark

The first bet is made without players looking at their cards.


Crazy Otto

The lowest card in each player’s hand is wild.


Strip Poker

A game wherein the loser of each pot must remove one article of clothing.


Up The Creek

Split-whiskered kings are wild.


Doctor Pepper

Tens, twos, and fours are wild.



Five card draw poker.



A game wherein the host chooses a freak hand prior to the evening’s playing which will be allowed to win a pot on the first occasion of its appearance.



A hand dealt face up without a draw played for a predetermined amount.


Jacks to Open (Trips to Win)

The opening bettor must have at least a pair of Jacks (if no one has three of a kind, the game continues without a winner).


Mexican Sweat

Players are dealt five cards, one at a time, and must display their cards by holding them against their foreheads, giving other players a view of their hand.  Each player knows the other players’ hands, but does not know his own.


Deuces and one-eyed Jacks

Twos and one-eyed Jacks are wild.


             The names for the variations listed above, for the most part, are self-explanatory.  “Woolworth” is a game wherein fives and tens are wild and Woolworths’ was originally a 5¢ and 10¢ store, “Rembrandt” is a game wherein all “face” cards are wild and Rembrandt is most renowned for his portraits.  There is nothing too difficult in deciphering the origins of the names from some of these variations, but games such as “Mexican Sweat” with its wildly original rules defy classification.  One can only guess at their origins.

             Of course, players are free to choose from the 52 cards in the poker deck to call “wild card” games such as “Deuces Wild” or “Suicide Kings” wild, but rarely do players call games that do not fit into the pattern above.  For example, a player calling for a game in which sixes were the wild card would most likely be laughed from the table.

             Although the rules for stud poker appear to be somewhat more complex than those in straight poker, twenty-two variations on stud poker were reported in the survey, including three five-card stuff variations.  The vast majority included “wild cards” in the rules as is shown in the following list of sixteen games reported:









The last card is dealt face up as opposed to face down for true stud poker.


Low Hole, Roll Your Own

The first three cards are dealt face down and the player may choose which card to turn face up, leaving the lowest card dealt face down as a wild card.


Heinz 57

Fives and sevens are wild.


Betty Hutton

Nines and fives are wild.


Double Mac

Any card dealt face up is wild if it matches a like card dealt face down.  If a player matches a card that is dealt face up with another card dealt face up, he matches the pot or folds.


Boo-Rah or Boo-Ray

Players are dealt seven cards face down, arranging five of them in any order.  The cards are turned up one at a time by all players and then bets are made.  All players betting and losing on the last card must match the pot.



The highest spade in any hand splits the pot with the winner.


Follow The Queen

The wild card is determined by whichever card is dealt after a Queen.


Tennessee Hold Me

Two cards are dealt to each player face down and five cards are dealt in the center of the table face up for everyone’s use in their hand.



Two cards are dealt to each player face down and five cards are dealt in the center of the table, one at a time, face up for everyone’s use.


Pass The Trash

Seven cards are dealt face down to each player.  Three cards are then passed to the player’s left, followed by two cards and then by one.  Players form their best five cards from these and then play in a manner similar to “Boo-Rah” listed above.


Pa Ferguson

Five card stuff poker with the high card on the table wild along with all others like it.


Ma Ferguson

Five card stuff poker with the low card on the table wild along with all others like it.


Northern Flight

All hearts are wild unless there is a spade in the hand.


Down The River and Peek Poker

Seven card stud.


Little Mac

Five card stud with rules similar to “Double Mac” above.


Of the variations listed, sources indicate a variety of origins for the names used; “Heinz 57” has fives and sevens wild, named, or course, for the company with 57 varieties.  “Boo-Rah” is named as it is because is a player loses, he expresses dissatisfaction (Boo!) and if he wins, satisfaction (Rah!)  The game of “Chicago” appears to have racially prejudicial origins:  Chicago has a disproportionate number of blacks in the population.

             While some of the names of variations are easily traced, others have ambiguous origins.  For example, “Pa and Ma Ferguson” appears to have an ethnic origin, but the exact reason for the name is unclear.  “Tennessee Hold Me” points to origins in the Volunteer State and yet the game, with a slight deviation, is also known as “Omaha” or “Texas Hold ‘Em”.

             One respondent to the survey listed a variation called “V8 Ford Special”, wherein five cards are dealt to each player and eight cards are placed on the table in a “V” formation.  One side of the V is played for high and one side for low.  Originally, this variation was considered an invention, provided for the personal amusement of the respondent in answering the survey, but further research and interview proved that this variation does indeed exist and is played in Detroit, Michigan with regularity.

             While the majority of folklore surrounding the game of poker concerns the naming of cards, sets, and games, poker players have also devised a system of code words for actions normally occurring in the course of a game.  The survey results indicated upwards of 100 code words and some of the more colorful are provided in the following list:







A tight or stingy player.

Gut Shot

When a draw hits an inside straight.


One dollar of one hundred dollars.


A tight, winning player.

Bump You or Back At You

A raise.


To check a bet by rapping the table.


To lose a hand.

Close to the Chest

To play tightly.

Come Card

Any card needed to complete a winning set.

Rat Hole

A shirt pocket.

Go in the Dark

To bet without looking at the cards.


The pull out one’s wallet.

Down and Dirty

The final card in seven card stud.

Feed the Money

The bet foolishly.


The discards.


To bet without money.

Pot’s Light

The ante was not sufficient.


A bettor with high cards.


Accepted rules for variations.


An unlucky player.


A winning hand without wild cards.

Automatic Winner

A worthless hand.

Pat Hand

A winning hand without a draw.

Penny Ante or Nickel-Dime

A low stakes game.

Play on Paper

Betting on credit.


An easy player or sucker.

Free Ride

A round without betting.


Checking in order to raise the pot.

Split Pot

A pot divided between winning players.


A completed hand, good or bad.


Add more money to the pot.


A player who fails to pay his debts.

Under the Gun

The position of the first bettor.

On a Roll

A winning streak.



             As is evident from the vast number of code words, the folk speech of poker, coupled with the frequent profanity could possible convince the uninitiated they were in a foreign country.

             Once again, there is nothing too complicated about recognizing the origins of most of these code words; in fact, some have found their way into common usage exclusive of the game of poker.  To be “burned” is to lose or be swindled; a “natural” is usually a person adept at some specific task just as a “natural” hand is usually a winner.  “Penny-ante”, in ordinary usage, means cheap or inexpensive and a “pigeon” is an easy mark, playing poker or not.

             The oral folklore associated with the game of poker encompasses a large number of specific sub-types.  The game includes examples of naming, rhymes, folk poetry, legends, and folktales.  In addition, there are a number of instances of customary folklore in the game of poker, but the most prevalent is superstition.

             Some players, to change their luck, will rise and walk around their chair three times.  Some will leave the game for a period of time and then return.  Some have specific positions at the table and will not play if the position is occupied by another player, and most players feel that placing winnings in one’s pocket (“rat-holing”) before the end of the game will cause them to lose.

             The superstitions associated with the game of poker appear to defy pin-point classification in Hand’s system; rather, they classify in a number of categories.  The fourth category, that of economic and social relations, applies since the game of poker is actually a business operated for the main purpose of earning money and yet category nine, cosmic phenomenon (times, numbers, and seasons) would also seem to be applicable since there is a specific number of times the player must walk around his chair and a specific seat he must have to win.

             Overall, the game of poker is riddled with folklore, both oral and customary.  The limited survey presented herein provided a vast amount of folklore concerning the game but has only scratched the surface of the subculture or context of poker players.  In closing, I offer the comment included by one respondent to the request for poker legends:

             “I don’t know any.  I just like to run them.”



BELL, L. Michael.  “Cokelore,” Readings in American Folklore, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand.  New York:  W.W. North and Co., 1979.


BRUNVAND, Jan Harold.  The Study of American Folklore.  2nd ed.  New York:  W.W. North and Co., 1978, 1968.


COFFIN, George Sturgis.  The Official Laws of Poker.  Baltimore:  Ottenhemer, 1978.


COTTON, John W., DUNCAN, Carl P., SPENCE, Janet T., and UNDERWOOD, Benton J.  Elementary Statistics.  New York:  The Meredith Corporation 1968.


DOWLING, Allen Nicholas.  Confessions of a Poker Player.  New York:  I. Washburn, Inc., 1940.


DUNDES, Alan.  Analytic Essays in Folklore.  The Hague and Paris:  Mouton, 1975.


DUNNINGER, Joseph.  Dunninger’s Book of Magic.  New York:  Bonanza Books, 1974.


JACOBY, O., et al.  The Fireside Book of Cards.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1957.


JACOBY, Oswald.  Winning Poker.  New York:  Perma-Books, 1940.


WILSON, William A.  “Folklore and History:  Fact Amid the Legends,” Readings in American Folklore, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand.  New York:  W.W. North and Co., 1979.