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Top 5 Card and Poker Idioms in Everyday Life

Card games in general and poker, in particular, are well spread around the world with people playing them at casinos as much as at private parties. Perhaps that would explain the many game variations there are today. Similarly, there are quite a number of phrases lent to colloquial English. From "poker face" through "raise the stakes" to "all bets are off" – we all seem to use idioms inspired by poker and card games and often we don't even know where they came from. We aren't going to list all of them but we've got the top 5 ones for you and a few more as a bonus.
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#5 Play One’s Cards Right

This phrase is quite straightforward and its literal and figurative meanings are rather similar. If playing your cards right in poker would lead to a positive outcome, playing your cards right in life would ensure that a situation becomes beneficial to you. So, it actually means that you make the best out of your opportunities or manage to negotiate correctly and end up getting the best results possible.

Example: She was in a pretty pickle at work, yet she played her cards right. So, she was not fired for incompetence but got a paid vacation to the Bahamas instead.

#4 Wild Card

In a game, a wild card can represent any card the player chooses. Similarly, in computing, the phrase is used to replace an unknown character and that’s very often pictured as an asterisk. It figurative sense, however, was born in the mid-19th century and refers to an unpredictable person or event. If something is a wild card, you shouldn’t count on it, in a way we could say the bets are off.

Example: Don’t count on Mandy for coming to the office party. She’s a wild card.

#3 Raise the Stakes

House of Cards and Other Idioms in English While it is fairly easy to understand what this phrase means in poker, when it comes to everyday speech the task is not so simple. The Free Dictionary actually gives not one but two possible meanings. On the one hand, it means “to increase in importance or danger”. On the other hand, it is synonymous to the phrase “to increase one’s commitment or involvement.” Anyway, raising the stake implies both the chance to win more but also to lose more. Two similar idioms are “raise the ante” and “up the ante”.

Example: She was looking forward to a quiet romantic evening with her boyfriend, but he raised the stakes by taking her to her favourite restaurant and proposing.

#2 Follow Suit

Originally, “to follow suit” meant to play a card of the same suit as the last player before you. However, the phrase has taken quite a leap from there and now has a more general meaning. It is used when someone does as the others have just done, when they imitate, follow the same pattern or follow someone else’s example.

Example: The boy jumped out of the window and a few other students followed suit as a couple of teachers watched by helplessly.

#1 House of Cards

This idiom is used to describe a plan or an organisation which has a very unstable structure and can be destroyed easily. Some etymological sources claim that it was first used in the figurative sense by John Milton, dating back to the 1640s. It is very popular today, indeed, and you might have seen or heard of the hit TV series bearing the same name and dealing with political drama. Without even reading the plot of the series, one can get a pretty good idea what it will be about just because of the choice of such a telling idiom for a title.

Example: The boss was unaware that the house of cards he called a company could come crashing down in a matter of days.

Honourable Mentions

Though the following didn’t make it into our top 10 of most wide spread idioms taken from poker, we strongly believe that it would be fun to have a look at them and think about where they came from into everyday English. These are also quite common, albeit not as common as the ones we have already ranked. This time, we’ve ordered the idioms starting with the most popular one and moving towards the least popular one.

  • Within an Ace Of – To come within an ace of doing something means to be very close to something or to be close to doing something you are trying to do. Allegedly, the phrase dates back to the 18th century and the link to card playing is obvious.
  • Raw Deal – It refers to a situation in which one is treated unfairly or otherwise badly. This one is quite popular perhaps due to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie with the same name. Ironically, that movie was a failure according to the critics.
  • Poker Face – If you’re wearing your poker face, it means you’re showing no feelings, i.e. you’re having a completely neutral facial expression which shows no emotions. Search for this expression and you’ll come across (too) many examples of Lady Gaga’s hit song that popularised the phrase to non-native speakers around the world.
  • Lost in the Shuffle – To be or get lost in the shuffle means for someone to be overlooked or missed in a crowded or otherwise complicated situation. The figurative meaning of this one follows closely the literal one.
  • All Bets Are Off – It means that the outcome of a situation or event is unpredictable. It stems from the idea that there have been some unexpected changes and since the situation is uncertain no one would take any bets, hence they’re off the table.
  • Lay One’s Cards on the Table – It means to be completely honest and open about one’s intentions and just lay them out for everyone to see. At poker, laying your cards out on the table is the ultimate way of displaying what you’ve got. At that point, there’s no bluffing.
  • Cash In One’s Chips – While cashing in one’s chips has a very positive connotation – it means you’ve had enough of the gambling and you’re ready to take your winnings – the figurative meaning of the phrase is much more macabre. It highlights the finality of the situation, emphasizing the end of gaming, or in a figurative sense – life. It means to die, to pass away.

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