Poker Idioms

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Often, the best way to learn is through direct experience; witnessing a true application of an idea. Let’s teach some idioms starting with their original application, then see what we can derive from that.

Place students in groups of four to seven and have them play poker with one another. Ideally, each group will have at least one person who already knows how to play. Alternately, you can play with one group as you teach the rules while everyone else watches, then switch out players after each round. Betting is important for this, so you should provide each player with a number of chips to start with (note that we do not condone gambling with real money).

You can play whichever variant you prefer, or whichever your students are already familiar with. You may need to teach the rules to some or all of them, and I’ll let you figure that out for yourself, but what we’ll focus on in this article is the terminology. After you’ve played a few rounds and the students have gotten comfortable with it, start explaining whatever terms you haven’t covered already in the rules, and hopefully as situations arise, you’ll have opportunities to demonstrate the terms.

Poker Terminology

Beyond the basics like ‘cards’ and ‘deal’ and specific cards like ‘ace’ and ‘jack’, here are some terms to define for your students:

  • deal - to pass out the appropriate number of cards to the players

  • hand - the cards a player currently possesses and controls

    • hole - the collection of cards in one’s hand that are not revealed to the rest of the players (in some variations, certain cards in your hand are revealed)

  • fold - give up for that round

  • bet - to submit money in the hopes of gaining more money if you win the round; if you lose the round, you also lose the money you bet

    • check - to bet nothing

    • raise - to bet more than the person before you bet

    • call - to bet as much as the person before you bet

    • pot - the total money collected from every players’ bets during the round

    • stakes - the initial amount that each player must bet in order to participate in a round

    • bluff - a large amount of money bet when the cards in the better’s hand are very likely not good enough to win

It’s also good to teach the plays one can make, such as a ‘full house’ or a ‘flush’, and there may be other terms you’d like to share with them. You can find more definitions elsewhere if you need to, but we simply wanted to cover the terms that would be relevant for our idioms.

Poker Expressions

When you’re finished playing, take some time to cover some common expressions. For each expression or group of expressions, talk about the literal meaning within a game of poker. Then ask your students what that same sentiment would mean outside of the poker context (you may want to have some example situations ready). Students should be able to see how the idea is the same in other applications, even if it isn’t literal anymore.


  • have an ace in the hole - have an advantage that others don’t know about

  • have an ace up one’s sleeve - have an advantage that others don’t know about, except that this one is illegitimate

  • hold all the aces - have all the advantages


  • dealt a bad hand - be placed in a bad situation through no fault of one’s own

  • play the hand you’re dealt - do the best you can with whatever situation or resources are available to you, even if they aren’t very good

  • know when to fold - accept that things are not going well for you and remove yourself from a situation before things get even worse; similar to ‘cut your losses’


  • play your cards right - out of various opportunities, act on the one(s) that will end in the best outcome

  • overplay your hand - act as if you are in a better situation or have more of an advantage than is true; often, you’re in a good position, but acting in overconfidence lead you to lose a lot instead of gaining a little


  • put your cards on the table - reveal to everyone (purposefully) what your situation is (what resources, advantages, and disadvantages you have)

  • show your hand - reveal to someone what your situation is; this is often accidental

  • play close to the chest - be careful not to reveal your situation to anyone


  • poker face - a way in which you compose yourself so that no one can tell what you’re truly thinking

  • call one’s bluff - to take a chance on the belief that your opponent has risked too much and is less likely to benefit from taking that same chance; commonly, this expression can mean more simply to accuse someone of being deceitful


  • raise the stakes - to make the baseline cost of taking a risk greater, often done to encourage those involved to put forth greater effort in order to win

  • sweeten the pot - to increase the potential for gain, again to encourage others to invest more themselves


  • all bets are off - when a situation reaches a point of great uncertainty

  • wild card - any type of factor that is unknown to others, or sometimes to everyone; often, the wild card has a significant impact on the outcome

Approach Grammar Differently



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