How Slang from the Wild West Influenced Gambling Terminology

3D rendering of an old Western town saloon.

Gambling terms and phrases are part of our everyday vocabulary. You don’t have to play casino games to understand the meaning of expressions like “take a chance,” “poker face,” or “showdown.” But where did these phrases come from in the first place? It turns out that a great many of them are old Western slang words from the days of the Wild West. 

Take the word “gamble” itself, for example. Once upon a time, it meant “a risky venture” of any kind, but by 1879, card players in frontier saloons were using it to refer specifically to the act of gambling as we know it now. It’s incredible to think that some of the players who gamble in the online poker rooms of today are influenced by the slang of those tough old-timers! Let’s delve further into the fascinating history of Wild West gambling slang.

From gold nuggets to casino chips

If you’ve ever played online casino games or one of the poker variants like Texas Hold’em games, you’ll be familiar with casino chips – the counters or tokens that represent the money players risk when they place bets in a game of chance. The original chips, though, looked quite different. They were first used in the Wild West by faro players, faro being the most popular card game at the time. Basically, players would bet against the banker on the order in which the cards would appear. To place their bets, they used various items referred to as “chips.” Originally, these chips could be any small, valuable object, from nuggets of gold or silver to coins and paper money, and gambling venues had to introduce standardized rules in an effort to reduce chaos.

The cheaper saloons used tokens made of paper and shellac, while the classier establishments had their own special tokens made of ivory or bone. Despite these attempts to standardize chip values, tempers still flared when the “chips were down!” 

High-tension games at the casino table were hardly surprising when you consider that some of the Wild West’s most colorful and legendary characters frequented the faro tables. Think of names such as Wild Bill Hickock and John Henry “Doc” Holliday, who ran a faro bank at Alhambra Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona. His faro dealer? The one and only Wyatt Earp, a gambler and lawman who was present when more than one outlaw “cashed in his chips.”

Legends of poker

Standard round casino chips started appearing in the 1880s, around about the time that faro started losing its popularity in favor of one of the best casino games ever to appear: Poker. One of the most popular live dealer games online, poker is also the source of a longer list of gambling terms than any other casino game. It’s the most popular casino game in the world, thanks to straightforward rules, short rounds and entertaining gameplay.

The name of the game itself is a product of old West gambling, spreading from New Orleans along the Mississippi to the saloons and dives of mining camps and frontier towns. If you’ve played casino poker games before, you’ll know about face cards, straights and full houses and you’ll understand the importance of “keeping a poker face” to bluff when you “up the ante” on the way to the “final showdown!” These poker terms all come straight from those rough-and-ready frontier days and they remain highly relevant in live poker and online poker today. 

Gambling terms and phrases that players tend to use less often include “dead man’s hand” – for a poker hand including two aces, two 8s and any other card – based on the hand the aforementioned Wild Bill was holding when Jack McCall gunned him down back in 1876. There’s also “Calamity Jane” for the queen of spades and “four-flusher” for a cheater or sneak. Meanwhile, one term that’s passed from the felt into general use is “pass the buck.” In Wild West days, a “buck” was a bone-handled knife used to keep track of the action during casino poker games. A player who wanted to pass the deal would literally pass the buck to the next player. Now, of course, the expression refers to shifting responsibility onto somebody else.

Top view of a table with playing cards showing a ‘dead man’s hand,’ a glass containing a drink and a colt revolver.

The story behind craps

Poker phrases aside, there are many casino dice game terms that can also be traced back to the Wild West. Possibly the most important of all is “craps.” It’s the world’s most popular dice game and you can play it in a live casino online as well as at many well-known land-based casinos. 

Like poker, American-style craps started off in Louisiana. The strange name comes from the old Cajun French word “craps,” which was derived from “crabs,” the British slang term for the worst dice throws. Why “crabs” should refer to the numbers two and three is anybody’s guess, but it’s unlikely that anyone in the Wild West cared all that much. What they were concerned about was the possibility that they’d “crap out” with a losing throw of two, three or 12. This slang first appeared in 1835, a few decades before the first use of “high roller,” meaning extravagant spender. Maybe the high rollers had to make their fortunes first before placing wagers on craps! Today, of course, high rollers turn up at gaming tables of every kind, whether you’re playing online or at a brick-and-mortar establishment.

How blackjack got its name

Another one of the most popular casino table games in any land-based or online casino is blackjack. High rollers and beginners alike enjoy this simple yet satisfying game of chance and skill, with the aim being to become the last player standing. The story of how blackjack got its name is a true legend of the Wild West, tied to the history of the Klondike gold miners. 

Before the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–1899, the card game was known as “Vingt-Un,” or “Twenty-One.” The way the Klondike miners played, the story goes, is that you got a special 10:1 bonus if you played the ace of spades plus a jack of clubs or spades (a “black jack.”) Eventually, the bonus fell away, but the name stuck and gained popularity rapidly. 

Clearly, old Western slang words for casino games were right on the money as far as descriptive terms go. The classic terminology of the game was also forged in those times and you still have to choose to “hit,” “stand,” or “fold” nowadays, regardless of whether you play blackjack in an online casino or at a land-based table.

Jokers and jackpots

Life in the Wild West was never certain. A harsh climate and an unforgiving environment meant that no matter how carefully you prepared for a situation, you always had to watch out for the joker in the pack. This colorful fellow was first mentioned with reference to poker back in 1868. Also known as the wild card, the joker could be substituted for any other card in a standard deck. 

The joker introduced an element of chaos into the game. Players never knew when a joker might show up and it always disrupted the flow of the game when it did turn up. Today’s casino poker games and online poker tournaments usually don’t feature jokers or wild cards as such, but you can still encounter them in a different form if you play online casino slots. The wild symbols on the reels? They have exactly the same function as jokers did in an old West casino game.

Another connection between poker and slots is the “jackpot,” originally a poker term from 1881 referring to a series of antes that resulted when no player’s opening hand contained two jacks or better. These antes meant a big pot for the eventual winner, but it all depended on a lack of strong opening hands across the table. Today a jackpot simply means any big win – and you’d be very lucky if you got it!

Bank on finding the best casino games at Borgata Online

Gambling has moved on a long way from the dangerous days of the Wild West. Old Western slang remains as relevant as ever, but today you can play casino games without worrying about being gouged by swindlers or cleaned out by tinhorn gamblers! Sign up with us to play a broad range of premium online casino games in a safe, responsible environment. The deck is never stacked at Borgata Online, you can bank on that!