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Casino Phrases You Don’t Know You’re Using

April 29, 2022

Whether you are entering a gigantic casino resort in Las Vegas or Macau or playing in your own home, the casino has a unique language developed over centuries. In fact, that language has spread to everyday life. The expressions we use for winning, losing, luck, and even sanity and death reflect the casino games we play.

But I don’t use casino expressions

If this is your answer, you might be telling the truth about how you speak. But it sounds like you might be playing your cards close to your chest. Perhaps you are one of the rare wild cards who really doesn’t use any casino-based idioms, but odds are you’re lying – or perhaps you’re a few cards short of a full deck.

So let’s lay our cards on the table – when it comes to day-to-day phrases and idioms, casinos have supplied more than their fair share. When life is going well, you’re on a roll. When it goes really well, you’ve hit the jackpot. Maybe you even broke the bank.

Of course, if luck isn’t on your side then you might be facing a crapshoot. Really, it’s all in the luck of the draw and you have to let the chips fall where they may. Don’t like it? No dice. Sometimes the chips are down and all bets are off – you have to bet your bottom dollar and go for broke.

What’s your lucky number?

Casino games are naturally associated with numerical superstitions. The “lucky number seven” belief dates back millennia, but there’s a reason you’ll find it as a winning number in craps or emblazoned upon a slot’s jackpot reels. For similar reasons, try betting 13 next time you’re at a roulette table. You’ll find you’re unlikely to be splitting the win with any superstitious punters!

In fact, many other numbers are lucky or unlucky depending on your nationality and culture. Three is lucky in Sweden and Italy, unlucky in Vietnam and Japan. Four is lucky in Germany, unlucky in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Nine is lucky in Norway, unlucky in Japan. Seventeen is lucky in Italy.

Casino expressions and phrases from roulette

French mathematician Blaise Pascal invented roulette in a quest to build a perpetual motion machine. This failed, but it led to the game’s nearly frictionless spinning wheel. In fact, roulette means “little wheel” in French. A similar Old English game gave us a word we still use today: Roly Poly.

Roulette of course also lent its name to the infamous game Russian Roulette. Though of course it is neither a game, nor roulette, nor Russian. The practice involves putting a bullet in a revolver, spinning the chamber (like a roulette wheel), and pulling the trigger. A few nineteenth century Russian novels described the stunt, and a myth developed after World War I about reckless (or ruthless) Russian military officers who supposedly tried it.

For the few reliably recorded incidents of people playing Russian Roulette, it has gained enormous fame in novels, movies, and other depictions of war. Mostly, the expression thrives in popular culture as a metaphor for the cruelty of fate.

Casino expressions and phrases from blackjack

The game now called blackjack or 21 has been played under different rules and names for more than 600 years. Written references to a Spanish game trente-un (31) date back as far as 1440.

Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, generally described the rules in a 1613 novel. Variations in other countries included quinze in France, ventiuna in Spain, sette e mezzo in Italy, and bone ace in England. (Bone ace may have been the first game to value aces as either one or eleven.)

The dominant game among these variations became vingt-et-un (21), which flourished in France at the beginning of the 19th century in part because of the interest by Napoleon Bonaparte. In the early 20th century, some American establishments tried to boost the popularity of 21 by paying players a tenfold bonus for a natural 21 with the jack of spades. The name stuck even though the bonus did not.

Casino expressions and phrases from craps

In many languages, craps is simply known as “dice” or “dice game”. From dado (Spanish) to Würfelspiel (German), kosci (Polish), zaruri (Romanian) and more. Like many casino games, its origins and etymology is vague and disputed. A dice game from the Arab Peninsula, azzahr, became popular as hazard in England. The lowest dice roll was called crabs. Other histories suggest the name came from the French crapaud (toad) because it was played on streets and sidewalks. The players squatting to reach the dice resembled a group of toads.

Rolling the bones is a casino rite of passage. The oldest gaming pieces found by archaeologists are dice. Ancient dice were made from a sheep’s astragalus (the bone above the talus or heel bone, also called the hucklebone). The earliest six-sided dice unearthed in Mesopotamia (northern Iraq) date from 3000 B.C. Ever wondered why dice are marked with pips instead of numerals? It’s because the standardisation of symbols on dice predates our modern Arabic numbers.

Life after death: expressions from forgotten games

Much like how the obsolete floppy disk remains the universal icon for saving data, many expressions and phrases have long outlived their origins. Faro is one such example: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was one of the most popular games in the United States.

Faro is now a forgotten game. However, numerous common expressions stem from this game: breaking even, stringing along, casing the joint, punters, keeping tabs and many more idioms come from Faro.

Other durable expressions originated from games few casino players would recognise: left in the lurch (from the French board game Lourche or Lurch), rigmarole (from the medieval game Rigmarole), riffraff (also from the game Rigmarole and similar games), hazard (from the game Hazard).

Titbit: into the lion’s den

When the MGM Grand opened in Las Vegas in 1993, it designed the main entrance of the casino as a large golden lion’s head. The MGM logo is a roaring lion, so of course this made all the sense in the world.

Unfortunately, the image of players literally throwing themselves into the lion’s jaws, compounded by an old superstition that entering the casino via the main entrance is bad luck, and an Asian belief regarding cats as unlucky forced them to redesign the entrance five years later.