How the Irish Invented American Gambling Slang
The Sanas (Irish
Etymology) of Faro, Poker and the Secret Flash Words for the
Brotherhood of American Gamblers
By DANIEL CASSIDY
The Irish... gave American, indeed, very few new words; perhaps speakeasy, shillelah and smithereens exhaust the list."
- H.L. Mencken, 1937.
A Dictionary of Hiberno-English,...corroborates the well-known but
puzzling fact that so few Irish words have been absorbed into
- Terence Patrick Dolan, 1999
"There's A Sucker (Sách úr, fresh new "fat cat")
Born Every Minute,"
- Mike McDonald, 1839 - 1907
The Irish language in America is a lost,
living tongue, hidden beneath quirky (corr-chaoí,
odd-mannered, odd-shaped) phonetic orthographic overcoats and
mangled American pronunciations. Irish words and phrases are
scattered all across American language, regional and class dialects,
colloquialism, slang, and specialized jargons like gambling,
in the same way Irish-Americans have been scattered across the
crossroads of North America for five hundred years.
Irish was transformed by English
cultural imperialism from the first literate vernacular of Europe
in the 5th century, into the underworld cant (caint,
speech) of thieves and "vagaboundes" in the 16th century,
and then into the countless number of anonymous Irish words and
phrases in American Standard English, vernacular, slang, and
popular speech today .
From the early 19th century
to the mid-twentieth century, Irish-Americans played a key role
in the development of professional gambling and casinos in the
United States. With a potent political base made up of millions
of Irish immigrants and their American-born children, in cities
as geographically scattered as New Orleans, Chicago, New York,
Boston, Hot Springs, Dallas, and San Francisco, Irish Americans
built powerful urban political machines fueled by the huge cash
flow generated by the gambling underworld.
There were sure-thing tricksters
and professional gamblers of all nationalities from the earliest
days of the American Republic. French, Scottish, English, and
Creole gamblers and gambling syndicates were augmented in the
late 19th century by waves of impoverished southern Italians
and Sicilians, as well as Jews from the shetls of Eastern Europe
and Russia. But from the early 1800s until the 1930s, Irish urban
street gangs, and the political machines that grew out of them,
controlled the tiger's share of the profits from illegal gambling
in the United States.
Irish-American big shots
Price McGrath, Jimmy Fitzgerald, and Pat Herne were the leading
faro bankers in the wide open city of New Orleans in the
first decades of the 19th century. When the political "fix"
curdled in the "Big Easy" in 1830, clans of
sure thing tricksters fled up the Mississippi River and scattered
to a hundred towns and cities. Price McGrath opened up a Faro
"rug joint" in New York City, at 5 West 24th street,
with former heavyweight boxing champion, John Morrissey, as a
partner. The two men couldn't have been more different: McGrath
was a sporty swell (sóúil, sóghamhail,
comfortable, prosperous, rich) and Morrisey a world-class
slugger (slacaire, a mauler, a bruiser), but they
both spoke the same language.
Secret Flash Words of the Secret Brotherhood of Gamblers
In the 1840s, a former professional
gambler, faro mechanic, and card sharp, Jonathan Harrington
Green, announced in the press that he had become a born-again
evangelical Christian, whose new mission in life was exposing
the scams ('s cam) and gimmicks (camóg,
a crooked device, a trick) of a vast, secret "brotherhood
of gamblers," ruled by a mysterious underground, hierarchy
of "Grand Masters." Like all successful con men, Jonathan
Harrington Green was a master of the ballyhoo (bailiú,
[act of] gathering a crowd) and took his slick (slíocach,
cunning, sleek) spiel (speal, sharp, cutting,
satiric speech) on the road, adding some pizzazz to his born-again
baloney (béal ónna, pron.
bail owny, silly talk), with fancy card tricks and elaborate
demonstrations of ingenious cheating devices, for overflow audiences
of zealous Christian reformers and middle-class curiosity seekers.
In two best-selling autobiographical
books, Green claimed that this brotherhood of faro tricksters
even communicated in a secret language. The few examples Green
gave of this underworld lingo of "the Brethren" were,
in fact, neither "flash" nor "secret," but
the American-English phonetic spelling of fairly common Irish
In a chapter entitled "Flash
Words of the Secret Brotherhood of Gamblers," Green wrote:
"The Grand Master shall be fully invested with power to
give out the following catalogue of useful flash words.
The six words of quality are highly beneficial in conversation,
and must, in all cases, be used when one is present who is not
known to be a member. By this means can be found out strange
Brethren, who are ever ready for any sound so familiar to their
own ears." (Jonathan Harrington Green, The Secret Band
of Brothers, NY, 1841, pp. 107-113)
Below is a list of the Gambling
Brotherhood's so-called secret words, spelled first in Green's
phonetic English and then in Irish, with matching definitions.
It is not surprising that the Irish gambler's secret cant was
as Gaelic as the gamblers themselves.
Huska, good, bold, intrepid.
Oscar (pron. h-uscar), a champion or hero;
a bold intrepid hero. Oscartha (pron. h-uscarha),
martial, heroic, strong, powerful; nimble.
Cady, a highway man.
Gadaí (pron. gady), a thief, a robber.
Gadaí bóthair, a highway man.
Modh (pron. moh), mode of employment.
Caugh, quarrelsome, treacherous.
Cath (pron. cah), battle, fight, conflict.
Cathaitheoir (pron. cauhoir), a mischief-maker.
Cully, a pal, a confederate, a fellow thief.
Cullaidhe (pron. cully), companion, an associate, a comrade,
a partner. (Dineen, p. 279)
Gaugh: manner of speech
Guth (pron guh): voice, manner of speech.
Glim: A light.
Gealaim (pron. galim): I light or brighten.
Geister: An extra thief.
Gastaire: A tricky cunning fellow; a person with artifice,
In fact, Jonathan Green was
no huska (oscar, hero) of Christian rectitude,
but a caugh (cath, pron. cah, quarrelsome)
geister (gastaire, a tricky cunning fellow; a thief),
whose new maugh (modh, pron. moh, profession)
involved a smooth gaugh (guth, pron, guh,
manner of speech). "Doc" Greene put the glim (gealim,
I light) on his former cullys (cullaidhe, pron.
cully, companion, associate, comrade[s]) and cronies (comh-roghna,
pron. cuh-rony, fellow- favorites, mutual-sweethearts),
while keeping it off of himself. Green's secret lexicon demonstrates
the early pervasive influence of the Irish language on the argot
of American gamblers,-- a fact as secret today as it was in the
Irish-American Big "Shot"
Seód, séad, seád, pron.
shot, a jewel; fig. often a chief, a warrior, a powerful
person, Dwelly, p. 808)
The Ard Rí (High-King)
of Faro and professional gambling in America after the Civil
War was the head Dead Rabbit (ráibéad,
a hulking person, a big galoot) of the Five Points, former World
Heavyweight Boxing Champ, Congressman, and Tammany Hall Big Shot,
John Morrissey, who owned the swank (somhaoineach, valuable,
wealthy) gambling casino, 18 Barclay Street, near The
New York Stock Exchange, where he plucked only the fattest
suckers: bankers, stock brokers, and merchants. But the jewel
in "Old Smoke" Morrissey's Big Shot crown was
Saratoga, in upstate New York, where he founded the world-famous
racetrack and gambling casino in the early 1870s -- at the dawn
of the Gilded Age. (6)
In the 1880s, Mike McDonald
was King of Slab (Mud) Town's gamblers and popularized
the famous aphorism "there's a sucker born every
minute." McDonald reigned over Chicago's faro dealers,
grifters (grafadóir), and crooked gambling joints,
with the aid of ward heelers (éilitheoir, a claimsman,
a friendly petitioner) Silver Bill Riley and Big Jim O'Leary,
until the old geezer's (gaosach, gaosmhar, pron.
geesar, a wise person or "wiseguy") middle-aged wife
ran off to Europe with a handsome young priest. King Mike converted
to Protestantism, got divorced, and shacked up with a
showgirl half his age. The world-class big shot had turned
into a world-class sucker and became the proof of his
own axiom. Mike McDonald was succeeded by the master grafter
(grafadóir, grubber, scrounger, raker) and legendary
diminutive boss of Chicago's wide open First Ward and its infamous
Levee District, "Hinky Dink" Kenna, and his
hulking, dapper partner, "Bathhouse" John Coughlin.
Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John ruled over Chicago's underworld
for more than three decades with iron hands that were always
From his bailiwick (baile
aíoch, hospitable home, friendly locale) on
New York City's Bowery, Big Tim Sullivan, the High-King of the
Tammany Ward heelers, replaced "Old Smoke" Morrissey
as the "Big Shot" of New York's underworld from
the 1880s to the first decades of the 20th century. Whether five-cent
"Policy" (pá lae sámh,
pron. paah lay seeh, easy pay day) banks, floating crap
games in the East Side tenement districts, or uptown "rug
joints" and snazzy Faro palaces a short block
(bealach, pron. balock, a path, a road) from
Wall Street, the Sullivan Machine controlled New York City gambling.
The teetotal Big Tim was a degenerate gambler himself, losing
vast amounts of dough during his lifetime. (8)
The first decades of the 20th
century saw the rise of New York City's powerful Gopher (Comhbhá,
pron. cofa, Alliance) Gang and its leader Owney "the
Killer" Madden. In the decades leading up to Prohibition,
Madden took a motley crew of Hell's Kitchen Irish street gangs
and transformed them into a West Side alliance that became an
international underworld corporation. With the end of Prohibition
and the defeat of the Irish bootleg racketeers (racadóir,
a dealer, a seller, a sportive character) in The War Between
the Guineas and the Micks Madden "retired"
and married the postmaster's daughter in Hot Springs, Arkansas,
once controlled by the Flynn brother's southern-Irish political
machine. Owney "the Killer" became Owney "the
Businessman" and managed his considerable assets in bookmaking
operations, wire services, and racetracks, throughout the Northeast
and the South, until his death in "Bubbles" (Hot Springs)
In January, 1947, Benny Binion,
an illiterate Irish-American road gambler, policy wheel
operator, dice "fader," and triggerman -- who had been
a top player in Texas gambling and political circles for more
than two decades decided it was high time to boogaloo.
The Fix had shifted in Dallas and the Chicago mob and Jack Ruby
had invaded Binion's old turf. Benny went on the lam (léim,
jump), scramming to Vegas with two million dollars
in the trunk of his maroon Cadillac. Benny Binion opened up the
Horseshoe Casino in 1951, with Meyer Lansky as a silent partner,
and in 1970 founded The World Series of Poker.
He remained a major figure in Las Vegas until his death
at the age of eighty-five in 1989.
But while it may have been
Irish Americans like Price McGrath, "Old Smoke" Morrisey,
King Mike McDonald, Hinky Dink Kenna, and Big Tim Sullivan who
laid the foundation for today's multi-billion dollar American
gaming industry, the foundation itself was the now-forgotten
gambling game called Faro.
(etymology, secret knowledge) of Faro
Conventional wisdom on the
history of the banking card game of Faro is that it was derived
from the Italian card game Bassetta and first appeared
in France sometime in the 17th century under the mysterious name
of "Pharaon," where it was transformed into
a fast-paced gambling game called Faro.
Pharaon and Faro are said to be derived
from the word "Pharaoh" for an Egyptian monarch, supposedly
a common image on the backs of 16th and 17th century French card
decks, which were later imported to England. However, no evidence
of Pharaoh face cards in France or England in 17th, 18th, or
19th centuries has ever been documented. What is certain is that
by the 1700s, Faro had spread from France to England and was
"all the rage" among the slave-owing, slave-trading
muckety muck (mórgachtaí mórgachta,
majesties of majesty, highnesses of highness) English aristocrats
and nouveau riche merchant classes.
In Pharaon and Faro
the main move is called "the Turn" and occurs when
the faro dealer turns out two cards together from the
card shoe and places them face up on the faro layout. The first
card is a loser and all wagers on it are collected by the bank;
the second card is a winner for the gambler who has bet on it
and pays two to one. The Irish and Scots-Gaelic verbal phrase
"fiar araon" means precisely, "to turn
both; to turn each of two; to turn both together" and is
the source of the mysterious word Pharaon. (12)
To turn both; to turn
Fiar is an Irish transitive verb and means "to
turn, twist, coil, or bend; the adverb araon, means
"together, both, each of two." The verbal nominative
of the Irish verb Fiar, "to turn," is Fiaradh (pron.
fearoo or fairoo) and is defined as "the act of turning,
twisting, or coiling."
Fiaradh (pron. fearoo, turning) is
the Irish name for the "Turning" Game of Faro.
Faro: a banking card game where the main move is called
Fiaradh, (pron. fearoo): Turning, a turn. Vn.
Turning, (act of) turning, coiling, twisting.
(Turning) of the Irish "Wild Geese"
From an historical perspective,
it is not surprising that Irish words found their way into 17th
and 18th century French gambling "slang" and the Paris
underworld. In the two hundred years between the 'Flight of
the Irish Earls" in 1607 and the unsuccessful United Irish
Uprising of 1798, hundreds of thousands of Irish-speaking soldiers,
rebels, refugees, and Gaelic aristocrats fled to France in the
largest protracted Irish continental immigration in the early
modern period. In 1691, alone, 11,000 Irish soldiers sailed to
France after the Treaty of Limerick. This multi-generational,
mass Irish emigration to France, Spain, and Catholic Europe is
known in Irish history as the "Flight of the Wild Geese."
The negative impact of this
long Irish exile experience in France and Spain has been highlighted
by the historians Maurice Hennessey and David Bracke, who traced
the pervasive crime and destitution in the ranks of the Irish
Regiments in France to military force reductions by Louis XIV,
following the Treaty of Riswick in 1697 . "A good many of
(the Irish) became highwaymen and robbers...formed themselves
into gangs and roamed the roads and farmlands in search of prey."
The Irish Wild Geese had shape shifted into highwaymen, gamblers,
smugglers, and buccaneers (boc aniar, rogues from
the west, playboy(s)of the western world) of imperial France
and Spain and their North and South American colonies.
Orleans: 1717 - 1769
The Gaelic influence on the
port city of New Orleans was present from the very moment of
its birth. In September, 1717, the Scottish world-class Faro
(Fiaradh) banker, con man, and financial wizard, John Law,
and his Company of the West, popularly known as The Mississippi
Company, obtained control of the entire French province of Louisiana
by royal grant.
A former high-stakes Faro
mechanic (mí-cheannaíocht, crooked,
evil dealer) and sure-thing trickster, John Law worked fast.
He initiated a land and stock selling campaign that swept France
into a mad frenzy of financial speculation. The French national
currency was floated and the "Mississippi Bubble,"
which would bring the country to the brink of economic ruin,
was inflated into the most massive financial swindle in early
modern European history.
Colonists willing to immigrate
to Louisiana were needed to create an illusion of success, so
John Law's underworld operatives ransacked French jails and
hospitals to find them: "Disorderly soldiers, black sheep
of distinguished families, paupers, prostitutes, political suspects,
friendless strangers, unsophisticated peasants, were all kidnapped,
herded, and shipped under guard to fill the emptiness of Louisiana."
The city of New Orleans was founded a year later, in 1718, and
by the 1740s had become a prosperous port city with 2,000 inhabitants,
including three hundred French soldiers and three hundred African
The new French royal colony
came to a sudden end, in August 1769, when Don Alexander O'Reilly,
an Irish Soldier of Fortune, and one of the most celebrated
of Na Géanna Fiáine (the Wild Geese),
landed at New Orleans with twenty-four Spanish warships and
three thousand soldiers -- many of them the Irish-speaking buccaneers
of the Spanish crown's Irish brigades and took possession
of the city for the King of Spain. The bloody rule of Admiral
O'Reilly set an early pattern of Irish immigration to the Crescent
City that was to persist and grow for more than a hundred years.
In 1860, the United States
Federal Census reported that fourteen percent of the citizens
of New Orleans were Irish-born, equaling exactly the percentage
of African Americans (7% gens de coleur libre, free people
of color, 7% slaves) in the city's burgeoning population. If
we add second, third, and even fourth-generation Irish-Americans,
whose families had lived in the port city since the mid-18th
century, on the eve of the Civil War twenty to 25 percent of
the population of New Orleans was of Irish or hybrid-Irish descent.
By the 1820s, New Orleans had
also become the premier gambling city in the United States and
Faro was its Tiger (diaga, holy, divine) God of
the Odds. From 1830 to the Civil War, the underworld historian
Herbert Asbury estimated that between six to eight hundred gamblers
and sure-thing tricksters, most of them Irish-Americans, regularly
worked the steamboats that ran between New Orleans and St. Louis.
Famous Faro sharpers like Jimmy Fitzgerald, Gib Cohern, Jim McClane,
Tom Mackay, Charles Cassidy, Pat Herne, and Price McGrath were
all leading members of the loosely organized, hybrid-Gaelic gambling
clans of New Orleans, who scattered throughout the south and
northeastern United States in the 1830s.
In New York City, the Big Easy
Irishman Pat Herne teamed up with the top Faro banker Henry Colton,
who "was regarded as a sort of supreme tribunal of gaming...and
in gambling circles throughout the United States his decisions
were binding." Henry Colton's moniker (alias or underworld
name) in Irish is An Rí Ghealltáin (pron.
An ree Calltawn), and means "the King of Wagers, Bets, and
From "Henry Colton"
in the 1840s, to the panel-house operator and gambler "Shang"
(Seang, pron. shang, Slim) Draper (Dribire,
one who lays snares) in the 1880s, to the "Yellow"
(Éalú, absconding, escaping, sneaking away)
Kid, the nickname of both a famous newspaper cartoon character
and infamous Chicago con man in the early 1900s, to Owney Madden's
old underworld ally, Tanner (Dána, bold,
intrepid) Smith, at the dawn of the Jazz Age, underworld monikers
were often as Irish as the racketeers (racadóira,
dealers, sporty characters) themselves.
By the mid-19th century the Faro "Tiger"
was on the prowl from the prairies and wide-open cow towns of
Texas to San Francisco of the Gold Rush era. "Faro was
the mainstay of every important gambling house north of the Rio
Grande River...No other card game or dice game, not even Poker
or Craps, has ever achieved the popularity in this country that
faro once enjoyed."
Faro also became the "first medium of extensive card cheating
seen in the United States," and was the crooked foundation
on which the world-famous gambling casinos of New York City and
Saratoga were built.
Rules of the Faro Game
Faro was one of the simplest gambling games ever
devised. Players bet against "the bank" or "the
house," rather than against one another's póca
(pocket or purse) as in a poker game. Punters (gamblers)
placed their bets on a green baize layout called a "sweat"
(suite, set, established, fixed, site) cloth, with the
images of a suit of cards painted on it, representing all thirteen
denominations from Ace to King. Once a Faro (Fiaradh) banker
set out his "sweat cloth" and "case keeper"
in a saloon or gambling joint, he was in business.
A Set, Fixed, or Site (Cloth)
Unique to Faro was the "Case
(Cas, Turn) Keeper," an abacus-like device, set
within a wooden cabinet with miniature cards painted on to it,
matching those on the layout. A thin wire ran from each card
picture on which four button-shaped discs were hung, which another
dealer's assistant, also called a "Case Keeper,"
manipulated like a miniature billiard counter, recording each
of the cards as they were turned out two at a time from the tell
box. The Case Keeper allowed the bettors to determine
which card denominations had been turned out of the deck.
"Keepin' cases" in
a Faro game took a sharp eye and became a popular slang term
for keeping a close watch on someone or something. A variation
of "keeping cases," which still survives today, is
the term "to case a joint," meaning to check a place
out carefully with the vigilance of a "case keeper."
In Hughie, Eugene O'Neill's
last play, set in a crummy hotel near Times Square in
1928, a year before the Age of Jazz became Age of the
Stock Market Sucker, a small time grifter and gambler named "Erie"
Smith, complained about his dead pal Hughie's wary wife.
Erie Smith: "In all the
years I knew him, he never bet...on nothin'. But it ain't his
fault. He'd have took a chance, but how could he with his wife
keepin' cases on every nickel of his salary? I showed him lots
of ways he could cross her up, but he was too scared."
Cas (Turn) Keeper
Cas, v., to
turn, to twist, wind, coil.
Casadh, (pron. casah) Vn, act of turning,
Cas is an Irish verb meaning "to turn, twist,
or wind," and its verbal nominative casadh (pron.
casah) is translated as "the act of turning, twisting, winding,
or coiling." Cartaí a chasadh (pron.
cartee a casah) means "to turn the cards."
The Case Keeper was
the Cas (Turn) Keeper. (23).
Two Irish and Scots-Gaelic
words, Fiaradh and Cas, both mean "turning
and twisting" in a gambling game whose main move was called
"The Turn" in English.
For gamblers in an honest Faro
game, the ideal time to wager was after three cards of the same
denomination have been turned out. The house or bank had absolutely
no advantage then, so smart players could buck (buach,
pron. buak, go up against, defeat) the Tiger if
the odds turned in their favor.
Like any successful gambling
game, whether in a swank "rug joint" or the
back lot of a carnival, Faro appeared to be a game that could
But there was no such thing
as a square ('s coir, is honest and fair) Faro game; every
Faro game was a scam ('s cam, is crooked). (26)
'S cóir, contraction
of Is cóir (é.)
Fair play. Honest. (It) is honest. (It) is fair play.
'S cam. contraction of
Is cam (é.)
A trick; a deceit. Lit. (It) is crooked; (it) is a trick.
Cóir, adj. & n.,
honest, just, fair; proper, decent. Justice, equity, honesty,
Cam, n., crookedness, a deceit, a trick.
The turns, coils, bends, and
twists of the "turning, twisting" game of Faro mirrored
the Celtic triple-spirals sculpted onto the massive lintel stones
of megalithic monuments in the Boyne Valley, fifteen hundred
years before a Pharaoh built the first pyramid. The Tiger
was the faro gambler's god of the odds and the sweat cloth
was his altar.
God of the Odds
Diaga, holy, diagaire,
divine, and diagacht, a god, are all modern Irish words
descended from the Old Irish word dea, meaning "a
pagan divinity," and deacht, "a pagan god."
The American-Gaelic tricksters
of the 19th and early 20th centuries worshipped a god who gambled
with the universe.
In a Faro Game ruled
by the Tiger and dealt by a mechanic (mí-cheannaíocht,
an evil, crooked dealer), a sucker (sách úr,
a fresh new "fat cat") or a mark (marc,
target) out on a spree (spraoi, fun, sport, frolic)
was lured by a roper (ropaire, a scoundrel, a thief)
into a Faro joint (díonta, pron. jeent,
a shelter, fig. house) where a skilled shill (síol,
pron. sheel, to propagate or seed) seeded the game with
the house's moolah (moll óir, a pile of gold or
money), while the capper (ciapaire, a goader) goaded
the swell (sóúil) to guzzle (gus
óil, drink vigorously) and slug (slog,
swallow, gulp) the high class whiskey (uisce) and
wager his jack (tiach, pron. jiak, a purse,
fig. money) with abandon.
Mechanic, a crooked Faro dealer.
Mí-cheannaíocht, an evil dealer.
Sách úr. a
new, green, well-fed fellow. A fresh "fat cat"
Mark, a sucker who has become the "target"
of a professional gambler.
Marc, a target
Roper, the scoundrel who "ropes" suckers
into a "braced" (fixed) Faro game.
Ropaire, a scoundrel, a thief.
Joint, any place a Faro banker sets up his "sweat"
Díonta (pron. jynt or jeent), a shelter,
fig. any type of shelter from a shanty to a mansion.
Shill, the "shill" seeds the game with the
faro banker's moolah (money) and often wins big to
lure the "marks" into a fixed Faro game.
Síol, (pron, sheel), to propagate, seed,
A "Mark Anthony"
what gamblers call a "super-sucker."
Marc andána: a rash and reckless mark.
The premier Faro rug joint
of 19th century New York City was the Tapis Franc, where
the organization put the screw to the slumming dude (dúd)
and fleeced the flush (flúirse, pron.
flursh, abundant, plentiful) pockets of the "super-sucker"
known as a "Mark Anthony" (marc andána,
pron. mark antanay, a rash and reckless mark) who tried
to buck the Faro Tiger.
Sanas (etymology, secret knowledge) of Poker
The American Heritage Dictionary
sums up contemporary scholarly opinion on the history and
origin of the word Poker: "etymology (and) origin unknown."
The Oxford English Dictionary is equally "uncertain"
and traces one of the earliest appearances of the word Poker
in the American- English language to an 1836 quote from Hildreth's
Campaigns in the Rocky Mountains. "M - lost some cool
hundreds last night at poker."
By the 1870s, Poker was the
most widely played short card game in the United States and was
said to be based on the ancient Persian game of As Nas,
which had been imported into France sometime in the 18th century.
According to most gambling historians, As Nas evolved
into a French three-card bluffing game called Poque, another
word of mysterious origin. As the story goes, Poque like Faro
was carried to New Orleans in the early 19th century by French
and European gamblers, where it ultimately emerged as the game
we know today as Poker.
Poker was described by Herbert
Asbury as a hybrid short card game "formed by superimposing
two important American innovations Jackpots and Stud...
on the bragging (bréag, to lie or exaggerate)
or bluffing found in many English, French, and Italian games
like Brag, Primero...Poque and Amigu."
Some dictionaries suggest that
the word Poque might be related to the German gambling
game Pochspiel, or the "pounding game," which
contains an element of "bluffing." But pounding on
the table is never an effective poker bluff - even in a German
The Irish-American novelist and poker champion, James McManus,
in his book, Fifth Street, speculates that the word
Poque might be derived from the Irish word Póg
(pron. pogue), meaning a "kiss." However, the
Irish language scholar and lexicographer, Patrick S. Dineen in
his foundational Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla,
Irish-English Dictionary derives the Irish word Póg
(kiss) from the Latin word "Pax," meaning "peace,
and the early medieval Christian practice of greeting people
with the word "Pax" and a Póg
(kiss) on the cheek. Kissing and peace are incompatible with
It is possible McManus might
be subconsciously referring to the loud "Póg"
heard in poker games in his birthplace of the Bronx after a bad
beat (béad, an injury, or a loss), in the
NY-Irish phrase "Póg mo thóin
(pron. pogue ma hone), meaning "kiss my ass,"
which turns the early medieval Irish Christian practice on its
Perhaps, we should turn conventional
wisdom on its head and -- as in a Poker game -- go for the pocket?
Poker is a short card game
that is played out of your Póca (pocket) and against
the other gambler's Póca (pocket or purse.) There
is no bank or "house" in poker.. A Faro (Fairadh,
pron. fearoo, turning) game needs a skilled dealer
(a mechanic), an assistant dealer, and a case (cas,
turn) keeper, as well as cappers, ropers, and shills, to seed
the game with the house's jack, work the marks, and feed a constant
supply of fresh suckers to the Faro "Tiger." Faro also
requires a large bankroll for a house bank.
Raising the nut (neart,
pron. n'art, a sufficiency, enough) for the bank and transporting
the cumbersome Faro paraphernalia, was difficult for the itinerant
gamblers of the 19th century American frontier. In a poker game
the gambler carried all his paraphernalia, a deck of cards and
a bankroll, in his back póca (pocket). There was
a fresh pocket to be plucked in each new hand of poker. The possibilities
of new pockets were as limitless as the endless supply of suckers,
who were, as Mike McDonald said, "born every minute."
The Irish word Póca
means "a pocket, bag, pouch, or purse" in English and
is said by American and English dictionaries to be derived from
the Middle English word poke, the Anglo Saxon poca,
and the English pocket. The German language scholar Kuno
Meyer, however, takes the Irish word póca from
the Norse pok. Norwegian and Danish Vikings, founded
Dublin, Waterford, and other Irish port cities in the 8th and
9th centuries and left a considerable lexical imprint on the
Exactly when the transition
in America from Poque to Poker occurred is unknown.
The Irish-American writer and poker champion James McManus also
speculated that the southern pronunciation of Poque was
"pokuh," which is precisely how you pronounce
póca (pocket) in Irish. What we do know is that
old Poque game evolved into the modern Poker game on the
fingertips of the professional card sharps, as the rules were
changed and the game was sped up and modernized.
The twenty-card deck was replaced
with fifty-two cards to accommodate as many as ten players. Flushes
and straights were introduced, and a draw of up to three cards
was permitted, producing more rounds of betting. This in turn
produced bigger payoffs and a larger pot for the gamblers, as
well as more opportunities to cheat. The old Poque Game
of New Orleans became the new Poker game we play today: the hybrid
short card game with the hybrid Irish and American name.
The word "pocket"
is a key term in modern No-Limit Texas Hold "Em Poker (Póca,
pocket) game. The two "hole" cards each gambler is
dealt down are called "pocket" cards. Two aces are
"pocket rockets" and two pair is a "pocket pair."
Beat, to get beat. A bad beat, a beat artist. A bad
beat in poker is when a powerful
hand is defeated by one even more powerful, known as a "nut"
Béad: a loss, injury, robbery, crime; sorrow.
To be robbed or cheated.
Capper, the shill who goads the sucker to bet larger
and larger amounts. In New York and Brooklyn Irish-American Vernacular
to "cap" on someone means to goad or torment them verbally.
Ciapaire, a goader. Ciap, to goad or
In a Faro game all bets
paid two to one, except the "Last Turn" of the final
three cards, which paid four to one. In a Poker (Póca,
pocket) game the limit to the pot is the amount of the jack
in the other person's pocket. There is a new pot for every
hand in a póca game and a new player can add his
or her pocket of fresh Jack to the pot. The poker bank
is as inexhaustible as the pockets of the players.
In the new democratic poker
game, unlike aristocratic Faro -- where the bank, or house,
controls the deal -- there is always a "new deal."
The button (beart t-aon, one dealing) rotates to
Though, in the 1870s a new
poker game called Stud became popular. In Stud
(stad, stop) poker the deal does not rotate from player
to player, but stops (stad, stop, fig. stays) with
the house dealer. It is a one button game. (35)
If a Poker game is square
('s cóir, is honest, fair) any smart lucky punter
(buainteoir, a winner) can be a winner. But if a button"
is snakin' (snoíochan, pron. snakin',
marking, clipping, cutting, meddling with) the deck, "puttin'
in the gaff (gaf, a trick or deceit, a crooked
device), or ringing (roinn, pron. ring,
to deal) in a crooked deck, every Punter is a loser.
Cheating is as easy in Poker as it is in Faro.
When a Poker game is a scam
('s cam, is crooked), the river (ríofa,
calculator, computer, enumerator, reckoning) card always
runs into the pocket (póca) of the "mechanic."
No matter how many times a mark shuffles and cuts the
deck, Fifth Street is always Beat (Béad,
Loss, Crime, Injury, Sorrow) Street.
A mark in a snaked game might as well
muck (múch, pron. muk, to turn over
and smother) a nut (neart, pron. n'art,
power, strength) hand, the pot always winds up
in the pocket of the dealer with the gimmick (camóg).
The Poker (Póca,
Pocket) game is the
ideal name for the premier short card game of the American crossroad.
There is no house bank. It is one pocket against another.
(a small glossary) of Poker
Tiach, tiag (pron. jack): a purse, a wallet, fig.
"Jack" was the American
playwright Eugene O'Neill's favorite term for money. In the Iceman
Cometh, O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize winning drama, set in 1910
in Harry Hope's saloon in a New York City slum, Rocky
the bartender discussed the benefits of Jack.
ROCKY: "... Not dat I
blame yuh for not woikin'. On'y suckers woik. But dere's no percentage
in bein' broke when yuh can grab good jack for yourself and make
someone else woik for yuh, is dere?" (38)
In O'Neill's final play
Hughie, a down on his luck gambler, Erie Smith, recalls the
twists and turns of the gods of the odds.
ERIE: "Some nights I'd
come back here without a buck, feeling lower than a snake's belly,
and the first thing you know I'd be lousy with jack, bettin'
a grand a race." (39)
Jack as slang for money is
now rare, unless you win a lulu (liú luath,
pron. loo luah, a howler, a scream) of a jack pot
Brag: The name for an early card game related
Bréag: A lie, exaggeration, deceit, deception.
According to Herbert Asbury,
the early card game Brag's influence on poker was so great
that it was often called "the brag game." In
the early forms of Brag, the jack of clubs and the ace
and nine of diamonds were wild and called braggers (bréagóir,
a braggart, liar, and exaggerator). The key endeavor of the
Brag card game as described in Seymour's Court Gamester,
published in 1719, was " to impose on the judgment of the
rest who play...by boasting or bragging of the cards in
The Barnhart Dictionary
of Etymology speculates
that the word "brag" might "possibly"
have a Gaelic origin, though inexplicably links it to a "Celtic"
word meaning trousers; "brag ...of uncertain origin; possible
sources include Gaullish or Celtic 'braca,' (a) kind of trousers..."
Barnhart also cites Provencal, French (Swiss dialect),
Scandinavian, and Old Icelandic as other possible sources of
the word "brag." (41)
Well into the late 19th century "brag" was considered
"slang" in American English. The underworld slang lexicologist
and warden of New York City's Tombs prison, George Matsell, included
"brag" in his Vocabulum or The Rogue's Lexicon,
defining it is a "boast." Professor MacBain the Scots-Gaelic
etymologist, derived the Irish word bréag from
Old Irish bréc, and related it to the Sanskrit bhramca,
The River Card
The Ríofa Card
Computer, Calculator, Reckoner Card.
The Card of Reckoning.
Ríofa, al. ríomhaire (pron. reever), reckoner, calculator,
computer; Ríomh, v.t. (pp. ríofa),
Reckon, compose, arrange, set in order, enumerate, calculate.
Ríomhadh (pron. reeveh) Reckoning, (act
of) reckoning, arranging, setting in order; calculating. Reckoner.
Calculator. al. rímhe (reeveh), m.
(act of) reckoning, composing, arranging, setting in order.
The River (Ríofa)
Card, also known as "Fifth Street," is the final
and fifth community card in 7-Card Texas Hold 'Em. The
Ríofa (computing, calculating, reckoning) card
is the card of final computation, calculation, and reckoning.
Everyone knows when the River
(Ríofa) Card flows on Fifth Street.
Nut; the nut hand; the nut cards; also
Neart (pron. n'art)
Power, physical strength, force. Enough, plenty, a sufficiency;
The Nut hand is the
hand with the power in poker. The "Nut" or "Nuts"
is the strongest possible hand in 7 Card Texas Hold 'Em. Any
gender can have the nuts on Fifth Street.
In Irish American Vernacular
the word "nut" is also used to mean a "sufficiency"
or "enough," as in, "I made my weekly nut."
To be a "nut" was also to be a "power"
and was most often a good thing in the speech of the 19th and
early 20th century North American breac-Ghaeltachta. Today, sadly,
the old "neart" has been reduced to the whacky
"nut." Though, even crazy "nuts" are powerful.
As in the expression: "He fought like a nut." That's
the Irish neart in an Irish-American nut shell.
Múch (pron. muk or mook, "ch"
= "k") to cover over, deaden, suppress.
Muck, to cover over your cards and "kill" them.
Muck is both a verb and a noun in poker: to muck
means "to turn your cards over face down in the center of
the table." The "muck" can also mean the
pile of cards covered over face down in front of the dealer.
A pile of dead cards.
To freeze; to set.
When you check in poker
you tap the table, freeze your bet, and set.
Snakin' the deck
Snoíochán (pron. snakin')
(Act of) meddling; carving, cutting; filing.
Snakin' the deck means "to carve, mark,
cut, or meddle with" it; or to surreptitiously ring
(roinn, pron. ring, deal) in a "snaked"
deck for a square one.
Cuid oíche (pron.
Some of the night. A share, a portion of the night, The night's
meal or livelihood or property..
The kitty also became
a name for the money and swag that a faro banker cut up with
his crew: the mechanic, case keeper, cappers, and shills at the
end of the night. At the end of the day, the cuiddihy, or "kitty,"
is "any shared portion of money or benefits."
A cheap niggardly person. A two-bit lout.
A piker is a name for two-bit
penny ante gambler or a cheap lout.
Beat. To get beat. A "beat" artist.
Béad: A loss, injury, robbery, crime; sorrow. To
be robbed or cheated.
A smart gambler has the number
of every sucker on Beat Street.
The last word in Hughie,
the last play by the Nobel-prize winning Irish-American playwright,
Eugene O'Neill, is actually two Irish words concealed beneath
the phonetic orthography of that key American "slang"
term, "sucker" Sách úr (pron.
saahk oor) A new, fresh, well-fed, self-satisfied fellow. A
fresh "fat cat."
"There isn't any such
thing as an honest gambler." Richard Canfield.
Dan Cassidy is founder and co-director of the
Irish Studies Program, An Léann Éireannach at the
New College of California in San Francisco, CA. Cassidy's Sanas
(Etymology) of the word Jazz was published in Ireland's Hot
Press music magazine in March 2005 and can also be seen at
the linguistics and education website CyberPlayGround at
1.Sanas, g., -ais, aise, m.
& f. (orig. neut.), lit. Etymology; a gloss, a dictionary,
glossary; Sanas Cormaic, the name of a celebrated glossary; Dia
na Sanaise, Annunciation Day; special knowledge, occult knowledge,
a secret, san fhios. Patrick S. Dineen Foclóir Gaeilge
Béarla, Irish-English Dictionary,, Dublin, 1927, p.939-40.
2. H.L. Mencken, The American
Language , NY, 1937, p. 160; Terence Patrick Dolan, compiler
and editor, A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, Dublin, 1999, pp
xx-xxi; Herbert Asbury, Sucker's Progress: An Informal History
of Gambling, N.Y., 1938; p. 295; Dineen, Sách úr:
Lit. A new well-fed person; a fresh self-satisfied fellow. Sách,
m. (gs. & npl. sáigh, gpl. ~). Well-fed person. pred.
adj. & adv. Full, sated, satisfied. Happy, comfortable, in
easy circumstances. Úr, gsf,. úire, adj., fresh,
new, recent, moist, tender, raw, noble. p. 1081; p. 1299)
3. T.J. English, Paddy Whacked:
The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster, N.Y. 2005, pp.
1-9; Kerby Miller. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish
Exodus to North America, 1985, Oxford, N.Y., p. 315, 329.
4. T.J. English, p. 28; Sucker,
pp. 419-428; Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History, NY,
2000, pp. 108-109; Lewis Yablonsky, George Raft, pp. 36-39)
5. T.J. English, pp. 43-69;
Asbury, Sucker, p. 235.
6. T.J. English, pp. 13-19;
Kenny, pp. 108-109; Sucker, pp. 114, 382-7, 427-434 )
7. T.J. English, pp. 73-83;
Kenny, pp. 160, 210; Herbert Asbury, Chicago, Gem of The Prairie,,
NY, 1940, Ch. V)
8. Leo Katcher, The Big Bankroll,
NY, 1959, p. 73; Ronald H. Bayor, Timothy J. Meagher, The New
York Irish, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, p. 223, 227;
T.J. English, pp. 105-109)
9. Richard J. Butler and Joseph
Driscoll, Dock Walloper, The Story of Big Dick Butler, NY, pp.
189-190; George Yablonsky, George Raft, NY, 1974, pp. 34-40;
Bayor and Meagher, p. 2; T.J. English, pp. 113-124)
10. Mary Ellen Glass, Lester
Ben "Benny" Binion: Some Recollections of a Texas and
Las Vegas Gaming Operator, Univ. Of Nevada, 1976; Ed Reid and
Ovid Demaris, Green Felt Curtain, Ch. 10, NY, 1963.
11. Asbury, Sucker, pp. 3-19; Herbert Asbury, The French Quarter,
Ch. VII, p. 197
12. John O'Connor, Wanderings
of a Vagabond, An Autobiography, 1868, Making of America, pp.
60-66; Sucker's Progress, N.Y. 1936, pp. 3-19.
13.. Dineen, p. 452; Niall Ó Dónaill, Foclóir
Gaeilge-Béarla, p. 541. Fiar, crooked, Early Irish fiar,
Welsh gwyre, Greek goar, gwar, *veiro-; root vei, wind as in
féith, English wire, Anglo Saxon wir. MacBain's Gaelic
Etymological Dictionary, Online version, p. 3, Sec. 18.
14.. Maurice N. Hennessey,
The Wild Geese: Irish Soldiers in Exile, Conn., 1973, pp. 17-19,
49-50, .63, 177; Thomas O'Connor, ed., The Irish in Europe,
15. Hennessey, p. 176; T.J.
English, pp. 46-49; Asbury, French Quarter, pp. 23-24; Albert
Phelps, Louisiana, NY, 1905, pp. 601..
16. T. J. English, pp. 47-55;
Sucker, pp. 44-50; U. S. VIII Federal Census, 1860 ,Louisiana.)
17. Sucker, pp. 170; 235; T.
J. English, pp. 47-55.
18. T.J. English, pp. 54-55;
Asbury, French Quarter, pp. 205; quote, Asbury, Sucker, p. 6).
19. Albert H. Morehead, Official Rules of Gambling, pp. 285-85;
John O'Connor, pp. 60-66; Asbury, Sucker, pp. 7-19)
20. Dineen, p. 1080; O'Donaill, p. 1129
21. Asbury, Sucker, pp. 7-9.
O'Connor, p. 60).
22. Eugene O'Neill, Hughie,
23.. O'Donaill, pp. 195-195.
24. O'Donaill, p. 541; pp 618-619;
Dineen, p. 452..
25. O'Connor, pp. 60-66; Sucker's
Progress, p. 5, Ch. 1
26..David Brittland and Gazzo
Phantoms of the Card Table,, NY, 2003, pp. 21-35; Clarke, p.
27. MacBain's Gaelic Etymological
Dictionary, Sec. 13, p. 2; John Strachan, Old Irish Paradigms
& Selections from Old Irish Glosses, Dublin, 1949, p. 178..
28.. O'Connor, pp. 366-70.;
Sucker's Progress, p.p.20, 189-91, 270-1, 372, 432.; Brittland,
29. OED, I. xv. p. 128. American
Heritage Dictionary Online. No pg.
30. Dineen, p. 851. Sucker's
Progress, pp. 20-23.
31.James McManus, Fifth Street,
p. 159; Phantoms of the Card Table, pp. 21-8; Sucker's Progress,
32. John Findlay, People of Chance. Oxford University Press.
New York. 1986. 47-58, pp. 63-67, pp.100-101.)
33. O'Donovan, ed. Annals
of The Four Masters, 1632, 1848, 1851; MacBain's Gaelic Etymological
Dictionary, Sec. 29, p. 7, Online edition..
34.Mc Manus, pp. 155-160,
158-61; Sucker, pp. 25-38); úr is from the Old Irish
húrde, the Welsh ir, meaning "fresh, green"
and the Latin puros. MacBain, Sec. 42, p. 2.
35. Albert Morehead, Official
Rules of Card Games, pp. 78-111; Asbury, Sucker', p. 28 .
36.Brittland, pp. 32-38.
37. Barnhart Dictionary of
Etymology, p. 824; Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional
English, NY, 1984, p. 914; MacBain, Sec. 28, p. 8). Ard, top.
High. Early Irish árd, Gaulish ardvenna, Latin arduus.
(Ibid, Sec. 2, p. 2) (27)
38. O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh,
39. O'Neill. Hughie, p. 284.
40. Ramon Williams, Dictionary
of American West, Univ. Of Oklahoma Press, p. 2; a Loo Loo,
Sucker's Progress, Asbury, p. 32.
41. Sucker's Progress, pp.
20-1; Barnhart, brag, p. 122.
42. George Matsell, Vocabulum:
The Rogue's Lexicon, NYC, 1859, p. 20;. Dineen, p. 119, O'Donaill,
pp. 135-136; Dwelly, p. xxx; MacBain's Gaelic Etymological Dictionary,
Sec. 5, p. 2.
43. Sucker's Progress, pp.
20-23.;. O'Donaill, p. 788-789.;. Oxford Dictionary English Etymology,
p. 102; Barnhart, p. 102
44.Arthur and Barbara Gelb,
O'Neill, pp. 20-25.; Eugene O'Neill Long Day's Journey Into
Night,, p. 53.
45. James McManus, Positively
Fifth Street, NY, 2004, p. 410; Patrick S. Dineen, Foclóir
Gaeilge Béarla, Irish-English Dictionary,, Dublin, 1927,
p. 903; Ó'Donail, Foclóir Gaeilge Béarla,
p.1002, Dwelly, Faclair Gaidhlig Gu Beurla, Gaelic to English
Dictionary, p. 762.
46. Fifth Street, p. 22, "Poker
Terminology," pp. 404-412.; O'Donaill, p. 908.
47. McManus, p. 408; O'Donaill,
48. O'Donaill, p. 1126; Dineen, p. 1076.
49. Dineen, pp. 280-1.
50. Dwelly, p. 721, O'Donaill,
p. 951, Dineen, p. 841.
51. O'Donaill, p. 1199.
52. Dineen, p. 85, O'Donaill,
53. Hughie, p. 293.
54. Donald Henderson Clarke,
In the Reign of Rothstein, NY, 1929, p. 34; Canfield quote.