Poker Face Real Word

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Define poker face. Poker face synonyms, poker face pronunciation, poker face translation, English dictionary definition of poker face. A face lacking any interpretable expression, as that of an expert poker player. Pok′erfaced′ adj. American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language.

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31 Oct

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One of my favorite things about being part of a niche culture is the special language that develops around it. While we may not always think of it as such, poker most certainly has its own lexicon full of words and phrases that a layman would never understand. I honestly doubt my own mother would know what the “flop” was, much less a phrase like, “angle shooting.” However, there is one poker term that, among all others, has risen out of our game and into the common language at large, the “poker face.”

The phrase poker face is a phrase thrown around constantly to refer to keeping one’s emotions in check. Upon meeting someone with a stoic nature one might comment, “That’s quite a poker face you’ve got there.” In another instance one might say, “The boss can smell fear. If you go in there, You’d better have your poker face ready.” But where did the phrase come from? Has it existed since the dawn of poker or is it secretly a recent invention? I set out to track it down.

My first google searches were fruitless. I got all sorts of results defining the phrase and many more about the hit Lady Gaga song of the same name, but no one knew where it started. I started combing through encyclopedias looking for an entry on the phrase. “Poker” always had results, but no one had a story for the creation of “poker face.” Finally I resorted to a rare trick called using something I learned in college. I learned some years ago that the Oxford English Dictionary includes, among its vast wealth of information, a list of important places where a word or phrase has been quoted in publication. Usually, this includes the word’s first instance of publication. I searched for “poker face” and after following that trail for a bit, I finally came up with this:

It follows that the possession of a good poker face is an advantage. No one who has any pretensions to good play will betray the value of his hand by gesture, change of countenance, or any other symptom.'WordCavendish. Round Games at Cards. London: Thomas De La Rue & Co. 1875

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As far as I can tell, this quotation is the first ever published use of the phrase “poker face.” It comes from a book about card games and gambling that was originally published back in 1875! While it is possible that the phrase had some use before it was ever in printed form, there is no way to prove it, and we must give credit to Cavendish, whose first name I was unable to find.

Frankly, the whole book is quite interesting as it teaches what, at the time, must have been quite new to a lot of people. Moreover, I got a kick out of some of the older terms used. For example, while the author never calls it “Blackjack,” He does go into great detail about a French game called “Vingt-Et-Un” which translates to “21.” It is played nearly identically to modern Blackjack except that you bet after receiving your first card. It also appears as though a “full house” used to just be called a “full hand.” If you enjoy the history of our sport and want to check it out, can find the free version here, thanks to Google Books.


As to the rest of my questions, it seems the idea of the poker face came around a significant time later than the game itself. While it is very hard to pin down exactly when “Poker” became popular, card games of skill and betting have existed for hundreds of years previous to 1875. While the word ”poker” itself entered the English language some time in the early 1800’s, games like Brag (English), Poque (French), and Pochen (German) are well evidenced back into the first half of the 1700’s. Each of these games revolve similarly around cards and gambling. They are likely the progenitors of the poker we know today. And of course, these games could not have been played without bluffing, so the idea of concealing your facial tells probably predates our popular phrase by a good 100-150 years.

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