A Look at Common Phrases & Their Origins: Gambling Edition

Gambling is a lot older than you may think it is, with ancient dice and cards being found in some of the world’s oldest civilisations. So, it’s no surprise that English has picked up quite a few phrases that originated from gambling and other games of chance. We covered a few poker-related idioms in a previous article, so today we’re focusing on other words and phrases that are used all the time but can be tracked back to gambling.


Sweeten the Pot

You’ve definitely heard this one before, used when someone throws in a little something extra into a deal that helps you out. It’s typically something, a bonus or a favour, that makes the whole deal more acceptable. This one isn’t just used today in gambling spaces, it’s also still used to get people interested in games. For example, when sites that have popular live casino games offer deposit bonuses, they are quite literally sweetening the pot, giving you a better deal to get you on board with the action. It’s a common thing for iGaming services to give offers and bonuses that attract customers.

Unsurprisingly, the pot here is the pile of chips that end up on a poker table. When players increase their wager, they sweeten the pot by making the game’s prize more appealing. However, when 20th Century gamblers said this, they were building on another phrase. That’s right, it’s an idiom within an idiom, referencing how one would add sugar to a cooking pot to make the whole meal sweeter. It’s the same idea, whether it’s used in the kitchen or the casino site.


Down to the Wire

Down to the wire has the origins that you’d expect if you’re familiar with horse racing. Back in the day, horse races would create a finish line with, well, an actual line. It was a small wire stretched across the end of the racecourse, weak enough that it’d break when the horses crossed it.

If you’ve ever seen a good horse race, they can get very, very close towards the end. Nowadays, we use sophisticated photo finish surveillance to see which horse wins when it comes down to a literal horsehair. So, outside of racing, it refers to something that is unpredictable, or at least too close to call. It’s one of many phrases related to the unpredictability that comes from gambling, with others like ‘all bets are off’ from casino gambling.


Ace in the Hole

This is one that started in gambling but has spread to pretty much any competitive space. It’s pretty self-explanatory – an ace in the hole comes from poker games where somebody could have an ace in their hand, poker’s most valuable card since it can be played high or low. Nobody knows what’s in your hand when you play poker, so the ace is an unseen advantage.

But football isn’t played with aces, so why is it used across many sports and competitions? Like any good phrase, its meaning has become more abstract and generalised. An ace can create some powerful hands in poker, so whipping one out generally puts your opponent at a disadvantage. So, an ace in the hole is exactly that, an unseen advantage that a team or a player has, that can be deployed at will to start winning the game. Often, its advantage is so absolute that it wins the game, so it’s used a lot like coup de grâce – a finishing move that ends the game decisively.

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