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The Etymology of Poker Terms

In the past ten years, poker has become a language unto itself. If you don’t understand the terminologies applied to the game’s many intricacies, it can be difficult to even get started on the road to becoming a better player.

Many players are excited when they first hear a new term, or discover a new concept that can push their game forward. Very few players, however, ever stop to think about the origins of some of the game’s most rudimentary terminologies, to the point where subconscious beliefs about the nature of these terms can sometimes create strategic leaks.

Let’s dig into a few of these terms and observe some of the hidden connotations within, and how they have evolved as poker has grown.

‘Bluff’

This is probably the one word in the English language whose meaning has become inextricably tied to a strategic poker concept. While it is difficult to ascertain the role that the existence of card games played in the word’s early usage, there can be no doubt that if you asked 100 people the question “name a context in which you might call someone’s bluff”, a good number of them would say “at the poker table”.

While the concept of attempting to swindle, cheat, or lie to someone has obviously existed forever, the word ‘bluff’ carries with it a very specific meaning. In the vast majority of usages, the word signifies an attempt to conceal weakness by representing strength. It will often refer to an empty gesture that can’t be backed up by substance, and it will very frequently convey a sense of dishonesty.

This might seem inconsequential, but the context of the word is greatly altered when we try to relate it to the mathematical realities of the game of poker. A GTO solver doesn’t label hands with ‘bluff’ when you get the results of a calculation, and as a consequence, the line isn’t always clear. Sometimes we can’t tell what’s a bluff and what isn’t, because we’re not specifically trying to represent a certain thing – we’re just betting because the math says to bet.

Try to think about how your understanding of poker would change if you were never allowed to use the word ‘bluff’. If you never conceptualized any kind of deceptive element to the game, and merely understood the nature of the math.

It would certainly be a difficult learning experience, but you might avoid many of the mental game pitfalls into which other players fall – your opponent can’t be trying to bluff you if bluffing doesn’t exist! They’re simply making a bet, and our job is to make the best play based on the math.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that you try this, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to think about how our culturally-conditioned perceptions about what it means to be bluffed, cheated, swindled or conned might play into our poker strategy, when the concept of bluffing is so prevalent within our lexicon.

‘Limp’

This is a term that only really came into widespread usage more recently, with the advent of online poker strategy forums. In its current usage, it suggests or implies a sense of weakness – as a consequence, it can be a dangerous term.

One of my favorite questions regarding language usage in poker is the following – did people start referring to a preflop open-call as a ‘limp’ because it was a weak play, or did it become perceived as weak because it was referred to as a ‘limp’?

There’s no easy answer to that question. The option to call preflop obviously existed before it had a name, but whoever gave it the name ‘limping’ was clearly implying weakness. The connotation is that the player has barely managed to make it into the pot – there’s no hint of strength conveyed at all.

In today’s game, it’s common for players to assume that a preflop limp is a sign of a weak player. As this changes over time, and better players begin experimenting with a calling option preflop, we may see this term phased out, since its connotation is unhelpful for novice players.

‘Defend’

The concept of ‘defending’ one’s big blind, or defending one’s range from exploitation, has come into greater usage in the past five years than it ever did beforehand.

Players are recognizing that in each spot, there exists a theoretically-correct frequency beyond which they should not be folding to aggression. This has partially emerged as a response to the significant global trend towards aggression that developed from around 2008-2012 – everyone was over-folding, and once they collectively realized as much, everyone started ‘defending’ a lot more.

The interesting side effect of this piece of nomenclature is that the word ‘defend’ taps into a lot of very deep-seated psychological influences. It encourages players to visualize themselves with sword and shield in hand, fighting off the hordes of opponents who are desperate to steal their chips.

In many cases, this can be counter-productive – players can become overly attached to the idea of never giving up a pot without a fight, and weaknesses in river bluff-catching or 3-bet responses can emerge as a result.

If you find the word ‘defense’ a little too emotionally-charged for your liking, I’d suggest ‘continuing’ as a substitute. It carries with it the implication of not folding, while allowing us to avoid the trap of feeling like our opponents are actively threatening our survival.

‘Polarize’

This is an interesting one. It wasn’t really part of the poker lexicon until the late 2000s, when players started developing more complex ideas regarding the nature of hand ranges and board textures.

In the time since, its usage has evolved a little – nowadays, we can use it in a purely descriptive, past-tense form (“villain’s range seems polarized here”); in a more adaptive, yet passive present-tense form (“this turn card has a polarizing effect on my range”); or, perhaps less commonly, in a more active, potentially future-tense way (“I’m going to bet here to polarize my range”).

The third usage is somewhat incorrect, since the player isn’t actually polarizing their range – they’re simply representing a different range altogether by using a different bet sizing. Nevertheless, it is a usage that pops up from time to time.

Over time, the term gave birth to antonyms – ‘merge’, ‘condense’ and others – and it will surely evolve into a more nuanced tool in the poker player’s toolkit over time. It could be said that it has evolved into one of the most important words in a poker player’s dictionary – this is primarily because it has the most direct correlation to specific mathematical values within the game’s framework. It ties directly into the concept of equity, and frames many of our ideas regarding optimal play.

What to expect in the future

We can’t truly anticipate the linguistic development of poker with any significant degree of accuracy. As different language communities grab a hold of the game and adapt it to their existing cognitive framework, the scope of the new terminologies that might develop is vast.

Then again, poker remains a mathematical construct at its core, and thus there exist elements of the game that will never disappear. These components will always form the bedrock of our understanding, and it is this reality that makes poker the truly global game we see today. No matter how diverse the vocabulary we use to talk about it, the game remains the same.