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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 Standard English." 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 words.

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.

Maugh, profession.
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, skill, ingenuity.

 

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 1840s.


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 palms up.

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 1965.

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.


The Sanas (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)

Pharaon
Fiar araon
To turn both; to turn two together.

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 "a turn."
Fiaradh, (pron. fearoo): Turning, a turn. Vn. Turning, (act of) turning, coiling, twisting.

 

The Fiaradh (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.

 

Gaelic New 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 slaves.

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. (16)

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 Promises."

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.

Sweat Cloth
Suite Cloth
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." (22)

Case Keeper
Cas (Turn) Keeper

Cas, v., to turn, to twist, wind, coil.
Casadh, (pron. casah) Vn, act of turning, twisting, coiling.

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 be beat.

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)

Square
‘S cóir, contraction of Is cóir (é.)
Fair play. Honest. (It) is honest. (It) is fair play.

Scam
‘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, fairness.

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.


The Tiger 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.

Sucker
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" cloth.
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, or sow.

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.

 

II. The Sanas (etymology, secret knowledge) of Poker

Poker (game)
Póca (game)
Pocket (game)

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 beer hall.

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 poker.

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 head.

Perhaps, we should turn conventional wisdom on its head and — as in a Poker game — go for the pocket? (31).

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 Irish language.

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.

Poker (game)
Póca (game)
Pocket (game)

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" hand.

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 torment.

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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 all players.

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.

 

Sanas Beag (a small glossary) of Poker

Jack, money
Tiach, tiag (pron. jack): a purse, a wallet, fig. money.

"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 (40)

 

Brag: The name for an early card game related to Poker
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 your hand."

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, a deviation.

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 the nuts
Neart (pron. n’art)
Power, physical strength, force. Enough, plenty, a sufficiency; ability.

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.

 

Check
Téacht (pron. chayk).
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.

 

Kitty
Cuid oíche (pron. cuiddihy)
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."

 

Piker
Picear
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 http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Linguistics/irish.html

 

Notes

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, 1585­1815.

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, pp. 270-71.

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. 34.

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, pp. 21-23.

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, Ch. 11.
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, p. 702.

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, p. 908.
.
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, p. 93.

53. Hughie, p. 293.

54. Donald Henderson Clarke, In the Reign of Rothstein, NY, 1929, p. 34; Canfield quote.