Saturday, January 5, 2008

“donkeys” and “fish”

I’m a degenerate poker player and make no apologies. I should be ashamed of the fact that I’ve spent more time this week playing poker than writing my dissertation, but I’m not, hehe. I play mostly here. Poker players constitute their own speech community of sorts and there has developed a set of lexical items unique to poker (there are a variety 0f poker terms lists online and they’re all about the same).

Recently, I was curious about the origins of the term donkey in poker, so I Googled it and found this claim at About.com here and there are a couple things I find off about it:

Definition: If a poker player is called a 'donkey,' he's a bad player who makes blatantly bad poker plays. A weak player.

Donkey is also shortened to "donk" by many players to announce that they're playing badly or planning to, as in "I'm going to donk it up tonight."

Also Known As: fish, pigeons
(my italics)

First, I think they are wrong to claim donkey and fish are synonyms. A donkey is a bad player who wins (or sucks-out); a fish is a bad player who loses. A donkey is bad. A fish is good. Donkeys are bad because they take my money. Fish are good because they give me money.

Second, I’ve never heard the term pidgeon in the poker games I play in or in the excessive TV coverage, but it does occur in some of the poker glossaries as a synonym for fish. It may be a British English usage, I dunno.

There are a variety of animal terms in poker, but their metaphorical associations are not always transparent.

Shark: The most obvious is shark, a very strong player. Clearly, sharks are notoriously vicious, top-of-the-food-chain predators.

Fish: The term fish may have been derived from shark, since fish are largely helpless, bottom-of-the-food-chain prey. It’s a nice bit of structuralist lexicon building, if that is the case.

Donkey: I can’t find a discussion of the origins of this term in poker, so I have to take a guess at its metaphorical associations (classic back-formation hypothesizing … I’ll almost certainly be wrong, hehe). In poker, donkeys are stupid and lucky. It’s easy to see associating stupid with donkeys (no offense to donkey lovers), but the lucky part takes some work. I’ll hypothesize that the salient feature is the fact that, while stupid, real donkeys pack a potent kick that can hurt you. In poker, donkeys can play stupidly, but make a lucky hand and hurt you by taking lots of chips. Both kinds of donkeys are stupid but dangerous.

The Nuts: This terms refers to the best possible hand. I found the following story about its origin here (I have no way of verifying its veracity):

This cool poker term dates way back to the Wild West where cowboys would gather round a table, preferably in a saloon but alternatively around a campfire, and play cards. Back then poker players would not always bet with cash or chips. It was a more rustic time, and men would often bet their horse and wagon on a poker hand. Legend has it that when a cowboy bet his wagon he would unscrew the nuts from his wagon wheels and place them in the pot. The reason behind this gesture was that in the event that he lost the pot he could not leap up, hop into his wagon and ride away with his wager. The fact that he was willing to put those nuts in the pot as surety for the strength of his hand resonated through the prairie, and came to be synonymous with the best hand. A cowboy would only bet "the nuts" when he was convinced that his hand was the best out there. (emphasis added)

In an interesting extension of the term, ESPN has taken to using the term The Nuts to refer to a series of videos highlighting the little oddball or quirky aspects of poker. Though I couldn’t find an official site for the videos, I found this unofficial site here. What ESPN has done is take a term that is familiar to a speech community with one meaning and extend its usage by playing on an unrelated usage (craziness).

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