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Ace in the Hole

Actress Shannon Elizabeth from the film "American Pie" puts on her poker face during a game of poker.
Actress Shannon Elizabeth from the film "American Pie" puts on her poker face during a game of poker.
Ace in the Hole
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Now, Words and Their Stories, a program in Special English by the Voice of America.

It is surprising how many expressions that Americans use every day came from the card game of poker. For example, you hear the expression "ace in the hole" used by many people who would never think of going near a poker table. An "ace in the hole" is any argument, plan or thing kept hidden until needed. It is used especially when it can turn failure into success.

In poker and most card games, the ace is the highest and most valuable card. It is often a winning card. In one kind of poker game, the first card to each player is given face down. A player does not show this card to the other players. The other cards are dealt face up. The players bet money each time they receive another card.

No one knows until the end of the game whose hidden card is the winner. Often, the "ace in the hole" wins the game.

Smart card players -- especially those who play for large amounts of money -- closely watch the person who deals the cards. They are watching to make sure he is dealing honestly. They want to be sure that he is not dealing off the bottom of the stack of cards. A dealer who is doing that has "stacked the deck." He has fixed the cards so that he will get higher cards. He will win and you will lose.

The expression "dealing off the bottom" now means cheating in business, as well as in cards. And when someone tells you that "the cards are stacked against you," he is saying you do not have a chance to succeed.

In a poker game you do not want to let your opponents know if your cards are good or bad. So having a "poker face" is important. A "poker face" never shows any emotion, never expresses either good or bad feelings. No one can learn by looking at your face if your cards are good or bad.

People now use "poker face" in everyday speech to describe someone who shows no emotion.

Someone who has a "poker face" usually is good at bluffing. Bluffing is trying to trick a person into believing something about you that is not true.

In poker, you "bluff" when you bet heavily on a poor hand. The idea is to make the other players believe you have strong cards and are sure to win. If they believe you, they are likely to drop out of the game. This means you win the money they have bet.

You can do a better job of bluffing if you "hold your cards close to your vest." You hold your cards close to you so no one can see what you have. In everyday speech, "holding your cards close to your vest" means not letting others know what you are doing or thinking. You are keeping your plans secret.

We are not bluffing when we say we hope you have enjoyed today’s program.

This Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano.

This is Bob Doughty.