pass the buck (1856)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon Apr 25 01:15:04 UTC 2005

I looked at a few books (about poker etc.), which generally say that the
buck was originally a knife but in modern times is a marker. Ostrow's
"Complete Card Player" (1945) says the buck is a marker which identifies a
player as having some special privilege, etc. (i.e., NOT necessarily
marking the dealer). The only example of this which I noted in this book on
brief glance had the buck placed in the pot in a certain style of dealer's
choice game: whoever wins the pot has the buck which entitles him to choose
the game on his next deal (and pass the buck to whoever wins that pot). I
found a Hoyle from 1857 which was new enough to include poker, but not new
enough to include the buck. (The poker of 1857 employed no straights,
apparently. The high hand was four aces [four kings plus an ace was also
unbeatable]. There was a common type of poker called "twenty-deck", using a
deck of 20 cards.)

Several examples suggest that "passing the buck" was such a salient feature
of poker that it was used as a metaphor for "playing poker".

As for the knife's point, I suspect it was usually a clasp knife, closed.
Why use a knife? I suppose that in any game there would have been at least
one man with a pocket knife.

Here is an early example mentioning the knife, consistent with the usual
claim that the original buck was a knife.


_Steubenville Daily Herald and News_ (Steubenville OH), 12 Oct. 1875: p. 2(?):

<<[From the Virginia, Nev., Chronicle.] It was a pleasant and right
sociable little party that sat around a little pine table in the rear of a
C street grocery, night before last. There were five men in the party ....
each man had a number of white beans in front of him. They were playing
cards, and kept pushing, from one to the other, a big jack-knife, which
they called "the back," [sic] probably from the fact that it had a
buckhorn, maybe, perhaps. .... / ".... Gimme three, and bet you five beans.
.... See it and raise you six. ....">>


Apparently draw poker was the game. I presume "back" is a typo. for "buck"
here. The etymology was apparently not entirely self-evident even then, though!

-- Doug Wilson

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