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Poker & Pop Culture: Hold'em Hand Nicknames

Among poker's many attractions is the way the game manages to produce a seemingly inexhaustible fund of stories. Poker is fun to play, but fun to talk about playing, too, with particular hands usually the focus for such tales from the tables, providing ready-made conflicts from which to spin a variety of plots, characters, and themes.

Like any game or activity, poker has its own vocabulary or jargon, produced "from within" (so to speak) by actions dictated by the game itself. Proving both the game's popularity and its influence on popular culture, there are numerous examples of the special language of poker having made its way out of the casinos and into the public at large, with the meanings of phrases like "wearing a poker face," "the chips are down," or "calling a bluff" commonly understood by most, regardless of one's familiarity with the game.

However, one also finds in poker many examples of the language of popular culture influencing how players talk about the game. That is to say, among poker's lexicon one finds many examples of vocabulary having entered into poker "from without." And in all of poker, one probably finds the highest concentration of such cultural allusions among the many colorful nicknames for starting hands in Texas hold'em.

Discounting the differences of suits (without relative value in hold'em), there are only 169 possible combinations of two-card starting hands in Texas hold'em — 13 pairs, 78 suited unpaired hands, and 78 non-suited unpaired hands. Perhaps as part of the effort to lessen redundancy in stories about hold'em hands, it seems that nicknames have been invented for nearly all 169. Some of these nicknames involve associative logic, simply noting physical similarities suggested by the figures on the cards (e.g., aces become rockets, deuces ducks, treys crabs, fours sailboats, and so forth). Others stem from poker's rich history, such as the humble 10-2 being named the "Brunson" after Texas Dolly won both of his WSOP Main Event titles (in 1976 and 1977) while holding those two cards.

However, a preponderance of hold'em starting hand nicknames come from various aspects of the world beyond the poker table, thereby providing a somewhat idiosyncratic chronicle of popular culture. Here are just a few of the many examples, organized by category:

Television and Film

Most histories of poker date the emergence of hold'em as occurring sometime after the middle of the 20th century, and not overtaking stud in popularity until near the century's end. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to see most cultural allusions in starting hand nicknames coming from the century's latter decades.

Many hold'em hands have been named after popular television actors or characters, with some references being more obvious than others. That A-A would be referred to as "Alan Alda" (star of the '70s-'80s TV series "M*A*S*H") or T-J called "T.J. Hooker" (after the '80s action drama starring William Shatner) is easy enough to follow. Less immediately apparent might be 10-4 being called "Broderick Crawford," so named after the lead actor of "Highway Patrol", which aired in the late '50s. Crawford starred as Chief Dan Matthews, shown frequently saying "10-4" into his radio, indicating an affirmative response. Following the CB radio craze of the '70s, the hand likewise became known as "Trucker's Hand" or "CB Hand" for similar reasons.

Q-J has been called the "Maverick" after a line from the theme song to the 1957-62 television series starring James Garner. Garner played Bret Maverick, an Old West gambler, and the show's theme song described him traveling from "Natchez to New Orleans, livin' on jacks and queens." K-J became "Kojak" thanks to the '70s crime drama starring Telly Savalas, who was himself a poker player and occasional participant in WSOP Main Events. The late-'60s secret agent comedy "Get Smart" supplied a couple more hand nicknames, with 8-6 being called "Maxwell Smart" (after Don Adams' character, Agent 86) and 9-9 referred to as "Barbara Feldon" (after the actress portraying his partner, Agent 99).

Pocket jacks has been called "Kid Dyn-o-mite" after a favorite expression of Jimmie Walker's character, J.J., on the '70s series "Good Times". 3-9 has been referred to as "Jack Benny," the popular TV star of the '50s, who perpetually claimed he was 39 years old. And the lowly 2-4 has recently garnered the name "Jack Bauer" after Kiefer Sutherland's character in 24.

Several hand nicknames have come from the film world as well. Pocket kings has been called "King Kong" for obvious reasons, a nickname taken a step further when it gets called "Gorillas in the Mist" after the 1988 film in which Sigourney Weaver starred as the zoologist Dian Fossey. 7-6 is known as "Trombones" after the song "Seventy-six Trombones" from the 1962 musical The Music Man. The "Brunson" — 10-2 — has also been dubbed "Terminator 2," the action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger heavily marketed as simply "T2" when released in 1991.

9-5 has been called the "Dolly Parton" after the country singer's 1980 film, the theme song for which was a #1 single for Parton. Q-T has been called the "Quentin Tarantino" after the Pulp Fiction director. Pocket fours has been called "Dirty Harry," a reference to the .44 Magnum that Clint Eastwood's character carried. And among a certain, (thankfully) small segment of players who aren't overly bothered by puns, 4-4 also sometimes evokes Star Wars references, with the hand being named after "Luke Skywalker" or other characters ("may the fours be with you").

Sports and Entertainment

The sports world has provided a few hold'em hand nicknames as well, most readily via the jersey numbers of especially notable athletes. Thus does 9-9 get called the "Gretzky," after Wayne Gretzky, whom many regard the greatest hockey player ever, and 2-3 "Michael Jordan," whom many regard the greatest basketball player. Additionally, 4-9 has been referred to as "San Francisco," a reference to the football team's nickname (the 49ers), or "Joe Montana," who quarterbacked the team to four Super Bowl victories.

A-K goes by many names, though the name "Anna Kournikova," a reference to the attractive women's tennis player, is an especially popular one. Though once ranked as high as eighth in the world (in 2000) and a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion (with Martina Hingis), Kournikova was known more for her looks than her successes on the court, and thus became an apt analogue for the way ace-king sometimes looks better than it plays. As Elkan Allan and Hannah Mackay write in The Poker Encyclopedia, the nickname functioned as "a rather cruel [if not completely accurate] reference to the fact that tennis 'lovely' Kournikova was nice to look at but never won anything."

Other examples of feminine beauty — namely, from the fashion world — have also contributed to the catalogue of hold'em hand nicknames. A couple concern models' measurements, with 2-9 being called "Twiggy" after the rail thin, teenaged sensation of the '60s, and 4-4 also called "Diana Dors," after the British blonde bombshell whose fame peaked in the '50s. Meanwhile, 3-8 has been named "Raquel Welch," a reference not to physical appearance but to the way the actress/model, like Jack Benny, would lie about her age, claiming to be 38 well into her forties.

Other nicknames from the entertainment world include Q-Q being called the "Hilton Sisters", a reference to sister models Nicole and Paris Hilton. From the realm of popular music, J-5 has been called "Jackson Five" after the highly successful pop act, or, alternately, "Motown" after the label for which they recorded their biggest hits. And 6-6 has been called "Route 66" or "Kicks," a reference to the semi-transcontinental highway and/or the popular song, recorded by many different artists, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66."

Products and Businesses

Many hold'em hand nicknames come from products or businesses especially prominent in American culture, their presence perhaps attesting to the reach and influence of advertising in our highly commercialized society. Thus does A-J become "Apple Jacks" or "Ajax," Q-T "Q-Tip," 5-7 "Heinz," K-K "Krispy Kreme," 3-A "Baskin Robbins" (home of 31 flavors of ice cream), and A-A "American Airlines."

A few hands have been named after particular car models, such as the Audi TT giving pocket tens the name "Audi" or the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight giving 9-8 the name "Oldsmobile." Speaking of gas guzzlers, some of us remember the circular "'76" signs of the now-defunct Union Oil company, thus inspiring 7-6 to be called "Union Oil."

Another oil company, Exxon, turns up in another hand nickname — in this case, a nickname inspired by a nickname. In 1989, one of the company's tankers, the Valdez, hit a reef in the Alaskan gulf and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan waters. Thus did A-K, oft-called "Big Slick," gain yet another moniker, "Exxon Valdez."

Literature

Finally come a few hand nicknames from literary sources. Face cards (the kings, queens, and jacks or "knaves") originated as references to members of the court, so it isn't unexpected to see nicknames for starting hands with two face cards alluding to famous royal pairings from literature. While K-Q has been generically referred to as "Marriage" or the "Royal Couple," the offsuit variety has sometimes been called "Othello," a reference to the racially-mixed marriage between the titular Moor and Desdemona in Shakespeare's tragedy. Meanwhile, Q-J has been called "Oedipus," an allusion to Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the ancient Greek tragedy in which Oedipus (the "J" in this pairing) unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, Jocasta (the "Q").

8-4 has been named "Big Brother," a reference to the elusive dictator in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. Finally, J-K gets called "Harry Potter," a nod to the initials of the popular series' author, J.K. Rowling.

There are many more such starting hand nicknames alluding to various cultural icons, productions, and phenomena. Some are employed more frequently than others, of course, but their ready availability certainly can add flavor to stories of hold'em hands.

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