Q From Ray Willis, Sydney, Australia: I was hoping you could illuminate me as to the origins of the word jackpot.
A The word has always had associations with gambling, at first not the big lotteries of today with their rollover jackpots, but with the game of poker.
In its early days in the US in the 1820s, poker was a gambling game for four players using a deck of only 20 cards; its reputation was commonly as a crooked game for cheats and hustlers. Its rules evolved very quickly through the following decades. Players began to use the full deck of 52 cards so more could take part in a game and, around the 1860s, some bright spark had the idea of improving the game by introducing a rule that nobody could open the betting unless his hand contained two jacks or better. If, after the usual rounds of dealing extra cards, nobody else had a hand good enough to bid, the player with the good hand took the accumulated stakes, which obviously enough became known as the jack pot.
This version of the game took a while to catch on. Though the term is first recorded in an issue of The National Police Gazette in 1865, it doesn’t appear with any frequency until the middle 1870s. A puzzled reference to it is in a story with the title The Young Men at Narragansett Pier, which appeared in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette of 21 August 1876:
One never sees these young men standing around bar-rooms holding one end of a straw to their mouths and the other to a julep. They are never seen playing billiards for wine and cigars, or passing out of the game in a Jack pot when they hold a bob-tailed flush. Indeed, like the reader and myself, they do not know what a Jack pot is, unless it is a pot to put jacks in, which is sometimes the case.
[bob-tailed flush: a useless one, missing one card of the set, like a chopped-off rabbit’s tail.]
The term began to be applied to lotteries only around the start of the twentieth century.