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What is the origin of the term "to call" in card games like poker?

I can understand that one can "raise" the bet, but why does one want to say "call" to match a bet or match a raise?

How would that meaning of the action "call" be used elsewhere?

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5 Answers 5

There seem to be many different uses of 'call' in different card games.

The Laws and Practice of Whist (Caelebs, 1859) says:

Calling is the only positive avowal permitted at whist. It is an intimation to partner to lead trumps: hence, with a powerful hand it is not advisable to call, lest you put the adversaries on their guard; neither is it advisable, unless partner has the lead, to call before the latest period allowed, viz.: before your own turn to play.

So calling here is a particular signal to your partner (not a verbal call, but a signal encoded by the choice of cards played). But it also seems to be used in the sense of 'calling the game', when you reach a point where you have sufficient strength to win regardless of your opponents' actions. The Compleat Gamester (Richard Seymour and Charles Johnson, 1754) under 'Whist' has

If either side are at 8 groats, he hath a Benefit of calling, Can ye? If he hath 2 Honours in his Hand and the other answers 1, the Game is up, which is 10 in all; but if he hath more than 2 he shews them, which is the same Thing; but if he forgets to call, after playing a Trick, he loseth the Advantage of calling for that Deal.

I believe this is current usage in other trick-taking games like bridge - if at the end you have the right number of trumps (say) then you can declare victory without actually playing out the rest of the game.

The 'call' of poker might be similar to this older usage. OED has

When the bet goes round to the last player ... and he does not wish to go better, he may simply ‘see it’ and ‘call’.

quoting Longman's Magazine from September 1883. The sense is that it is now time to see who has won (and by matching the amount bet, the person who says 'call' is still in the game).

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I believe it stems from Poker's origins as "Brag". It's a 3-card, "straight" game similar in overall feel, but there's only one "betting round" after the cards are dealt.

So, in Brag, to bet into the pot or raise the stakes is to "brag" that your cards are better than everyone else's (obviously without seeing anyone else's hand). To "call" is literally "to call them out" or "to call an end to the brag"; you match the outstanding bet and thus end the betting, forcing them to back up their "brag" by showing their hand.

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I like this answer, but it would be better if you had a source. –  KitFox Jul 13 '11 at 19:53
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Unfortunately I do not have one; it's just what I myself know from the history of poker, take it or leave it. –  KeithS Jul 13 '11 at 20:02

I don't know if this counts as an answer -- it's more like an assumption I've had so long I didn't realize it wasn't the obvious truth. I thought that you were "calling on" your opponent to act, typically show his cards.

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I always thought it was from the financial world's "call option", where the buyer is given the chance to either buy or pass -- the fact that "pass" is also used in poker reinforced that belief, but I've never bothered to research it.

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I've never heard "pass" used in poker. Perhaps you are confusing this with "checking" a hand, meaning declining to bet but remaining in the hand. The actions you can take in poker with respect to betting are fold, check, call, bet, and raise. You can also post blinds (mandatory bets) and open (make the first bet; you can also open-raise). –  Robusto Aug 26 '11 at 20:19

"Call" in poker means, "I'm calling your bluff," that is, your assertion that you have a better hand than mine. The "caller" has to match the bettor's bet in doing this.

If the "caller" is the last person to act, then everyone has to "show down" their hand, to see whose hand really is better.

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But did the idiom "call your bluff" come from poker, or did this idiom give rise to the usage of "call" in poker? From the OED, these two usages seem to have arisen around the same time, which I would guess means "call your bluff" is a poker idiom. –  Peter Shor Jul 6 at 23:31
    
@PeterShor: I'm not sure which came first, "the chicken or the egg." All I know is that they mean the same thing. –  Tom Au Jul 6 at 23:34

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