Stupid Question ™
Aug. 22, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: What is the meaning of the term “four-flusher” or “four-flushing”?
—Brenda Henson Pennell
A: A four-flusher originally was someone who bluffs or otherwise can’t back up his or her bragging. By extension, it has also come to mean a fake, phony or fraud.
The term comes from the game of poker, in which “four-flush” is an oxymoron.
A flush is five cards of the same suit; of the 10 basic hands you can be dealt in poker, it’s the fifth most valuable. If the cards in the flush are in numerical order (say, 2 through 6 of hearts), it’s a straight flush—the second-most valuable hand in the game. A straight flush made up of the five highest-face-value cards (ace, king, queen, jack and 10) is a royal flush, the most valuable hand in the game.
By comparison, a hand containing four cards of the same suit, and the fifth card of a different suit, with no pairs or other arrangements, is nearly valueless. A simple pair beats it.
Specifically, a four-flusher is someone who pretends to have a flush when he’s really one card short. More generally, it’s someone who’s good at bluffing while holding a worthless hand.
The term emerged in the mid-1800s as “four-flush” (both noun and verb), a specific poker term for holding and playing such a hand. It was not necessarily negative, since bluffing is an honored part of poker (and the origin of another classic piece of slang, “poker face”).
In the US, “four-flusher” quickly (by the 1880s) became a general slang term for any sort of bluffer or braggart.
By around 1900, the meaning had expanded further to cover cheaters. This can even extend to romantic infidelity, as not quite immortalized by the Doobie Brothers in their 1975 song “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher.”
Interestingly, the “cheater” definition is now starting to be adopted by poker and casino experts, bringing “four-flusher” full circle.
There’s a fine line between calculated bluffing and simply lying about your hand in the hope that other players will give up and leave the winnings to you. Poker pros are increasingly using “four-flusher” to refer to someone who does the latter.