Bluffing indeed separates poker from other card games, and as Spanier suggests is for some the tell-tale feature that defines poker. In other words, it ain’t “poker” if you cannot pretend to have something other than what you have -- and, perhaps, win by doing so. Like the dog on the left there in C.M. Coolidge’s “A Bold Bluff” is trying to do in one of Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” series (which you can read more about here). In fact, one finds in some early references to poker the game actually being called “bluff” -- a nod to the poker’s most salient characteristic.
So the word “bluff” being used to indicate someone trying to represent a hand other than the one he or she is holding has a long, long history -- extending back almost as far as does the word “poker.” But the word itself was around before poker was, having other meanings.
The Oxford English Dictionary introduces “bluff” as a “a nautical word of uncertain origin” that once indicated “a broad flattened front,” although could be used when describing a number of possible objects, including part of a ship, a shore or coast-line “presenting a bold and almost perpendicular front,” or even a person’s face or forehead. From there the word took on figurative meanings as well, suggesting someone standing firm (e.g., “he stood bluff”) or being notably direct or blunt in one’s manner.
The word turns up in a couple of other contexts as well prior to becoming part of the vocabulary of poker. Stemming from that reference to the look of a shore or coast-line, the term starts being used to refer to any “cliff or headland with a broad precipitous face.” Among the representative OED quotes is one by Washington Irving noting “the wild and picturesque bluffs” as part of his description of a landscape. From that usage come even further references to river banks or any steep incline.
According to America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America by Allan Metcalf and David K. Barnhart, it is this topographical meaning of the word that got picked up and transferred over to poker. “Since a bluff puts up a high imposing front,” write the authors, “someone or something that put on a show of intimidation was [said to be] bluffing, a use attested as early as 1839.” The authors note that it was only a few years before that the first instances of the word “poker” turn up in the U.S.
There are other explanations for the word’s origin that have challenged that one. Another less prominant usage refers to “a blinker for a horse” -- that is some sort of cover for the eyes (also called “blinders”), say for horses drawing a carriage to keep them from getting distracted and running about. The OED says that appears to have led to a slang usage of “bluff” to mean “a false excuse intended to blindfold or hoodwink,” a connotation which then got picked up with reference to card games.
However, “the etymology [here] is quite unknown” says the dictionary, as that particular meaning “does not appear to have any possible connexion with BLUFF... [and] is probably one of numerous cant terms... which arose between the Restoration and the reign of Queen Anne” -- that is, the late 17th and early 18th centuries (well before poker came around). “It looks as if recent users have imagined a connexion,” adds the OED, making that explanation seem even more dubious.
Sounds as though the connection to an imposing looking cliff or steep hill is the one that has been given the most credence. That one does evoke that other, commonly known meaning of “bluff” still used today, making it seem even more persuasive.
But I can’t help wondering if that’s really the origin of the term. It’s not that it sounds too good to be true, but not good enough. Then again, I suppose that’s why the story is somewhat believable. So I guess I’ll believe it.
I don’t have enough information to challenge it, anyway. Not even a bluff-catcher.