Where Does ‘Jackpot’ Come From?

mega moolah jackpotThe likelihood is that if you’re familiar with gambling games, you know the term ‘jackpot’. It usually relates to a large payout that you stand the chance of winning. Most of the time, this exceeds any standard high payout in a game.

Today, many types of casino game feature jackpots in them. This includes slot games, poker games, blackjack varieties, and more. Of course, we’d all like to win that jackpot, right?

While we all know what ‘jackpot’ means, few of us know where that name came from. That’s what we want to uncover here today. We’ll be taking a look at how the term ‘jackpot’ came about. Where does it come from? Well, read on through this information and you’ll find out more about it.

A Look Back in History


The concept of a jackpot was something that first came about around 1879. It was at this point that a gambler explained a court in Indiana the workings of a betting pool. His explanation surrounded a version of draw poker. In that game, a pair of jacks or better were necessary to “open the pot” and begin the betting. His description of the game was:

“The money up is called the pot and the man who holds jacks can require the others to bet him or to drop him out”.

Once the betting was open, other players could match, raise or fold regardless of their hand value. He went on to explain that if nobody has a pair of jacks or better, then players add to the ante. The cards are then reshuffled and redealt. This results in a pot that gets bigger each time.

This variant of poker also had a twist to it, unlike other Wild West poker games. In Texas Hold’em, for example, players can win with a pair or even with a simple high card hand. In the Jacks or Better variation, a player needed at least three-of-a-kind or better to win. If nobody had such a hand, then the money stayed in the pot and a new round began. This gave the pot the potential to grow bigger at a quicker rate.

The odds of someone drawing three-of-a-kind in a hand of five-card draw stand at around 46:1 and so it is little surprise that many rounds of Jacks or Better would pass by with nobody winning. As a consequence, the pots would often grow to vast sizes. The person lucky enough to draw three-of-a-kind or better would then get a large payout.

From this, Jacks or Better went on to become the best casino game in town for those looking to win big amounts. It is important not to confuse this game with the video poker title of the same name. The Indiana court explanation of the game is the first-known example of a progressive jackpot. People then began associating Jacks with big pots of money. Somewhere along the way, it is these pots that became known as “Jack’s pot”. That then morphed into the single word “jackpot”.

As a result, people now refer to big wins as jackpots. That’s how the media termed one of the biggest wins on the Mega Moolah slot by a British soldier in 2015. His 25p wager landed him a £13.2 million payout. That’s most definitely a jackpot!

The story of Jon Heywood was one of trials and tribulations. Completing a tour of Afghanistan with the army, he had returned home for respite. The 26-year-old had had a tough year since setting foot back on UK shores. His grandfather passed away in that year, too. Upon winning his £13,213,838.68 jackpot, Heywood said he had one first thing on his mind to do. He set about buying his father the “best possible medical treatment” he could. After that, his decision was to buy a luxury car with some of the funds, too. That payout, at the time, was the largest jackpot win on an online slot machine.

The Association with Poker

jackpot written on playing cards poker

The word ‘jackpot’ has always had an association with some form of gambling. Of course, because poker always has a pot, it is very often linked with that particular game. It relates to the sum of money that the players wager during a single hand. Back in the 1820s, poker came to New Orleans with French settlers. In its original format, it had quite the bad reputation. Many saw it as a game for cheats to con others out of money, even when played in a fair way. Various gambling hideouts close to New Orleans set up shop in river towns. Professional gamblers and travellers would visit these locations on a frequent basis.

Many people would often travel with their whole life savings as well. Passing through these river towns, conmen would pry on these people. They would offer them ways to increase the money they had. It was poker that they presented as an easy way to do this. It didn’t take long for various companies to create and sell card cheating apparatus, too. With crowds moving westwards, driven by the prospect of finding gold, poker went with them. Many original poker games were only played with 20 cards for four players. As a result, it became a game of high stake of win or lose.

It didn’t take long for it to evolve into a full-deck game, featuring all 52 cards. This caused upset amongst many players of the original variation. More people could play at once with 52 cards, thus creating a bigger chance to win. Players had a bigger timeframe in which to improve their hands, of course. It is from this that the variation of draw poker, Jacks or Better, came about in the 1870s.

The Link to Bad Situations

misfortune wooden blocks

‘Jackpot’ doesn’t only have links to the poker world. In fact, for a brief period of time at the start of the 1900s, it had an altogether different meaning. It was often associated with misfortune or hardship. It even had links with being in trouble with the law as well.

A book entitled The Cowboy by Philip Rollins utilised the phrase ‘jackpot’. It was in this book that it related to a perplexing situation. Another book, No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland, saw it used as well. This suggested that one of the characters in the story had to “get out of a jackpot”.

How exactly does a word associated with skill and success change its meaning so much? Well, there has been a lot of speculation over its associations with troublesome situations. Some have suggested that misfortunes experienced by those who lost it all gambling could be an explanation for it. As poker games spread from east to west, it didn’t take long for poker losses to reach print. One of the earliest examples of this was in 1833.

In March of that year, Congress authorised a Dragoon Regiment. This featured soldiers who could fight on horseback or on foot during battle. In an account of the Dragoon Campaigns by James Hildreth, he spoke of one specific instance. During a campaign to the Rocky Mountains, a man “lost some cool hundreds” while playing poker.

Some other negative references spoke of slaves placing their freedom in the jackpot. Other accounts note slave owners wagering their slaves on what they believe to be a good poker hand.

That type of scenario plays out in various published books and even in films and other media. For example, in Amazing Grace from 2006, William Wilberforce pulls out of a card game. The reason why? Because his opponent bets a slave to test Wilberforce’s abolitionist convictions. That film bases itself on real life events, so there is every possibility that it did happen back then. Other films feature similar scenarios as well.

In 1921, The Mixer and Server journal published its January edition. This had an affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. In that issue, it stated that a time existed where:

“it was not at all uncommon for a gentleman planter who lost all his money to bet a negro slave on a poker hand”.

Therefore, it’s not surprising to see that links between the word ‘jackpot’ and negative situations arose.

The Return to Jackpots Being a Success

Hall of Gods Win

The earlier definitions of the ‘jackpot’ word continued for many years. In fact, they led on into the 20th century. It was only at that time that the term became something else. As we all know it now, ‘jackpot’ became a word related to winning large sums. That much is true especially if the win is something unexpected by the player. It centres on being a word loaded with enthusiasm and success. A common turn of phrase is “hit the jackpot”. That may relate to winning a huge payout at a casino. Yet it could also be a phrase uttered to someone who has secured a dream job, for example.

The biggest example of such jackpot success came about in 2003. The largest slot machine jackpot in history was, at that time, recorded. During a visit to the Excalibur Casino in Las Vegas, a 25-year-old played the Megabucks machine. He chose to visit the casino while visiting his family in Vegas, which his uncle referred to him. The software engineer for Los Angeles said he had played about $100 on the game by a certain point. He turned his head away from the machine for an instant. Then, upon turning his head back, the winning symbols had lined up for him.

From the $100 in total that he had proceeded with wagering, he received a payout of $39,713,982.25. The winner requested anonymity but said he would use some of the funds to fund his parents’ retirement. Before this payout, the largest jackpot win stood at $34.9 million.

That $39.4 million jackpot win occurred at the Desert Inn, also in Las Vegas. Cynthia Jay Brennan was 37 years old at the time and working as a cocktail waitress. A trip to Las Vegas in January of 2001 saw her tackle the slot machines in the casino. It was from this that her fortunes landed, and she won the $34.9 million payout. Her first mission afterwards was to take care of her family. Five sisters and three brothers all got to enjoy Cynthia’s generosity. She also proceeded to marry her long-term boyfriend, Terry Brennan.

BGO Jackpot Win

Unfortunately, she found coping with her new wealth quite overwhelming. Cynthia found that she couldn’t go out in public without suffering from harassment. Yet in December of that same year, her fortunes turned around in a tragic way. One night, an alleged drunken driver slammed into her car at 45 miles per hour. The impact killed one of her sisters in an instant and injured Cynthia in a critical way. The police arrested 57-year-old Clark Morse on suspicion of drunken driving. He had three previous convictions for the same issue. Cynthia was left paralysed from the incident.

Other huge jackpot wins include a $27.6 million payout at the Palace Station Casino, also in Vegas. That went to a lucky retiree in 1998 who played the Megabucks machine. A €17.8 million payout went to a Finnish player accessing an online casino in 2013. They hit the jackpot after spending only €0.25 on Mega Fortune from Netent.