When I first started in the business, one of the first slang terms I came across was the word Piker, as in “so-and-so is a total piker”.
Amongst the brokers, that was the worst name we could call one another, but it could also be used to describe anyone who is involved in or invests in the markets.
Essentially, by calling someone a piker, you were ridiculing them for the fact that they were either a small-time player or too afraid to bet big.
This got me curious enough to start asking about where the term “Piker” came from. Interestingly, those who seemed to use it most often had the least idea of what it truly meant.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a cautious or timid gambler who makes only small bets; a person who takes no chances; a ‘poor sport’ … a shirker.”
Okay, so where did the term Piker originally come from?
It seems that in the late 1850’s, there was a an area of Missouri, north of St. Louis, that hosted a large number of travelers headed west to try their luck in the Californian gold rush. Because these travelers came through or originated from Pike County, they became known as “pikers” during the course of their journey, in a similar way that travelers from Oklahoma became known as “Okies“. Pikers in this context were characterized as frugal, cautious people who would avoid spending their money on anything, especially drinking or gambling.
Another explanation I’ve heard is that the term “to pike” used to be another way of saying “to leave”, based on the image of a man with a walking stick or a pike. This expression could then have become an interchangeable way of describing someone who “walks away from a bet, opportunity or venture” or one who “holds back”.
It should also be mentioned that the British have their own type of pikers. This is the name assigned to the tramps and gypsies of primarily Irish descent that live and amble along the toll roads or turnpikes, such as the Brad Pitt character in the movie “Snatch“.
So I guess the best explanation for the term Piker is that it could have multiple origins or it could even be an amalgamation of all of them.
One thing I can say for sure is that real players don’t call other people pikers; only pikers concern themselves with the size of other people’s trades or their risk-taking proclivities.