Q From Claire Williams, UK: What’s the origin of across the board? A friend told me it had something to do with gambling. Is he right?
A Your friend is right. US readers will probably already know this, since the term has a specialised gambling sense there. In the UK, we only know it in the sense of something that applies to all, as in “the cutbacks will be across the board”.
It’s definitely of American origin and comes from horse racing, in which it refers to a bet in which equal amounts are staked on a horse to win, place, or show in a race — that is, come in first, second, or third. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1950, but it’s actually much older — there are examples in US newspapers going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The earliest I’ve found so far is from The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York, in 1902, about a scam perpetrated on a local bookmaker: “This affected the bookmaker to the extent of allowing him to make another bet of $30 across the board, this bet to net $160”.
The board itself was the blackboard on which bookmakers chalked up the odds for each horse in each race, so to bet across the board was to select all three options — win, place, and show — for one horse.