If [the Oklahoma City Thunder are] clicking on all cylinders, I give them a punter’s chance obviously to put the kind of firepower out on the floor to go head to head with the [Golden State] Warriors four quarters.
—Jalen Rose, quoted in The New York Times, April 15, 2016
When I read that quote by Rose (a native of Detroit and famously a member of the University of Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team in the early 1990s), referring to two top National Basketball Association teams, my NOOBs antennae went up.
I had never encountered punter’s chance, but I knew that in Britain, punter is a common word that has not yet achieved NOOBs status. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it originated in the 18th century to mean “A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.” In Lynne Murphy’s discussion of the term in her blog, Separated by a Common Language, she says it was then generalized “to mean any type of gambler and from there to mean someone who pays for something, and particularly a man who pays for a prostitute’s services.” (This has no relation to the kicking play called the punt in American football and resulting metaphorical verb meaning to put off or delay a decision or action.)
From that, one can deduce that a punter’s chance means a small but not nonexistent chance, such as a bettor against long odds would have. One needs to deduce because the phrase isn’t defined in the OED or any other dictionary I’ve found. Indeed, it is a rarely used expression, on either side of the Atlantic, with scarcely more than 1,000 Google hits. The Rose quote represents the only time it has ever been used in The New York Times. The earliest use I’ve found is this tantalizing one apparently from an Australian financial publication called The Bulletin in 1973: “At their present price of $2.30 the shares look good value in this market and it’s a punter’s chance that another free issue could be in the wind.” More solid is a quote from a 1986 article in The Hispanic American Historical Review —”He made promises he had only a punter’s chance of keeping.” A 2006 headline from The Times–“Vengeful Ponting Has Given England a Punter’s Chance”–made clever use of the nickname of Ricky Ponting, Australia’s cricket captain at the time: “Punter.” Four years later, The Daily Mail noted: “It is not just the weather that might give an outsider a punter’s chance in Japan, but the fact the circuit presents a challenge unique in modern motor sport.”
My hypothesis is that punter’s chance is a rather brilliant eggcorn stemming from a more established (and more American than British) expression, puncher’s chance. This one comes from boxing and refers to the fact that even if you’re an outclassed underdog, you can win a match with one knockout punch. The first use I’ve found is from The New York Times in 1961: “Gene Fullmer today remained the favorite to defeat Florentino Fernandez, but the Cuban was given a puncher’s chance to score an upset.” It has been used 68 times in the Times since then, and it now shows up in all sorts of nonboxing and nonsports contexts, such as this from Nick Paumgarten, writing about the novelist James Salter in The New Yorker in 2013: “Among many writers, and some literary people, he is venerated for his sentence-making, his observational powers, his depictions of sex and valor, and a pair of novels that, in spite of thin sales and obscure subject matter, have more than a puncher’s chance at permanence.” Another former NBA player and current analyst, Vinny Del Negro, said last week, referring to the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff series against Oklahoma City, “You always have a puncher’s chance when Dirk [Nowitzki] is on the court.”
Talking of punching, to punch above [or more than] one’s weight is, according to the OED, a “chiefly British” metaphorical phrase derived from boxing and meaning to have more “power or influence [than] one’s status or significance allows or implies.” The first citation is from The Economist in 1986: “Though only some 12 percent of Nevadans are Mormons, they punch more than their weight.” It’s in full cliché mode now, with 5,340 hits in a Google News search. It is also a proper NOOB, with roughly as many of the hits from U.S. as from U.K. sources: e.g., “Russia, too weak to confront NATO directly, relies on two methods to punch above its weight, military analysts say” (The Boston Globe, April 16, 2016).
The phrase apparently really took off in the 1990s due to a widely quoted comment by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd of Britain that the country punched above its weight in foreign affairs. Hurd subsequently denied “ever having expressed so crude a sentiment,” according to an Economist article in 1995. “He has ordered searches of electronic databases, defying anyone to find an authoritative attribution of the quote to him.”
No word on the results of the search.