Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson

If you Play Your Cards Right….

Playing cards are believed to have originated in China and traveled through India, Persia and Egypt on their way to Europe, probably through Italy in the 1400’s.  Not may things have had as explosive an impact on society, and our language, other than China’s other export, gunpowder.

In the days of the Wild West, and no doubt in many a pub in Europe, gunpowder and cards have been brought together (along with swords, knives and other instruments of persuasion) to settle disputes over who won or who cheated at cards.
It’s also ironic that despite hyper-morale elements of society, often opposed to the playing of cards because of some perceived connection with the dark forces, a very large number of idioms – which is a group of words that have meaning which is not necessarily that of the individual words – took their place in English, used to this day.

Card game analogies to life are plentiful, even showing up in our popular music such as Kenny Rogers’ lyric, “you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”  Well you don’t fold your cards.  That might get you shot in earlier years for marking the cards.  Folding your hand refers to giving up the competition where in the game of Poker you simply quit the contest by placing your cards face down on the table.

And speaking of Poker, thanks to Wikipedia, I can report that the game possibly came from the Irish game of Poca (pronouned pok-ah) or from the French card game poque (maybe a little unrecorded cross-channel exchange?). This in turn is believed to come from the German game resembling Poker called “Pochspiel” from the german word pochen – meaning to bluff or brag.

Anyway, back to idioms.  We have derived as many over the centuries as there are stories of men (generally) losing to a card sharp (not “card shark” although the analogy could be appropriate), betting the farm on what they thought was a sure win, going for broke (either I win or I’m broke and my family is ruined) to hit the jackpot (win the prize) only to lose when the master of the table somehow materializes the winning Ace cards (carefully stashed up his sleeve) and takes farm, pocket watch and all.

Someone in business operating with some of their resources unknown may be said to have a card or two up his or her sleeve, without the inference that there’s cheating going on. Then again, they may not have the strength implied, in which case the opposition may call the bluff, and demand they lay the cards on the table (show us what you’ve got).

At the moment of truth, you find out if they have the cards to win perhaps with a wild card, a designated card that can have the value of another, or nothing at all.  Calling their bluff may show that what they have is no more substantial than a house of cards (euphemism for a vulnerable structure of playing cards balanced on each other).

Lately we’ve have a ringside seat to one of the biggest poker games we’ll likely ever experience:  the contest to see who wins the Jackpot of the Republican and Democratic party nominations to run for US President, then watch as they go for broke.

It all depends on who pays the more powerful Trump cards.