Cards and Spades.

I learned of the expression “give cards and spades” from a comment by John Cowan, and of course I looked it up. It’s not in the OED, so I tried the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and sure enough:

give cards and spades to allow an advantage; to outdo despite an advantage
1888 in F[armer] & H[enley] II 37: Artie found a Chinaman out in ‘Frisco who could give him cards and spades and beat him out. 1903 A. Adams Log of a Cowboy 274: That little hole back there could give Natchez-under-the-hill cards and spades, and then outhold her as a tough town. […] 1936 J.T. Farrell World I Never Made 97: None better. She can deal out cards and spades to most gals.

I’m curious both as to its origin (spades are, after all, cards) and to what extent it’s still used, or at least known. Are you familiar with it?


  1. George Grady says

    I’ve heard the expression, although it’s not one I use. Webster’s New World College Dictionary claims it’s referring specifically to the scoring in the game “casino” ( I’ve always spelled that game “cassino” myself, as does Wikipedia:

    When I was in grad school, my wife and I used to play cassino a lot, but most people I’ve mentioned it to have never heard of it.

  2. I haven’t met the phrase before, but it looks like an allusion to Cassino scoring rules (you count both cards and spades in your tricks):

  3. I am vaguely familiar with the phrase, although I certainly have never used it. I am also somewhat familiar with cassino scoring; although I hadn’t made the connection between the expression and the game before, it seems like an obvious allusion in retrospect. Moreover, while I feel like the expression can certainly be used in the context of a card game and probably any game, more general usages feel wrong to me. (The Log of a Cowboy citation seems totally wrong to me—although that sentence is weird on other counts as well.)

  4. I hadn’t run into the expression before, but when I saw it here and read that it means “to outdo despite an advantage” I guessed that it must refer to casino; you are unlikely to be the winner in a deal of casino if your opponent has both “cards” and “spades”, but it is not impossible.

  5. I assume it’s like chess handicaps where the stronger player ‘giving a queen’ means that they start without it — in Cas[s]ino it could either mean that the weaker player gets the two points for most cards and most spades regardless of who actually has the most, or that the stronger player foregoes the points if they do get the most.

    (As long as the stronger player isn’t somehow prevented from capturing most of the cards, it’s not unlikely that they can score enough of the other nine points to win).

  6. I assume it’s like chess handicaps where the stronger player ‘giving a queen’ means that they start without it

    OT, I know, but I have to challenge that. I’m not much of a chess player, but I can’t believe there is a chess handicap where a player starts without their queen.

  7. Queen odds (and variants thereof).

  8. OK, I stand corrected. Quite amazing.

  9. I hadn’t heard the phrase till I read John’s comment. Green’s Dictionary of Slang says it’s from ‘card-playing imagery’ and provides the same first citation as HDAS.

  10. My citations on the phrase, taken from the current GDoS database:

    1888 St Paul Dly Globe (MN) 30 June 6/1: Mr Barnes’ black legged players can give cards and spades to bad luck and beat it out.
    1888 Grip (Toronto) May n.p.: You know that Artie found a Chinaman out in ’Frisco who could give him cards and spades and beat him out [F&H].
    1896 M.S. Cutting Little Stories of Married Life 105: A girl always knows what a man ought to do — she can give him cards and spades and beat him every time.
    1903 A.H. Lewis Boss 191: There’s other games, like Tammany Hall for instance, where I could give you cards an’ spades.
    1913 J. London Valley of the Moon (Internet edn) 187: Billy […] had said that she was built like a French woman, and that in the matter of lines and form she could give Annette Kellerman cards and spades.
    1927 H.S. Keeler Sing-Sing Nights (2010) n.p.: You can give ’em all cards and spades when you want to.
    1938 Rotarian Oct. 57/3: This amateur criminal can give cards and spades to professionals, and he does.
    1942 Billboard 14 Nov. 15/2: Current show is headed by Hinda Wausau, who will give cards and spades to any peeler in this theater.
    1960 A. Budrys Rogue Moon (Internet edn) n.p.: I can give Connington cards and spades, Doctor – cards and spades – and still beat him out. ​

  11. And now I’ve started ferreting around google books, I find a quote, albeit in a modern book which is only excerpted by GBS and does not offer its footnotes, that supposedly dates to 1861 (

    John Booth agreed. ‘I believe Col. Crook could give cards and spades and then learn them something [etc.’
    Wilson & Noe (eds) Civil War in Appalachia (1997)

    My own sense is that it springs from what may be a lost card or gambling game from the 19th century. And
    checking further within my own database I find this:

    1967 M. Braly On the Yard (2002) 282: He’s holding aces. But we’re holding big casino, little casino, cards, and spades. He’ll find that out.

    And google books also gives us:

    When a man arises from his first trial of the pipe, the nausea that clutches him is something that can give cards and spades and big casino to seasickness.
    Stephen Crane Opium’s Varied Dream 1896

    Nick Terhune had been heard to say that the doctor’s wife could give cards and spades and little casino to the queen of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and then beat her out for beauty
    Julian Hawthorne One of Those Coincidences, and Ten Other Stories. (1899)

    and several more.

    In the game casino (details at, ‘big casino’ = 10 of diamonds (‘little casino’ = 2 of spades)

    And even though I cannot make a direct link of the phrase to the game, I would suggest that therein lies its origin.

  12. @Jonathon,

    why a lost game? I don’t think that cards are named Big Casino and Little Casino in any other game than Casino, and the extensions of the phrase with those cards would indicate that cards and spades was understood to refer to that game in the late 19th.

  13. David Marjanović says

    a chess handicap where a player starts without their queen

    I’ve done it myself. Starting without various major figures allows a teacher to play against a beginner without having to pretend incompetence, to play the whole game alone, or to set the beginner checkmate in a few minutes.

  14. I had never heard of cas(s)ino, so I have been educated today; thanks all, and especially the slangmeister himself, Jonathon Green — thanks for sharing your citations!

  15. In the variety of casino I’ve played my whole life, cards is three points, and spades is one point (out of eleven points total per round). Most of the Internet agrees with me, but I was shocked to find that according to the scoring rules on Wikipedia, cards is only worth one point (still out of eleven). So apparently the disadvantage incurred by giving someone cards and spades is not even constant.

  16. OED (cassino

    A game at cards in which the ten of diamonds, called great cassino (or great cass) counts two points, and the two of spades, called little cassino (or little cass) counts one; eleven points constituting the game. Also attrib., as cassino table.

    1811 E. Nares Thinks I to Myself (1816) II. 132 Two whist, cassino, or quadrille tables will dispose of four couple..Great cass, little cass, and the spades, Ma’am.

  17. Wow, a whole post because I use an obsolescent idiom. I seem to be full of those: even my wife, who’s 15 years older than I am, thinks it’s comic that I talk of tinfoil and the icebox (though during summers with my family we did keep our food cold in an insulated box like a small refrigerator but with a huge ice block in it) and ask people on the phone to hold the wire. I’ve heard of casino and read about in books of card game rules, but never played it.

  18. Trond Engen says

    Casino is one of oiur household games. Points:

    Sparen (the spades): 2 p.
    Korten (the cards): 1 p.
    Slutten (the end): 1 p.
    Ruterti (ten-of-diamonds): 2 p
    Sparto (two-of-spades): 1 p
    Ess (aces): 1 p each = 4 p
    Tabbe (sweeped table): 1 p each

    These are universal in Norway, but I’ve had differences on the interpretation of the rules for bygg “buildings”.

  19. Wow, a whole post because I use an obsolescent idiom.

    We are linguists, and we do linguists’ things.

  20. Oh yes, I’ve spawned many a discussion in the comments in the past. I was really remarking on Hat hanging a whole post on it.

  21. David Marjanović says


    Fridge: Eiskasten “ice-cupboard” in Vienna, Kühlschrank “chill-cupboard” elsewhere, even though this makes Schrank a cran morpheme in Austria.


    Of course tinfoil hat has become an idiom of its own…

    We are linguists, and we do linguists’ things.

    Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, doing whatever a Spider-Pig does…

  22. For the record, John, I have seen a real icebox and real tinsel being used in the past year, and for good reasons too.

  23. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I used to wonder why my mother was so obsessed with everyone’s closing the refrigerator within a few seconds of opening it. Later I connected this with the fact that she still called it “the icebox.”

  24. Eric Lamont says

    I first heard the phrase about 10 years ago in the song ‘The Saga of Jenny’, which contained the line: “She could give cards and spade-ies to many other ladies”
    The song was written for the 1941 Broadway musical ‘Lady in the Dark’, by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.
    I have no idea how common a phrase it was in 1941, or if it was obscure even then.

    It’s nice to know that I wasn’t alone in my interest of its origins and meaning.

  25. For your reference,
    I read about this usage in John Steinbeck’s novel, Sweet Thursday:
    “I’ve knew [sic.] dames that can give doctors cards, spades and big casino about medicine.”

  26. “Can give cards and spades” was added to the OED in the full revision of card, n.2 in June 2021. They concur that it’s from cassino, although they don’t include any really clinching quotes like the ones above with “big casino” or “little casino”. The first citation is the very one from 1861 that Jonathon Green found, from a Civil War journal published in a modern book — and the last citation is from 2019 on Twitter! So it’s not dead! (Never heard it myself.)

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