The Old Army Game.

The phrase “old army game” has flickered at the edges of my consciousness for decades; I never bothered to investigate it, contenting myself with the sense that it was some sort of con. Now Dave Wilton at has done the research and told the story:

The old army game is a phrase that has gone through a number of different meanings over the years. It started out as a name for a gambling game—exactly which one varies with the telling—shifted to refer to sucker’s game—like three-card-monte—and then comes to mean any kind of confidence game or deception. Meanwhile, in baseball it developed three distinct and contradictory senses.

The earliest use I have found of army game is as another name for the game commonly called chuck-a-luck. It apparently got that name because of chuck-a-luck’s popularity among soldiers during the 1861–65 U.S. Civil War. The particular use, however, is from a chapter subtitle in William Rideing’s 1879 travelogue, A-Saddle in the Wild West, and the army game is great, not old […] For those unfamiliar with the game, John Philip Quinn’s 1890 book on gambling, Fools of Fortune, gives a description of chuck-a-luck and explains that while the game can be played on the level, a skilled player can easily rig it to take money from the unsuspecting […]

Other early appearances of old army game use it to describe other or unspecified games of chance. […] And given this association with rigged games of chance, it should be no surprise that old army game generalized to refer to any deception or confidence game. There is this article from the 24 May 1910 Jersey Journal that uses old army game to refer to what can only be described as a predecessor to the “Nigerian prince” email scam so familiar to us today. […]

But we also see the old army game used in baseball, and in ways that are difficult to reconcile with both the gambling senses and with each other. At first, the phrase in baseball parlance referred to a style or tactic of defensive play, perhaps one involving some kind of deception, but exactly what is unclear. […] The second baseball sense is that of an aggressive style of play, involving bunts, base stealing, hit-and-run plays, and the like. […] But old army game could also mean exactly the opposite, a strategy that relies on slugging and long balls. […] So, in the case of baseball, the old army game is what we call a Janus phrase, one that has meanings that are diametrically opposed to one another.

See Dave’s post for the (sometimes lengthy) illustrative quotations and for further discussion; I particularly recommend Quinn’s lively description of chuck-a-luck. The OED has no occurrences of “army game,” though they do have an entry for chuck-a-luck (“A gambling game played with dice,” first citation 1836). It’s particularly striking to me that “army game” was used in baseball with such different senses — you’d think it would have gotten settled in one. But I guess it never caught on enough for that.


  1. Picturesque as Quinn’s description of how the “banker” could cheat at chuck-a-luck is, it is probably largely bogus. It is actually not necessary to manipulate the die rolls, because chuck-a-luck is a fundamentally unfair game and gives the house a strong percentage. (Martin Gardner covered this in detail in Aha! Insight.) The reason that the game favors the house is that the payouts for rolling doubles or triples are set too low.

  2. Interesting, thanks!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not ready to assume that the idea that there’s no reason to cheat if the odds are already in your favor was universally accepted among the relevant subpopulation.

  4. Oh, I’m sure there were those who added substantially to the odds in their favor by methods such as Quinn describes.

  5. John Cowan says

    To me the old army game is a specific con game, aka the badger game.

  6. Do you know where you picked up that specificity?

  7. Yeah, I’m sure that plenty of chuck-a-luck hucksters were perfectly to cheat in other ways, but, in spite of what Quine appeared to think, it was not necessary to manipulate the rolls for the house to make money on the game.

  8. John Emerson says

    What is the relation to chugalug, I venture to ask.

  9. John Cowan says

    No idea, alas. A vaudeville act, perhaps?

  10. What is the relation to chugalug, I venture to ask.

    After a game of chuck-a-luck, you need to chugalug.

  11. The WC Fields silent film It’s the Old Army Game (1926) seems to be referring to the shell game. Although the title doesn’t have much to do with the plot, if you could call it a plot. It’s really a collection of sketches.

  12. I recall a novel (can’t seem to find the author or title) about The Battle of the Crater,* using “the old army game” to refer to Army politics. General Meade was said to be a master of it. I assume this was just a malapropism, since the book seemed to be rather poorly researched and edited in other ways.

    * Apparently, Newt Gingrich has also coauthored a novel about the battle, but this was decades earlier.

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    Chuck-a-luck is unfair yes, the odds on each number coming out are 91:125, but the payoffs are 1:1. But the variance is pretty high and it is both possible to walk away with a profit and to break a small bank.

    I did an eight-hour stint as banker at a gaming convention once — mock money, but the top three “fortunes” got mentioned at the closing ceremony — and as the night wore on I let people put higher and higher stakes. At one point they were betting 25% of my total bank on a throw, and I lost a few. But of course I had the power to lower the limit until the basic house advantage built me up again. I think I was sitting on half the cash supply by the time I went to bed.

  14. Peter E Schultz says

    In the lyrics of a song: “It’s just the well-known old army game, foolin’ with me.” Broadway Melody of 1936.

  15. I just remembered that there was a British sitcom that ran from 1957 to 1961 called The Army Game. I’ve never seen it (although apparently about fifty episodes still exist), so I don’t know what the name referred to specifically, besides the fact that it was silly and about a group of men in the British Army. Mostly, I think it’s remembered now for starring William Hartnell as the no-nonsense sergeant, which was the kind of role he was best known for before Doctor Who.

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