Thursday, May 29, 2014

Playing One's Cards Close to the Vest and the Pulitzer Prize - a History and Etymology of the Idiom

Close to your vest? – or Close to the chest?
How about close to the vest buttons!

Riverboat Gambler
So, how does it go? – “Keep your cards close to the vest”(?) – or is it, “close to the chest?  

Of the two options, “close to the vest” is the original, dating to late 1905.  To play one’s cards “close to the chest” came later, but not much later.  Purists, striving to cleave to the original construction, however, should say the slightly wordier, but less confusing, “close to the vest buttons.” 

The vest-chest confusion is understandable, given that they rhyme and are located in roughly the same place; swapping the words has almost no effect on the cadence, sound or meaning of the phrase.  It also does not help that vests are out of fashion; people hearing the phrase for the first time probably gravitate toward chest, because it is more familiar.  Reverting to the original ‘close to the vest buttons’ might obviate some of the confusion – I don’t see anyone trying to say, ‘close to the chest buttons.’ But that idiom would probably just die a slow death.  We seem to be stuck with the two, competing, but otherwise identical idioms.  

The idioms, to keep something close to your vest, or chest, are allusions to the game of poker.  Just as a poker player may try to hide his cards from his fellow players, a person involved in business, relationships, or some form of negotiation may try to ‘keep their cards close to the vest (or chest);’ in other words, withhold or avoid disclosing certain information, emotions, or other factors that might otherwise compromise their position.  

Because of the meaning of the phrase, I would have expected the idiom to have grown, organically, among the riverboat gamblers of the mid-nineteenth century, or among Old West saloon dudes, gambling in places like Miss Kitty’s Longbranch Saloon, in the late-nineteenth century.  Surprisingly, however, the phrase did not emerge naturally from poker players, generally; it appears to have been coined by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist while writing a biography of a potential candidate for President.

Keeping my cards close to my vest, let me provide a little background first.


Poker is an American game.  The word, poker, is thought to be derived from the earlier French game of poque.  Poker is believed to have developed along the Mississippi river, between French-influenced New Orleans and Memphis.  Professional gamblers, plying the waters of the early West, rode the riverboats taking a share of the wealth generated by the upriver businessmen and the downriver plantation owners.

Pop-cultural representations of riverboat gamblers generally show men with long coats, a string tie, and a vest.  When the age of the riverboat gambler came to a close as rail transportation supplanted riverboat transportation during the expansion of the West after the Civil War, poker travelled west.  Land speculation, gold rushes and the cattle business, in lands now accessible by the railroad, created new wealth, boom towns, and cowboys with money in their pockets at the end of a long cattle drive. The Old West was fertile ground for poker.  Pop-cultural representations of western dudes playing poker generally show a guy wearing a cowboy hat, a jacket and a vest. 

When civilization took hold in the West, following the early days of settlement and expansion, the days of the wild and woolly West passed to history.  A poem lamenting the end of legal gambling in Arizona is one of the earliest appearances of the phrase, ‘cards close to the vest,’ in print:  

For the first time in thirty years there is no open gambling in Arizona.
– Press Dispatch. 

There’s somethin’ sorter missin’ in our winelike atmosphere;
  The breeze is just as coolin’ and the sun shines jest as clear,
But when the boys jog townward they’r sorter lonesome like,
  Sence the ball has quit a-rollin’ and the gamblers had to hike. . . . .

I ain’t a’sayin’, pardner, that it ain’t all fer the best,
  Though some of us ain’t natural without cards close to the vest,
But for life this town ain’t in it with the graveyard up the pike,
  Sence the ball has quit a-rollin and the gamblers had to hike. . . . .

Williams (Arizona) News, April 6, 1907 (from the Denver Republican).

Although phrase, ‘cards close to the vest,’ is used literally in the poem, the poem borrowed the phrase from the idiom, which had been coined less than two years earlier. 

Close to the Vest Buttons


The idiom first appeared, in its original form (close to the vest buttons), in William Allen White’s biography of Joseph W. Folk, the Governor of Missouri.  White, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt (who stayed at White’s home in Missouri twice) would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1923.  He won for an article about free-speech written after his arrest for criticizing the State of Kansas’ treatment of strikers in the Great Railroad Strike of 1922.  Governor Folk, who had been elected Governor in 1904, was a reform-minded moralist whom White saw as a potential presidential candidate.  White compared Folk’s diplomatic skills to those of President McKinley (who had been assassinated just a few years earlier) in words that call to mind a game of poker: 

He plays the game of life with a smiling face, but with his cards close to his vest buttons.  He is as unimpulsive as McKinley whom, in many ways, he strongly resembles.  There is nothing of the dare-devil in Folk, though insomuch as the bluff is a recognized weapon of polished diplomacy he uses it deftly.

William Allen White, Folk: The Story of a Little Leaven in a Great Commonwealth, which appeared in McClure’s Magazine, Volume XXVI, Number 2 (December, 1905), page 125.  Folk’s political star never rose – he served only one term as governor and lost a campaign for the Senate years later.  White’s new idiom, however, has had a long and successful career.

The freshly minted idiom received immediate attention.  The New York Tribune reprinted a brief excerpt from the extensive Folk biography in early December, just as the December issue of McClure’s was hitting the newsstands.  The editors seemed to have enjoyed the poker idiom.  The brief excerpt, which appeared in a segment entitled, Best Things Culled From the American Magazines for December, closed with the words, “close to his vest buttons.”

Within a few weeks, another newspaper recycled the idiom in an unrelated context, while extending the poker allusion:

Then comes the railroad rate question, and when that has been voted on by the House, the Senate will have all the big cards in its hands.  What will it do with them? Politicians of superior powers are on deck, and they are playing their cards these days unusually close to their vest buttons.”

The Evening Star (Washington DC) January 21, 1906.

Close to the Vest

The Arizona gambling-prohibition poem, which came out the following year, reused the idiom, in a literal sense, but without the buttons.  Within a few years, the button-less idiom would appear with increasing frequency:

“Are you sure, Gus, my dear young friend, that we are not too conservative in selling but a quarter of a million bushels each? There’s such a thing as playing ‘em too close to the vest, you know.”

Peter B. Kyne, Cappy Ricks, Wheat Baron: Wherein J. Augustus Redell Scores a Knock-Out, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, February 24, 1917, page 22;

Julius is a strictly business man and plays his card “Close to his vest,” he is a genial sort, popular with the ladies, and was once mistaken for a French Count - - - He vehemently protested that he was a German no-count.

The Spanish American (Roy, New Mexico) June 30, 1917.

In 1919, the originator of the idiom, William Allen White, revisited the phrase; but this time without buttons and with a more extended poker metaphor.  In an article critical of Japan’s role in the peace negotiations that took place at the end of World War I, he wrote:

League of Nations Saved By Wilson When He Placed Japanese Interest First.
“Well, this is the end of a perfect international poker party.”  Wherein the Japs have been sitting four long months with their cards close to their vests, smiling, protecting each ante, saying nothing – absolutely nothing. . . taking no part, but keeping keen eyes on the run of the cards, knowing every advantage others received and looking the other way or benignly agreeing that Providence is indeed wise and just.  Then, Japan finding that the run of the game made her necessary to the success of world peace, carefully rolled up her sleeves, put her hands in and grabbed.

The Washington (DC) Herald, May 7, 1919.

“Close to the vest” was here to stay; and “Close to the Chest” was not far behind.

Close to the Chest

By the nature of card-playing, poker players had long played with their cards close to their vests, or chests, whether or not that act or phrase formed the basis of a common, idiomatic phrase.  It was probably unavoidable that the phrase might show up earlier in the literal sense, if not the idiomatic sense.  Surprisingly, however, my survey of the literature uncovered only one such instance from before 1905:

Holding his cards close to his chest, he peered at them cautiously.  When he had satisfied himself that he was not mistaken in the first estimate of his hand he placed his cards, face down, carelessly in front of him and smiled the smile of a man who had struck a “good thing” for the first time.  He had drawn three kings.

The Sun (New York) December 27, 1896. 

The phrase, ‘cards close to the chest,’ pops up a few times, in the literal sense, after ‘close to the vest’ was coined in 1905:

The Virgin, standing behind him, then did what a man’s best friend was not privileged to do.  Reaching over Daylight’s shoulder, she picked up his hand and read it, at the same time shielding the faces of the five cards close to his chest.  What she saw were three queens and a pair of eights, but nobody guessed what she saw.

Jack London, Burning Daylight, The New York Herald Company (1910) (reprinted in numerous newspapers).

Given the phonetic and substantive similarities between vest and chest, it was probably also inevitable that the idiom, ‘close to the vest,’ would ultimately be expressed as ‘close to the chest’ in a non-literal sense.  And, it happened quickly.  The earliest such use that I was able to find is from 1918:

A sharp man – wits honed to a wire edge and always maneuverin’ to hand the other fellow the sho’t end of the bargain.  All of which leads up to the advice to keep a close upper lip and play the cards close to yo’ chest. 

Ralph D. Paine, The Call of the Offshore Wind, (1918), chapter 4, Cap’n Joe Dabney “Plays a Hunch,” reprinted in The Seattle Star, February 19, 1920.  

The idiom was used in the context of super-power politics in 1921:

“By playing alone against a strong group of powers,” says the Journal, “we risk being obliged to make grave concessions.  As far as tonnage in big units is concerned, the 50 per cent cut proposed by Secretary Hughes is nothing.  A graver risk threatens the future of our submarine fleet.  We must play our cards close to our chests.”

The Washington (DC) Herald December 19, 1921.


"Close to the vest" was unheard of, even in the literal sense, before the idiom was coined in 1905.  "Close to the chest" was nearly unheard of before "close to the vest was coined," having appeared only once before 1905.  But after William Allen White coined the idiom, to play one's cards close to the vest (buttons), in 1905, both the literal use of "close to the vest/chest" and the idiomatic of "close to the vest/chest" occur with increasing frequency.

I acknowledge that I have not proven, with certainty, that William Allen White coined the idiom, ‘close to the vest.’  It is possible that he and/or others may have used the phrase casually, amongst themselves before the idiom crept into one of his articles.  However, the immediate appreciation of and repetition of the phrase, in the weeks immediately after its first appearance in print, suggests that the phrase was new.  You would think that a phrase that received such immediate attention would have taken off earlier, if it had, in fact, been coined or used earlier.  The absence of any such evidence supports the conclusion that it was coined in 1905. The fact that the phrase, even in literal sense, was largely unknown, or at least very uncommon, before it was incorporated into the idiom, also supports the suggestion that William Allen White coined the idiom.  

              You be the judge.

As for me, I’ll keep my cards close to my vest, . . . or was that – chest?


UPDATE: September 14, 2015

Slam2011's comment (see comment section below) alerted me to an earlier appearance of something like “close to the vest” from several decades earlier:

"It was too bad of Mr Disraeli to hold his cards close to his nose, and conceal his policy for Session after Session..."

The Times (London), 10 January 1874, p.6. 

Since “Mr. Disraeli” (Benjamin Disraeli; the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1876) was Jewish, Slam20011 considered “close to his nose” to be a “sly anti-Semitic play on a more common idiom.”  The Times’ writer in 1876 may have been a few decades ahead of his time, however.  The example from 1876 is the only idiomatic use of anything like “close to the vest” that I have seen; even after rechecking my sources and checking a few new ones.  The report of Disraeli’s figurative cards does not seem to have spawned any imitators. 

My new search turned up two more pre-1905, literal examples of “cards close to the vest” and one literal example of “cards close to the nose.”  Two relate to Presidential politics (McKinley and Cleveland); the other to a local poker game in Brisbane, Australia.  The expression “close to the vest” (or the like) appears to have been common among card players before 1905, whereas the absence of evidence of figurative use suggests that perhaps the idiom did not develop before 1905; the one-off “close to the nose” in 1876 notwithstanding. 

On the other hand, perhaps “card sharps” used the idiom regularly in back-room poker games for decades before it appeared in print.  Perhaps they played their own idiom close to their own vest buttons?

One important feature of his presidential candidacy Maj. McKinley, the silent, from Ohio, has mastered is the handshaking.  He plays the handshake, as poker sharps would word it, “close to his vest.” When you meet McKinley you naturally want to shake hands with him.  When you reach out for the hand that framed the high tariff bill it isn’t there at all.  But by raising your hand about six inches above the handshaking level you find the digits of the major.  He holds them up there to keep people from crunching them up.  McKinley’s greeting is given by a wave of the hand rather than a pressure.

The Rock Island Argus (Illinois), Volume 44, Number 195, page 4, June 5, 1896.

It was Mr. Whiffles’s deal when the Rev. Mr. Thankful Smith opened the first jack-pot, which he did with such a withering look as to lead crafty Mr. Williams to secretly seize him up for about the queens required to open.  Mr. Gus Johnson hadn’t either queens or sense enough to stay out, so he came in on two drays and his last stack of chips.  Professor Brick was playing close to his third vest button, and concluded to lay down his one-end straight.

The Week (Brisbane, Queensland), September 20, 1884, page 21.


Carlisle’s Play Won for Him His Present Office as Secretary.

Washington Special: One of the best poker stories I know has the unusual merit of being true, says Walter Wellman, the Washington correspondent.  Most poker stories are ficticious; this one deals with facts.  During the first Cleveland administration there was a little game at the house of Mr. Whitney, Sitting in were Grover Cleveland, John G. Carlisle, W. L. Scott, Henry Watterson and the host – just a nice five-handed game, and a good company of royal good fellows, as every one will admit. . . .

Finally Cleveland stopped meeting the frisky Watterson’s ultimatums, and cards were drawn.  Cleveland took one, and everybody knew he had either three of a kind or two big pair.  Watterson stood pat and Cleveland sized him up for a bluff.  To the astonishment of every one, dealer Carlisle helped himself to four cards. 

All hands were much amused at this display of poker innocence, and winked at one another behind their cards. . . .  But when Cleveland had merely chipped against Watterson’s pat, and Watterson had rushed in with another blue, there was more astonishment. 

Carlisle quietly shoved in two blues, Cleveland responded with another raise, Watterson held his cards close to his nose, and returned to the charge, and the Kentuckian tilted them again. 

After the center of the table had been piled high with blue chips, the man with the four-card draw making the last raise, there was a show down.  Cleveland had filled two pairs, Watterson had a pat straight, but Carlisle spread out four aces. 

As he shoved the blue pile toward the lean Kentuckian, Mr, Cleveland exclaimed; “Drew four cards to an ace, and got the other three, by thunder!  That’s genius! That’s financiering, Carlisle, if I come back for a second term, you’re the man I want for my secretary of the treasury.”
 The Neihart Herald (Neihart, Montana), November 9, 1895, page 2.

1 comment:

  1. There's a random mention of political cards held cannily close in a report in 'The Times' of 1874: "It was too bad of Mr Disraeli to hold his cards close to his nose, and conceal his policy for Session after Session..." (The Times (London), 10 January 1874, p.6).

    Because Disraeli was Jewish, and the tone of this article critical of him, I thought this image might be a sly, anti-Semitic play on a more common idiom: but I haven't come across anything similar, so I think this usage is an isolated coincidence.