old army game

What exactly is the old army game, and where does the term come from? There are several definitions, all stemming from the same source.

It is first recorded in the 1890s, but in reference to the US Civil War some thirty years earlier. As for meaning, first it can refer to any of a number of specific gambling games, chuck-a-luck (a dice game), poker, or a shell game—so long as the game is played ruthlessly or the game is rigged. From John Philip Quinn’s 1890 Fools of Fortune:

Chuck-a-luck...is sometimes designated as “the old army game,” for the reason that soldiers at the front were often wont to beguile the tedium of bivouac by seeking relief from monotony in its charms.

Second, it can mean any form of trickery or deception. This later sense (about 1910) grew out of the first—gamblers would cheat. From the New York Evening Journal of 23 April 1910:

Possums are too sly to be caught on this old army game.

Third, by 1930 the meaning had shifted to that of evading responsibility, to passing the buck. The gambling sense gave way in favor of another activity for which soldiers are known for, but retained the connotation of ruthlessness. From Theodore Fredenburgh’s 1930 Soldiers March!:

It’s the old army game: first, pass the buck; second: never give a sucker an even break.

All three senses, a ruthless game, trickery, or passing the buck, are still in use today.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

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