We Must Play What Is Dealt To Us, and the Glory Consists Not So Much In Winning As In Playing a Poor Hand Well

Jack London? Robert Louis Stevenson? Josh Billings? Henry Wheeler Shaw? H. T. Leslie? Edgar O. Achorn? Albert J. Beveridge? Frank Crane? Dale Carnegie?

Dear Quote Investigator: Life is particularly challenging if you are born with medical impairments or negligent parents. Metaphorically, while playing cards you may be dealt a poor hand. You are triumphant when you play the cards you have received well.

An adage of this type has been credited to U.S. novelist Jack London, Scottish storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson, American humorist Josh Billings, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1868 book “Josh Billings on Ice, and Other Things” by Henry Wheeler Shaw who used the pseudonym Josh Billings. The chapter containing the quotation was called “Perkussion Caps”, i.e., “Percussion Caps”. Billings often employed dialectical spelling. Here were three short items from the chapter. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Give me liberty, or giv me deth”—but ov the 2 I prefer the liberty.

As in a game ov cards, so in the game ov life, we must play what is dealt tew us, and the glory consists, not so mutch in winning, as in playing a poor hand well.

The time tew pray is not when we are in a tight spot, but jist as soon as we git out ov it.

Here are the three items using standard spelling:

“Give me liberty, or give me death”—but of the two I prefer the liberty.

As in a game of cards, so in the game of life, we must play what is dealt to us, and the glory consists, not so much in winning, as in playing a poor hand well.

The time to pray is not when we are in a tight spot, but just as soon as we get out of it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1869 Josh Billings delivered a speech to a large audience at Metzerott Hall in Washington, D.C., and a newspaper reporter paraphrased one of his remarks: 2

As regards games, he considered more praise should be bestowed on one who played a poor hand well than one who played a good hand.

In December 1869 the “Wyoming Democrat” of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania printed a collection of remarks under the title “Josh Billings’ Sayings”. The quotation was included with a minor change. The spelling “mutch” was changed to “much”. 3

In 1874 the large compilation “Everybody’s Friend, Or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor” was published. The quotation was printed again within a chapter of “Affurisms” (“Aphorisms”):
4

As in a game ov cards, so in the game ov life, we must play what is dealt tew us, and the glory consists, not so mutch in winning, as in playing a poor hand well.

In 1889 the soldier, politician, and poet Eugene Fitch Ware who used the pseudonym Ironquill published a thematically pertinent poem about the card game whist: 5

WHIST.

Hour after hour the cards were fairly shuffled,
And fairly dealt, but still I got no hand;
The morning came; but I, with mind unruffled.
Did simply say, “I do not understand.”

Life is a game of whist. From unseen sources
The cards are shuffled, and the hands are dealt.
Blind are our efforts to control the forces
That, though unseen, are no less strongly felt.

I do not like the way the cards are shuffled,
But still I like the game and want to play;
And through the long, long night will I, unruffled,
Play what I get, until the break of day.

In 1901 a set of stories told by students at Bowdoin College in Maine was collected and published. A piece by Edgar O. Achorn contained the following line: 6

“Greater heroism is required to live faithful to the small things of life than to the great, or, to use your own simile, to play a poor hand well than one full of trumps . . .”

In 1905 Albert J. Beveridge, a U.S. Senator from Indiana, published a book containing the saying: 7

Is there not sound philosophy in the legend which Mr. Lewis tells us was inscribed on the headboard of Jack King, deceased: “Life ain’t in holding a good hand, but in playing a poor hand well”?

In 1918 a collection of quotations titled “On Active Service: Ideals of Canada’s Fighting Men” appeared. For each day of the year a set of quotations was specified. The following was listed for November 30th: 8

The game of life is not so much in holding a good hand as playing a poor hand well.
LIEUTENANT H. T. LESLIE,
Toronto, Ontario.

Also, in 1918 the connection to Josh Billings was not forgotten. The popular writer Frank Crane published “21” and credited an instance of the saying to Billings: 9

I think it was Josh Billings who said that in the Game of Life, as in a game of cards, we have to play the cards dealt to us; and the good player is not the one who always wins, but the one who plays a poor hand well.

In 1938 self-help author Dale Carnegie credited Billings in his syndicated newspaper column: 10

Josh Billings observed years ago, the game of life is like a game of cards: the chief credit goes, not to the man who wins, but to the one who plays a poor hand well.

In 1957 “The Book of Unusual Quotations” compiled by Rudolf Flesch included the following entry: 11

Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you do hold well.
Josh Billings

In 1974 “Colombo’s Canadian Quotations” presented the remark from H.T. Leslie together with a citation pointing to the 1918 book “On Active Service: Ideals of Canada’s Fighting Men”. 12

In 1975 a book about child psychiatry published a chapter about young hemophiliacs by Ake Mattsson who was a Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Mattsson credited the saying to a famous Scottish novelist: 13

Robert Louis Stevenson, a victim of pulmonary tuberculosis, once wrote, “Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.” Children with a chronic physical disorder, such as hemophilia, who have mastered the physical, social, and emotional hardships associated with their illness, well illustrate this point.

Stevenson lived between 1850 and 1894. Hence, he was eighteen years old when Josh Billings used the expression. The citation above appeared many years after the death of Stevenson, and QI has not yet found substantive support for crediting Stevenson.

In 2012 writer Jack London received credit in an Iowa newspaper. This ascription was also implausible because the saying was circulating before London was born: 14

Today’s Quote
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.”
Jack London
(1876-1916)
American author

In conclusion, Josh Billings deserves credit for this expression based on the 1868 citation. Billings was a pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw. Others such as H. T. Leslie employed variants in later years. The attributions to Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London are currently unsupported.

Image Notes: Illustration of Poker Game by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge circa 1903.

(Great thanks to Sean Murphy whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Murphy remarked on the attributions to Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. He also pointed to the 1901 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1868, Josh Billings on Ice, and Other Things by Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), Chapter 24: Perkussion Caps, Quote Page 89 and 80, G. W. Carleton & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1869 March 3, The National Republican, Local Department, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1869 December 22, Wyoming Democrat, Josh Billings’ Sayings, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor by Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), Affurisms, Ods and Ens, Quote Page 248, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1889, Rhymes of Ironquill by Ironquill (Pseudonym of Eugene Fitch Ware), Poem: Whist, Quote Page 64, Kellam Book and Stationery Company, Topeka, Kansas. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1901, Tales of Bowdoin: Some Gathered Fragments and Fancies of Undergraduate Life in the Past and Present, Told by Bowdoin Men, Collected by John Clair Minot (Class of 1896) and Donald Francis Snow (Class of 1901), Chapter: John Ferris, Graduate by Edgar O. Achorn (Class of 1881), Quote Page 300, Press of Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1907 (Copyright 1905), The Young Man and the World by Albert J. Beveridge (United States Senator from Indiana), Chapter 1: The Young Man and the World, Quote Page 30, Corlis Company, Buffalo, New York. (Verified with scans from Internet Archive at archive.org)
  8. 1918, On Active Service: Ideals of Canada’s Fighting Men by Hon. Captain Alex. Ketterson (Alexander Ketterson), Quotation for November 30, Quote Page 198, McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Toronto Canada. (Verified with scans from Internet Archive at archive.org)
  9. 1918, 21 by Dr. Frank Crane, Quote Page 9, Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans in Internet Archive archive.org)
  10. 1938 December 27, The Chattanooga News, Dale Carnegie, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1957, The Book of Unusual Quotations, Compiled by Rudolf Flesch, Topic: Life, Quote Page 151, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1974, Colombo’s Canadian Quotations, Edited by John Robert Colombo, Entry: H.T. Leslie, Quote Page 350, Column 1, Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1975, Explorations in Child Psychiatry, Edited by E. James Anthony, Chapter: Psychophysiological Study of Bleeding and Adaptation in Young Hemophiliacs by Ake Mattsson (Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, University of Virginia Medical Center),Start Page 227, Quote Page 227, Plenum Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 2012 August 11, Sioux City Journal, Today’s Quote, Quote Page A8, Column 1, Sioux City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)