Long has the debate raged over whether a card cheat is properly termed a card sharp or a card shark.
Sharks, after all, are known for mercilessly attacking their prey, which would seem in this linguistic battle to favor the card shark camp, since those who manipulate the cards with the express intent of cheating others have no more conscience or concern for their victims than do their finned counterparts.
Yet card sharp also has in its favor that it seems to conjure up mental images of the poker cheats of the Old West, sharp-featured men with cards up their sleeves. Which, therefore, is it?
Both terms still mean someone skilled in cheating at cards, although in recent years card shark has also come to acquire the less odious definition of someone skilled at the play of cards.
Were that not so, one would have to question the naming of the 1978 TV game show Card Sharks, on which contestants tried to guess whether the next card in a sequence was higher or lower than its predecessor.
What’s in a Name
As to whether card sharp or card shark entered the English language first, the answer is far from straightforward. A print sighting of card sharp dates to 1884 and one of card sharper to 1859, while the first print sighting of card shark takes us back only to 1942.
You might think this evidence which would seem to settle matters. However, both sharper and shark (in the sense of one who cheats) antedate all of the above, sharper to 1681 and shark to 1599, evidence which could be seen as giving the nod to shark.
By the way, the “shark” in question has nothing to do with carnivorous fish; it instead likely entered the English language via the German schurke, a word that in the 16th century had the meaning of a cheat or swindler.
If you thought the answer might be found via looking at the words sharp and shark absent the word card, that pursuit also leads down a blind alley, because some definitions of both those words contain elements of cheating or connivance.
As for the word shark, in addition to encompassing the species of flesh-eating fish it identifies, it has over time come to serve as a label for certain dislikable characters: those who prey greedily upon others and those who by virtue of superior skill outmaneuver less capable opponents.
Common compound nouns have been formed from ‘shark’ that address both meanings, such as loan shark in the “prey greedily” category and pool shark in the “superior skill” category.
Card Sharks features two players who face off in a head-to-head elimination game with the goal of one player making it to the grand prize winning deck.
This show from legendary Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions features two contestants trying to predict answers to survey questions for the opportunity to play a game with oversized playing cards for a chance to win cash.
Each contestant has to decide if the odds are worth the risk of losing it all and making it to the big game. Ultimately, players can either take their earned cash and quit or continue betting with the hope of reaching the top for a chance to take home a major cash prize. Community star and funnyman Joel McHale hosts.
‘Card-sharp’, sometimes written ‘cardsharp’, might be thought to be a misspelling of ‘card-shark’. The latter is the more commonly used of the two synonymous phrases, especially outside the UK, which is one of the few countries to prefer ‘card-sharp’.
It is sometimes suggested that one term derived from the other. There’s no clear evidence to support that view, although if it is the case then it must have gone from ‘sharp’ to ‘shark’ as ‘card-sharp’ appears to be the older term.
Such tricksters were also known as ‘broadsmen’ or ‘spielers’ and ‘card-sharping’ was also called ‘Greekery’ – a derogatory term that probably wouldn’t get past the political-correctness lobby these days.
The reason for thinking that ‘card-sharp’ and card-shark’ may be independent coinages is the existence of the two much earlier words ‘sharping’ and ‘sharking’. These terms for deceitfulness have been adopted into other phrases, for example ‘sharp practice’ and ‘loan shark’.
Whatever you think about how and when the terms were coined there can be little doubt about where. Both ‘card-sharp’ and ‘card-shark’ appear in print in the United States many times before they are seen in publications elsewhere, a sure sign of country of origin.
The first such devious card players were called ‘card-sharpers’ rather than ‘card-sharps’, although the dates of the earliest known citations of the two terms are close enough together to raise doubts as to which came first. ‘Card-sharpers’ was recorded by George Augustus Sala, in his Twice round the clock, or the hours of the day and night in London, 1859:
“German swindlers and card-sharpers.”
As mentioned above, the earliest known citations of ‘card-sharp’ and ‘card-shark’ come from the United States.
Brits vs Yanks
It seems overly generous to have two almost identical terms for the same thing and in time no doubt one will do to the other, probably ‘card-shark’ to ‘card-sharp’, what grey squirrels have done to red squirrels. Until then, it’s the dealer’s choice.
The former is generally the accepted term across the United States and Canada. They do both share the same general definitions: (1) a professional card player, (2) a person who is skilled in card games, and (3) a person who is skilled in cheating at card games.
For the British version of card shark vs card sharp, the implication is that the player is up to some form of shadiness or cheating. In American English, a card shark is simply someone who spends most of their time playing cards. Also, a player who demonstrates an extremely adept skill at cards.
If you look at the history of poker, you’ll see that the use of the term “card sharp” dates way back to the era of Wild West saloons and small town card rooms found all across America in the 1880’s. Long before PokerStars was just a twinkle in its daddy’s eye.
By the 1940’s the term had evolved into card shark. Both phrases do make perfect sense in their own ways. “Sharping” is from the early 19th century and is used to describe the act of “swindling” or stealing. Not just applied to gambling but also a variety of other activities. For example, a con man posing as a bona fide preacher in the Old West would be known as a “gospel sharp”.
In this sense, the word sharp has its origins in the German word “schurke”, meaning rogue or rascal. To that end, a card sharp could very well be a card shark.
Cardsharps who cheat or perform tricks use skilled methods to maintain control of the order of the cards or sometimes to control just a specific card. Many of these methods employ sleight of hand.
Essential skills are false shuffles and false cuts that appear to mix the deck but actually leave the cards in the same order. Some of the more advanced techniques include culling or manipulating cards to the top or bottom of the deck, and stacking or positioning desired cards in position to be dealt.
Dealing the cards can also be manipulated. Once a desired card or cards are located they can be controlled and dealt as the cheater wishes.
This is called a false dealing, if a card is dealt from the bottom it is called bottom dealing and if it is second from the top it is called second dealing.
Also, two cards could be dealt as one or the second card from the bottom could be dealt, hence the Greek deal and double deals.
Finally, dealing may be done from the middle of the deck, known as the middle deal or center deal, but is almost always performed as a display of skill rather than actual cheating.
Today both terms still have a slight implication of cheating. But not in the sense of sleight of hand or the hiding of cards. Or even card counting.
The very mention of an apex predator can instantly lead one to see an expert of cards pitted against and taking advantage of a lesser, more novice foe. In the same manner, pool sharks and pool hustlers are just using their advanced skill level to win, but only after hiding their playing powers. Are you an apex predator?