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What does this phrase mean?

I never give a sucker an even break.

Does it mean that the author of this saying is unwilling to offer somebody who he doesn't like a break/rest while he is working?

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That's not the quotation. It's not a declarative sentence with "I" as subject; rather, it's an imperative: Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, which is the title of a movie by W.C. Fields. – John Lawler Mar 26 '13 at 17:34
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You are wrong. It's from a book that I am reading right now. And it's exactly "I never give a sucker an even break." Btw. why do you think that your google search is the only "true" source and you are right? Thank you in advance. – Derfder Mar 26 '13 at 17:53
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@Derfder: The "catchphrase" probably didn't exist (if it did at all, it would have been virtually unknown) before the 1941 film that popularised it. Today it's a commonplace cliche, so you'll find slight variations such as your citation in all sorts of contexts. It just means [I] take advantage of fools. An even break means a fair chance. – FumbleFingers Mar 26 '13 at 18:05
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Including the source of a quote (book title?) would have been helpful in your question since the quote from your book, as @FumbleFingers suggested, most likely came after the phrase became a cliché. – Kristina Lopez Mar 26 '13 at 18:15
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Actually, We who are about to Die: Prison as Seen by a Condemned Man (Pub 1935) says Advice to the Young: You know the saying, Never give a sucker an even break, so it obviously did predate the film. But I very much doubt it was particularly well-known back then. – FumbleFingers Mar 26 '13 at 18:35
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Here break is used in the sense of division. To give someone an even break is, centrally, to divide something fairly with them, and metaphorically, to make a fair deal with them.

A sucker is someone who is easily fooled. This is colloquial American English from the nineteenth century, and nobody’s sure anymore why it means that. One explanation is that it originally referred to a very young farm animal, one that hadn't yet been weaned (e.g. a suckling pig) and was transferred to people who were very new to the big city; compare greenhorn.

Thus, someone who says “I never give a sucker an even break” means that they take advantage of fools at every opportunity. This is the motto of a con man, that is, someone whose profession is tricking people out of their money.

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In this case "sucker" refers to someone who is particularly gullible.

The sentence suggests that he will take advantage of a person (particularly, a gullible person [the sucker]) if the opportunity arises.

It has nothing to do with liking or not liking someone. It certainly has nothing to do with working.

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It's from carnival showman PT Barnum - he had games of chance in his carnival that you just could not win which explains the meaning on the phrase. The date he first said this was sometime in the 1800s so it was well before the Fields' movie.

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2  
Hello Ajax. If this is true, it's a valuable answer. But on ELU, supported answers are what is required. I assume you didn't know P T Barnum personally, so have you evidence to corroborate what you claim? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 4 '15 at 23:13
    
Seems unlikely. As far as I can tell, it's more likely attributable to Edward Albee (See here, here and here). Investigation of Barnum's other "sucker" quote failed to turn up evidence that the word was even used disparagingly at the time, apparently. – femtoRgon Jul 27 '15 at 20:58

The expression "Never give a sucker an even break" means, as other answerers have indicated, never give someone you can take advantage of (by cheating him or her) a fair chance of winning. The rest of my answer focuses on the question of when and by whom the expression was first used, since the comments beneath the OP's question show considerable disagreement on that point.


W.C. Fields and 'Never give a sucker an even break'

I ran a search of the Library of Congress's Chronicling America database of old newspapers (from 1836 through 1922) for "sucker an even break"—and it returned zero matches for the phrase. A search of old newspapers at Elephind.com for the period 1800–1970 had more success, turning up 67 matches, including one from 1926 and three from the 1930s. The oldest match is for an ad in the Aspermont [Texas] Star (July 29, 1926) for an upcoming film at the Queen Theatre:

AT THE QUEEN THEATRE

FRIDAY, JULY 30th.

It's The Old Army Game

Meaning Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

According to IMDB, It's the Old Army Game is a (silent) W.C. Fields film (also starring Louise Brooks), released in 1926. A lobby card for the film includes under the title the parenthetical note "(MEANING 'NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK)," so that tagline wasn't something that the Queen Theatre of Aspermont, Texas, came up with. Supposedly, elements of the film reappear in Fields from 1933 (The Pharmacist) and 1934 (It's a Gift), but neither uses the phrase "never give a sucker an even break," as far as I can tell. Fields's film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break appeared in 1941—fifteen years after it appeared as the tagline to It's the Old Army Game.

The expression was closely associated with Fields, going back at least to 1923. Fred Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations (2006) has this entry in its collection of Fields quotations:

Never give a sucker an even break.

Quoted in Boston Daily Globe, 9 Sept. 1923. Fields had ad-libbed this saying in the stage musical Poppy (1923).

D.W. Griffith adapted Poppy into a silent film called "Sally of the Sawdust (1925), starring Fields as juggler/con man Professor Eustace McGargle. In the 1936 remake (titled Poppy, and again starring Fields), we get the line that Fields supposedly ad-libbed back in the 1923 stage production:

McGargle: And if we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you one little piece of fatherly advice.

Poppy: Yes Pop.

McGargle: Never give a sucker an even break.

The earliest Google Books match for the phrase is from a review of The Wilderness Woman, a silent Chester Conklin film, in Life magazine, volume 87 (1926):

One of the subtitles quotes (without credit) Will Fields' celebrated line, "Never give a sucker an even break"—indicating that the old army game is not unknown in the movies.

But as early as 1927, some occurrences of the expression do not involve or cite Fields at all. From Harper's Magazine, volume 155 (1927) [combined snippets]:

Though women rarely, if ever, are prime movers in the con man's schemes to acquire illegal profits, women get the ultimate share of these profits. This article has dwelt in some detail upon the motivation of the sucker; perhaps a brief analysis of the shyster should complete the picture. Toward his victims he appears completely ruthless, with a sneering laugh for their simplicity and the cynical catchword, "Never give a sucker an even break." In his own circle, on the other hand, he is a most affectionate person. He almost invariably appears to have a devoted wife and two or three adoring children, to say nothing of an assortment of less conventional ties. Rarely have we undertaken to prosecute one of these men that his wife, sometimes accompanied by her baby, has not appeared at our Bureau, to explain with the utmost loyalty and with great grief that it was all a mistake and that her husband was the noblest of men.


An aside about 'the old army game' and 'chuck-a-luck'

Dave Wilton, posting at Wordorigins.org on December 26, 2006, says that the phrase "the old army game" (mentioned earlier in connection with Fields's 1926 silent movie It's the Old Army Game) goes back to 1890 and possibly to the 1860s:

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.

Wilton then cites John Quinn, Fools of Fortune, or Gambling and Gamblers (1890/1892), which specifically equates chuck-a-luck (the dice game) with "the old army game":

CHUCK-A-LUCK This is a simple little game of dice, yet one of the most fascinating of all games of chance. It is sometimes designated as “the old army “game,” for the reason that soldiers at the front were often wont to beguile the tedium of a bivouac by seeking relief from monotony in its charms.

It isn't clear that Quinn is talking about the Civil War when he mentions "soldiers at the front," but Wilbur Hinman, Corporal Si Klegg and His "Pard": How They Lived and Talked, and What They Suffered, While Fighting for the Flag (1887) describes impromptu games of chuck-a-luck breaking out on paydays during the Civil War, defrauding unwitting soldiers of their pay. Hinman doesn't use the phrase "old army game."

As for chuck-a-luck, it appears in the 1859 edition of John Bartlett, A Glossary of Words and Phrases, Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States (1859):

CHUCK-A-LUCK. A Western game, played with dice.

At Holly Fork, Tennessee, any one can be accommodated. Cards or chuck-a-luck, old corn or cider, a fight or a foot-race, mattered not, it was to be had at a moment's notice. — Southern Sketches, p. 160

And a year earlier in Johnson Hooper, Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs: Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers (1848), who, like Bartlett, shows no sign of suspecting that the game is rigged:

In spite of the excitement of frequent sorties upon ox-wagons; of dollar-pitching, and an endless series of games of "old sledge;" as well as the occasional exhibition of a chuck-a-luck table, at which the Captain himself presided; time at last began to hang heavily upon the hands of the inmates of Fort Suggs.

Perhaps some games of chuck-a-luck were legitimate at this early date. In any event, Hooper's Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs is fictional.


Conclusions

All available evidence points to W.C. Fields as the source of "Never give a sucker an even break," dating back to his use of the line in the stage musical Poppy. By way of compensating for (or perhaps extending) the cynicism of that remark, Fields was also responsible for very nearly the opposite assertion, according to The Yale Book of Quotations:

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.

Title of motion picture [starring Fields] (1939). Fields is supposed to have said this also in the stage musical Poppy (1923).

But in that film, Fields's character, Larson E. Whipsnade, uses this supposed aphorism as an excuse not to give any quarter to a potential mark:

As my dear old grandfather Litvak said (just before they swung the trap), he said "You can't cheat an honest man. Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump."

In any event, by the 1930s, the expression was widely known and used outside the field of entertainment. For example, from "'Tough Tony' Ends Up in the Wrong Chair" in the [Urbana–Champaign, Illinois] Daily Illini (July 2, 1937):

Ossining, N. Y., July 1. —(AP)— Anthony "Tough Tony" Garlaus, whose motto was "never give a sucker an even break," died in Sing Sing's electric chair with two accomplices tonight for the slaying of a Brooklyn tavern customer in a holdup last November.

But many people continued to associate the expression with Fields, as is evident from the first line of his obituary in the New York Times (December 26, 1945):

W.C. Fields, the comedian whose deadpan gestures, raspy remarks and "never give a sucker an even break" characterizations made him a showman beloved the nation over, died today at the age of 66.

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protected by tchrist Jul 27 '15 at 21:34

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