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Quote:

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” the US president said, as he urged democracies around the world to unite against the Russian president in a speech in Poland’s capital littered with historical references to war in Europe.

The Kremlin issued a furious response, as critics accused Mr Biden of playing into Putin’s hands.

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

Lexico defines the expression as

play into someone's hands

  • Act in such a way as unintentionally to give someone an advantage.
    they accused him of playing into the hands of the enemy

Did the expression originally refer to a game? And how does something play into another person's hands?

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    @Mari-LouA I think the edit went too far. The question was asking about the meaning of the expression, not the origin.
    – Laurel
    Mar 27 at 12:47
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    @Laurel I think the edit made the question on topic and the new edit will, hopefully, lead to answers that explain more fully the meaning. The answer to the original question is now embedded in the edited question. No answer was harmed by the edit because none were posted. The OP can, if they want, rollback the edit.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 27 at 13:01
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    @Laurel not only, rolling back the edit would mean certain doom, there's no shortage of users who would vote to close it again for being off-topic. That someone posted an answer is proof that the edit is a good one. There's already too many questions closed on a daily basis on EL&U as it is.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 27 at 13:11
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    @Laurel - EL&U is desperately in need of good, interesting questions. I think Mari-Lou just saved a potentially on topic question.
    – user 66974
    Mar 27 at 14:54
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    I would regard this as a term from Bridge or similar card games where the advice to defenders is to lead "through strength and into weakness". The fourth player has an advantage of choosing after the other have played, and if they have say an Ace and a Queen then they can trap their opponent's King when the opponents lead into their hand.
    – Henry
    Mar 28 at 15:12

2 Answers 2

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According to this tumblr post, playing into someone's hands originates from card playing:

This expression has its origin in card playing. A part of the game’s strategy is to force your opponent to play certain cards. If you manage to do so, then she or he is playing into your hand, giving you an advantage. The expression is often pluralized into playing into someone’s hands. This slight modification has resulted in obscuring the origin of the meaning, making people think of a body part, when actually in card games your hand refers to the cards you are holding.

From The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms, pg. 147:

play into (someone's) hands to do exactly what (an opponent or enemy) wants one to do: By accepting the money he has played right into my hands. [Literally, in card games, to play so as to benefit another player.)

From Etymonline:

To play into the hands (of someone) "act in such a way as to give the advantage to one's opponent or a third party" is from 1705.

Note: The general sense is attested from an earlier date, not 1705 (as stated by Etymonline); see OED entry below.

From The Correct Card, Or, How to Play at Whist: A Whist Catechism, 1878, pg. 15:

If an honour has been turned up on your left, is it good play to lead trumps merely for the sake of leading through the honour ?

No; because your partner will return them thinking you are strong, and thus very likely will play into the hands of the adversaries.

There's an instance of the phrase being used in 16691, in the context of card playing (specifically, a game of Picquet):

Trice. I'll do you right Jack; as I am an honest Man you must discard this, there's no other way: If you were my own Brother I could do no better for you — Zounds, the Rogue has a Quint-Major, and three Aces younger hand —

                                                         Looks on t'other Cards.

Stay; What am I for the Point? but bare Forty, and he Fifty one: Fifteen and Five for the Point: 20, and 3 by Aces, 23, well, I am to play first: 1. 23. 2. 23. 3. 23. 4. 23; Pox on't, now I must play into his hand: 5 — now you take it Jack 5. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. and the Cards Forty.

(From The Wild Gallant, a Comedy by John Dryden, 1669, pg. 41)

(Pox on't = Pox on it which is an archaic interjection used to express curses upon somebody/thing)


The general sense appears to have been used in a work written in 1647 (published in 1662/31):

[...] 'Tis pleasant to observe how finely they play into each others hands; [...]

(From The Assembly Man, by Sir John Birkenhead, 1662/3, pg. 20)

This also appears in the OED's entry for play (v.) (Thanks, DjinTonic):

c. transitive. to play into the hands of: to act so as to give an advantage to. Also to play into one another's hands: to act for mutual benefit.
In early use play is often transitive with the desired advantage or result as the object.

  • 1663  J. Birkenhead Assembly-Man 20   Tis' pleasant to observe how finely they play into each others hands; Marshall procures Thanks to be given to Sedgwick (for his great pains) Sedgwick obtains as much for Marshall, and so they all pimp for one another.

  • 1690   H. Compton Bishop of London's 7th Let. 18  It would be to play the Game into our Enemies Hands; who would not fail to make use of that Advantage to lead or drive away our Flocks.

  • 1705  W. Bosman New Descr. Coast of Guinea iii. 32   If the Enemies themselves had not seasonably plaid an Opportunity into our Hands.

I believe the phrase was specifically used in card playing before 16472, after which a more general sense2 was established which could be used in contexts apart from card playing (such as in the political quote you've cited).

From a Cheater's Guide to Speaking English Like a Native:

Play into one's hands

This expression probably came from playing cards, when players would lay down cards that give their opponents an advantage. It is now used in many other situations.

a. When the batter lost his temper he played into the hands of the pitcher.
b. The salesman played into my hands when he gave me the price in advance.
c. We must not do anything that would play into their hands.

Note that the phrase is still used in the context of card playing; however, it's not very common.


1 Thanks to Sven Yargs for bringing into light the earliest publication dates for two of the instances.

2 Note that Picquet and other trick-taking card games have existed even before 1647, so it is very likely that the phrase originated from card playing. The main idea from these card games, i.e., to play so as to give the opponent(s) an advantage, seems to have been used in a more general sense after 1647, i.e., to act so as to give the opponent(s)/enemy an advantage, so that the phrase could be applied in other contexts apart from card playing.

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    I really would like to see more evidence of this etymology. Mar 27 at 14:05
  • @PeterShor: I found an instance of "play into his hand" in 1701, being used in a card game. I'll put that in my answer, but it'll take time to edit.
    – Justin
    Mar 27 at 14:41
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    @PeterShor: It is done. That instance was originally from 1684, not 1701.
    – Justin
    Mar 27 at 15:32
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    'Tis pleasant to observe how finely they play into each other's hands; from John Birkenhead's pamphlet The Assembly-Man p.15 (1647) appears to be the more general sense.
    – DjinTonic
    Mar 28 at 14:30
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    @Justin Your 1715 example is actually from a 1647 work--see my comment. The earliest example in print (so far) is the more general sense.
    – DjinTonic
    Mar 28 at 15:19
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+100

Early instances of the phrase 'play into [someone's] hand[s]'

Searches of the Early English Books Online and Hathi Trust databases yield several instances of the expression "play into [someone's] hand[s]" in writings published before 1681, when (as noted in Justin's answer) an edition of John Birkenhead's pamphlet, "The Assembly-man," appeared with the notation that it had originally been written in 1647. Here are those instances, in chronological order.

From Henry Neville, "Shufling, Cutting, and Dealing, in a Game at Pickquet: Being Acted from the Year, 1653 to 1658" (1659):

Nevel. — I will not play for a farthing; besides that, I love not the Game, I am so dun'd with the Spleen, I should think on something else all the while I were a playing; and take in all the small Cards: for I am all day dreaming of another Game.

Waller. My Lord, you have hang'd my King, and I have no other way then to play into your hands.

From a letter to Edward Nicholas from Tristram Thomas (April 4, 1659), in The Nicholas Papers: Correspondence of Sir Edward Nicholas, Secretary of State, volume 4: 1657–1660 (1920):

.I must not forget to tell you that in oure former discourse with him [Alexander Popham] he tould me that he had lately spoke with Sir William Waller and some other of our friends, who are of opinion that, if the Parliament be not interrupted or the army, they would fall into great disorder quickly and then the game, said he, will play into our hand, which I will like-wise hope as a thing not vnlikely. Yet I desire to receiue advice and order from his Maty in case Cromwells party and the rest of the army should agree and so settle Crumwell, for the Republique party are to weake for them in the House ; so, if he should come to be confirmed, how he will be opposed I see not, and I pray God that others his Maty relieth vpon may shew that zeale her may expect from them. In fine, I finde the accoumpt bad enough and that the Presbiter party in general are naught and the best of them to play their game with so much precaution that with Sir William Waller their expectation to haue the worke play to their hand that I can hope little of good by them, I meane they great ones, and wish that Major General Browne proue to answer his Matys expectations.

From A Friend to the Good Old Cause, "The Character of the Late Upstart House of Lords: Together with Some Reflexions on the Carriage and Government of His Late Highness" (1659):

He [King Charles] is not long after beheaded as a Tyrant, Traytor, and grand Incendiary: the Nation is declared a Free State, during which time, great and horrid injustice and abuses were committed, to the shame and infamy of that Parliament. Cromwel being now arrived to the dignity of Commander in chief, over all the Forces of the three Nations; in it he planteth Anabaptists, to poyze with the Independants and Presbyterians, who were the friends of the Parliament. The Parliament foreseeing the underhand dealing of the Army to play into Cromwel's hand, Resolved to dissolve themselves, and call a new Representative; but Cromwel preventeth them, and forcibly dissolveth them, under pretence of the heavy burthens that yet continued upon the people, and his Army ruleth.

From John Birkenhead, "The Assembly-man" (1662) [1663] (an earlier edition of the 1647/1681 pamphlet):

There is not on earth a baser Sycophant [than the Assembler]; for he ever is chewing some Vote or Ordinance; and tells the People how savoury it is; like him who lick'd up the Emperour's spittle and swore 'twas sweet. Would the two Houses give him Cathedral Lands, he would prove Lords and Commons to be Jure Divino: but should they offer him the Self-denying Ordinance, he would justifie the Devil and curse them to their faces, (his Brother Kirk-man did it in Scotland.) 'Tis pleasant to observe how finely they play into each others hands; Marshall procures Thanks to be given to Sedgwick (for his great pains) Sedgwick obtains as much for Marshall, and so they all pimp for one another.

From John Dryden, The Wild Gallant, a Comedy (1663/1669) [as noted in Justin's answer]:

Trice. ... Stay; what am I for the Point? but bare Forty, and he Fifty one: Fifteen and Five for the Point, 20, and 3 by Aces, 23. well, I am to play first: 1.23. 2. 23. 3. 23. 4. 23.—Pox on't, now I must play into his hand: 5—now you take it Jack, 5. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. and the Cards Forty.


Early instances of the phrase 'play to [someone's] hand[s]'

Tristram Thomas's letter 1659 letter to Edward Nichols is unique among the earliest sources of the phrase "play into [someone's] hand[s]" in also containing the very similar-looking phrase "play to [someone's] hand[s]." In Thomas.'s letter, the two phrases seem to be interchangeable, since they refer to the same expectation on the part of Sir William Waller and his friends.

An EEBO search for "play to [someone's] hand[s]" turns up two instances that are even earlier than Thomas.'s—one from 1646 and one from 1654. From Samuel Rutherford, The Divine Right of Church-government and Excommunication: Or a Peacable Dispute for the Perfection of the Holy Scripture in Point of Ceremonies and Church Government (1646):

Erastus. The Ministers have none, by whom in their office they can be corrected: But saith Erastus, If every soul be subject to the higher powers, how are Ministers excepted? if Ministers correct Ministers, they play to others hands, spare thou the nails, and I shall spare the teeth.

Ans[wer]. The Author doth not except Ministers from civill subjection to Magistrates: But only he saith, In Ecclesiasticall censures, the Magistrate is not to judge the Ministers; because a Ministery being an Ecclesiasticall office, as such, it is not liable to the civill power, only the Ministers as they erre and sin in their persons, are liable to civill punishment, but not to Ecclesiasticall, to be inflicted by the Magistrate.

From George Hutcheson, A Brief Exposition of the Prophecies of Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (1654):

Verse 3 [of chapter 7 of Micah ]

That they may do evil with both hands earnestly: the Prince asketh, and the Judge asketh for a reward: and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desire; so they wrap it up.

...

It is an usual sin also, in declining times for great men so to play to others hands, as to strengthen them∣selves and one another in evil courses; for so was it in this time: so they wrap, or, twist it up: a similitude taken from cords twisted together to make them strong, signifying the conspiracy of the Judge and great man, that the one may get his bribe, and the other may make his prey of the poor.


Discussion

It is tempting to imagine that people in the middle 1600s viewed "play into [someone's] hand[s]" and "play to [someone's] hand[s]" as having the same meaning. Certainly, the 1659 letter from Tristram Thomas treats them as equivalent. If they do mean the same thing, the "to" form of the expression seems to be slightly older in print than the "into" form.

But whether or not people commonly used the "to" and "into" forms of the phrase interchangeably, individual writers seem have used the phrase to mean two distinctly different things. In some instances, as in Birkenhead's 1647/1662 use of "play into each others hands" and Hutcheson's 1654 use of "play to others hands," the sense of the phrase seems to be "provide a benefit to someone else with the expectation of sooner or later receiving something beneficial from that person"—the classic quid pro quo arrangement. In other instances, as in Neville's 1659 satirical (and metaphorical) card-table conversation and in Dryden's 1663/1669 play, the sense of the expression is "to be forced by circumstances (or perhaps as a result of poor strategy) to provide a benefit to someone else to one's own disadvantage." The modern sense of "play into [someone's] hands" is much closer to the latter meaning.

One of the most striking things about the seven instances from the period 1646–1669 cited in my answer is how many of them use "play [in]to [someone's] hand[s]" figuratively rather than literally. In fact, of the seven, only the youngest, from Dryden's The Wild Gallant, uses the the phrase literally in the context of an actual (simulated) card game. The other six use it in the context of politics or religion, although Neville presents it in the context of a series of double-entendre comments by participants in a metaphorical card game.

The other striking thing about these instances is how many of them are caught up in the political moment following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658. Neville attributes the phrase as (as it were) the punch line of a pithy political remark by Sir William Waller in the table talk at his imagined card game in 1659; Thomas refers to the same person (Waller), using the same figure of speech in his 1659 letter to Nichols; the anonymous pamphleteer of "The Character of the Late Upstart House of Lords" (also 1659) involves another look at the political state of Britain immediately after Cromwell; and Birkenhead's belated 1663 publication of "The Assembly-man" seems likewise to be a character sketch intended as a critique of politics in the early days of the Restoration, although his publisher in 1681 asserts that he wrote it originally in the brief period between the First and Second English Civil Wars.

It seems to me that a phrase drawn from a commonplace activity (such as from the jargon of picquet players in the comfortable—or at least upwardly mobile/striving—classes of sixteenth-century England) is unlikely to gain widespread figurative use unless it has a fairly firm hold in the milieu where it originated. Applying that general rule to the present case leads me to think that "play [in]to [someone's] hand[s]" was probably a fairly common expression among card players even before 1646, when the expression first emerges in print, in a political/religious commentary (albeit, in that instance, with a figurative meaning that is far from obvious).

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  • Hi Sven, do you mind if I use two of the links in your answer to correct some publication dates in my answer? The Assembly Man (1681) doesn't go along with the date cited in the OED (which I thought was OED's mistake), so I'd really like to correct that as well as the John Dryden citation (the version printed in 1669 rather than 1684). That said, this is an amazing answer which goes beyond Google Books (the only source in my answer). +1
    – Justin
    Mar 29 at 8:53
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    @Justin: Please feel free to use/repurpose any cited material or links that I've included in my answer—everything is public domain and meant to be shared. I very much enjoyed reading your answer and found it extremely useful in guiding my research. (Also, I messed up the 1681 date for "The Assembly-man" in my answer, even though you had linked to it very clearly in your answer; I've corrected that error in my answer, thanks to your followup.)
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 29 at 9:15
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    In whist-like games (which were certainly around at the time, even if whist itself hadn't been invented yet) playing into your partner's hand is a good thing, and playing into your opponents' hands is a bad thing. If things go well for you and your partner, you cooperate by playing into each others' hands and win the game. If things go badly, you play into your opponents' hands and lose the game. This is probably why it looks like there are two distinct meanings. Mar 29 at 10:12
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    @PeterShor: Yes, that sounds exactly right. It would be interesting to know when the negative aspect (playing into one's opponents' hand[s]) became so dominant in figurative usage that the positive aspect (playing into one's partner's hand) effectively dropped out—but I haven't researched that question at all. In literal usage, of course, intentionally playing to or into one's partner's hand (against the team that won the bid in bridge, for example) makes as much sense as it ever did.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 29 at 16:29

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