The cartoon character Snoopy in Peanuts by Charles Schulz said the phrase (a source):

"You play with the cards you're dealt…"

The variations of the phrase include, as far as I know:

I suppose this phrase was not coined by Schulz (or was it?).
Who first said the phrase or similar and when?

Interestingly, the phrase seems fairly famous in Japan as Snoopy's word.

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    It is a very common expression, as old as card-playing itself, probably, defintely not coined by Schulz. The link between fate, fatalism, and games of chance is ancient.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 11:16
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    @PeterShor - definitely not: The meaning "playing cards held in one player's hand" is from 1620s; (Etymonline)
    – Gio
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 13:29
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    @PeterShor OP's question is not about a particular phrase verbatim as it mentions variants; that said, Google isn't the end-all-be-all to questions relating to language. Google deals with OCR'd printed texts, and it has a very bad success rate with early printing, its scanning algorithms often screwing things up royally.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 14:06
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    the whole gambling era, card playing era, really generated a LOT of language we still use.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 21:41
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    .@Fattie: True, but I don't think there has ever been a non-gambling era.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 1:25

3 Answers 3


Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases, Scarborough House, 1992 (1977), in the entry "you play the cards you're dealt", says it's c. 1910, from the USA, especially used in the West. Like most words and sayings, there is no record of who was first to say it. Partridge glosses the meaning as "You do the best you can with what you have -- physically and mentally, socially and financially".

Searching Google Books, pre-1900 the only references are literal, to card game rules and accounts of playing games. One early metaphorical usage is from 1922, in the American writer Meredith Nicholson's novel ''Broken Barriers'':

Broadly speaking, it's better not to be afraid of life; life's got to be lived. ... We've got to meet situations; play the game with the cards as they're dealt.

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    Young Ladies' Journal in 1868 has "However, I will do my best to play the cards you have put in my hands, when the chance is given me; but it must depend on that , remember." Not quite the same wording, but a very similar metaphor. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 15:45
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    Another early expression of the same type is “You must play your cards as best you can” in ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’ in The Strand Magazine, April 1904.
    – gidds
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 21:36

The following source cites an early 1919 usage exemple. Charles M Schulz was born in 1922. It is such a common and popular saying that’s probably impossible to track its first user:

Play The Hand One Is Dealt is an idiom. It is one of the most commonly used expressions in English writings. Play The Hand One Is Dealt stands for (idiomatic) To use the resources which one actually has available; to operate realistically, within the limits of one's circumstances.

1919, William MacLeod Raine, Oh, You Tex, ch. 6: "Don't you care. Play the hand that's dealt you and let the boss worry."


The earliest instance I have found of "play the cards [one is] dealt" as a figurative expression meaning "try to make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in" is from Charles Lever, The Martins of Cro' Martin (1856):

"But do you like his conditions?" asked Jack.

"I can't say I do. But what's that to the purpose? One must play the hand that is dealt to them—there's no choice! I know that, as agent over the property, he'll make a deuced good thing of it for himself. It will not be five nor ten per cent. will satisfy Master Maurice."

But the idea that, under certain circumstances, one has the option not to play the hand that one is dealt in an an actual game of cards appears in print much earlier. From James Beaufort, Hoyle's Games Improved: Being Practical Treatises on the Following Fashionable Games, Viz. Whist, Quadrille, Piquet, Bck-gammon, Chess, Billiards, and Tennis (1775):

In order to give a general idea if the game [Piquet], as we have proposed, it is necessary to observe here, that if the elder or younger hand has thirteen cards dealt him, it is at the option of the elder hand either to play the cards, or to have a new deal ; and if he chuses to stand the game, he is to lay out one more than he takes in, so that there may be three cards left to the dealer. If the younger hand has thirteen cards, he must in like manner lay out on more than he takes in ; and if either party has fourteen cards dealt him, there must be a new deal.

The example of the figurative expression from 1856 is interesting in that it doesn't seem to arise as a striking turn of phrase by a particularly poetical or inventive speaker (Captain Martin), but rather as a kind of axiomatic observation familiar to both the speaker and the hearer in the novel. Charles Lever was born and raised in Ireland, and his novel is set there.

In a comment beneath Stuart F's answer, Peter Shor notes the following very similar metaphorical usage, from The Hunted Heir, serialized in The Young Ladies' Journal (May 1, 1868):

"It shall be so," he [Gaspard] said—"it shall be as you will, Clemence, though the game you would have me share in is a dangerous one. However, I will do my best to play the cards you have put in my hands, when the chance is given me; but it must depend on that, remember. It would be simple madness for me to originate any such idea to the countess."

Like Captain Martin, Gaspard seems not to be inventing a new metaphor, but rather invoking a familiar one.

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