Both ends against the middle, to play

Let’s you and him fight.

Dear Word Detective: How, exactly, does one “play both ends against the middle”?  Whence?  Wherefore?  Is it a reference to the children’s game “Monkey in the Middle”?  Is there a more sinister explanation?  It seems to make better sense if it’s the middle playing both ends against each other, but maybe they decided that was too cumbersome.  What’s going on? — Hannah Upchurch.

“Monkey in the Middle”?  You’ll have to forgive me — I am not familiar with your Earth games.  Is that anything like “Transform Boltar into a Werkle”?  We used to play that all the time on, um, Connecticut.  Ah, here we go.  This “Wikipedia” must be the wisest person on your planet.  He says that “Monkey in the Middle” is what you people also call “Keep Away,” a larval sport the object of which is to throw an object back and forth while someone positioned between the players attempts to grab it.

OK, game time over.  To “play both ends against the middle” means to maneuver two opponents into a conflict against each other in order to benefit yourself, or to pretend to favor both opponents as a way of being sure of ending up on the winning side.  This behavior will seem very familiar to any student of politics, where a candidate’s pledge of fealty to opposing (and often mutually exclusive) sides of a debate is regarded as “realistic” and “post-partisan.”   It’s also the principle behind the not-uncommon practice of a party surreptitiously supporting an extremist candidate on the other side in order to draw votes away from a more mainstream opponent.

“Playing both ends against the middle” may resemble “Monkey in the middle” in its arrangement of players, but the idiom actually comes from the card game called “faro,” which was an extremely popular form of gambling in 19th century America.  (The name “faro” is a simplified form of “Pharaoh,” a king of ancient Egypt.  It’s thought that the decks of cards used in 17th century France, where the game first appeared, were decorated with a picture of a Pharaoh.)

Card games more sophisticated than “Fish” are beyond my ken, but according to the excellent explanation of “playing both sides against the middle” in Christine Ammer’s dictionary of idioms “Have a Nice Day — No Problem,” faro is, when fairly played, a very fair and honest game.  Unfortunately, faro games can be, and often were, rigged by shaving the edges of cards to make their location in the deck easily identifiable to crooked dealers and players.  Apparently the ends of cards were frequently shaved in a concave or convex fashion, and this technique was called “both ends against the middle,” which became “playing both ends against the middle.”

“Playing both ends against the middle” probably became popular as a phrase at least in part because the idiom “to play one person against another” had been in use since the 16th century (“They could play one Party of Protestants against another,” 1643).  But the popularity of faro in the US gave a boost to “play both ends against the middle,” and the phrase was being used in a non-card sense by the late 19th century (“He must in gamblers’ parlance, ‘play both ends against the middle’,” 1887).

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