It is said that there never was a good hand of cards containing four clubs. Such a hand is called “The Devil's Four-poster.”
Lieuben, a German lunatic, bet that he would succeed in turning up a pack of cards in a certain order stated in a written agreement. He turned and turned the cards ten hours a day for twenty years, and repeated the operation 4,246,028 times, when at last he succeeded.
In Spain, spades used to be columbines; clubs, rabbits; diamonds, pinks; and hearts, roses. The present name for spades is espados (swords); of clubs, bastos (cudgels); of diamonds, dineros (square pieces of money used for paying wages), of hearts, copas (chalices).
The French for spades is pique (pikemen or soldiers); for clubs, trèfle (clover, or husbandmen); of diamonds, carreaux (building tiles, or artisans); of hearts, choeur (choir-men, or ecclesiasties)
The English spades is the French form of a pike, and the Spanish name; the clubs is the French trefoil, and the Spanish name; the hearts is a corruption of choeur into coeur. (See Vierge.)
Court cards. So called because of their heraldic devices. The king of clubs originally represented the arms of the Pope; of spades, the King of France; of diamonds, the King of Spain; and of hearts, the King of England. The French kings in cards are called David (spades), Alexander (clubs), Caesar (diamonds), and Charles (hearts)- representing the Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Frankish empires. The queens or dames are Argine —i.e. Juno (hearts), Judith (clubs), Rachel (diamonds), and Pallas (spades)—representing royalty, fortitude, piety, and wisdom. They were likenesses of Marie d'Anjou, the queen of Charles VII., Isabeau, the queen-mother; Agnes Sorel, the king's mistress, and Joan d'Arc, the dame of spades, or war.
He felt that he held the cards in his own hands. That he had the whip-end of the stick; that he had the upper hand, and could do as he liked. The allusion is to games played with cards, such as whist.
He played his cards well. He acted judiciously and skilfully, like a whistplayer who plays his hand with judgment. To play one's cards badly is to manage a project unskilfully.
The cards are in my hands. I hold the disposal of events which will secure success. The allusion is obvious.
“The Vitelli busied at Arezzo; the Orsini irritating the French; the war of Naples imminent;- the cards are in my hands.” —Caesar Borgia, xxix.
On the cards. Likely to happen, projected, and talked about as likely to occur. On the programme or card of the races; on the “agenda.”
To count on one's cards. To anticipate success under the circumstances. The allusion is to holding in one's hand cards likely to win.
To go in with good cards. To have good patronage; to have excellent grounds for expecting success. To throw up the cards. To give up as a bad job; to acknowledge you have no hope of success. In some games of cards, as loo, a player has the liberty of saying whether he will play or not, and if one's hand is hopelessly bad he throws up his cards and sits out till the next deal.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894