The 2016 NHL trade deadline is mere days away which means the words, "Garth Snow" and "close to the vest" are going to be inextricably linked like "bacon and eggs," "Ratchet and Clank" and "Raffi Torres" and "suspension." The Islanders GM is known as one of the league's most tight-lipped executives and very rarely tips his hand to even the most inside of insiders.
Which begs a couple of burning questions, specifically: Is it "close to the vest" or "close to the chest" and where the hell does either phrase even come from?
On his blog about early sports and pop culture history, part-time historian Peter Jensen Brown traces the paths of the phrases and finds that "close to the vest" came first. Dating in print back to the late 19th century, it may have existed even earlier as an oral phrase used by poker players in the wild west. Jensen finds one instance of "close to the vest" from 1896 used to describe how then-presidential candidate William McKinley avoided giving out handshakes on the campaign trail by keeping his hands close to his body like a "poker sharp."
But Jensen suggests the idiom finally broke away from the card table and into popular culture thanks to writer William Allen White, who coined the phrase "close to the vest buttons" in his 1905 biography of Missouri Governor Joseph W. Folk.
[Folk] plays the game of life with a smiling face, but with his cards close to his vest buttons.
The phrase took off in popularity almost immediately thanks to excepts of the book appearing in various magazines afterwards. A poem about gambling prohibition in Arizona in 1907 dumped the buttons and the snappier "close to the vest" just kinda stuck among other writers of the time as a figurative expression.
"Close to the chest" seems to have followed "close to the vest buttons" although it wasn't too far behind. The telephone game progression was a natural one given that "vest" and "chest" rhyme and that one can't really exist without the other. Jack London used "close to the chest" in the novel Burning Daylight, published in 1910, but it was a few years before it became a popular metaphor for secrecy. The two have been intertwined since about the 1920's, but "vest" is the first and most common version.
So there you have it. Although I'm pretty sure the only time Snow has been seen in a vest is at the Islanders annual Casino Night fund raiser, the phrase to use is "close to the vest" when describing how goes about his general managing.
Glad we got that sorted out. Thanks, everyone.