Playing For Keeps – Meaning, Origin


If someone says they are going to play for keeps, that means they’re done playing around and they’re about to get serious.

Example: After Elena lost to her friends in a race, she told them that next time, she will be playing for keeps. (In other words, she would treat the next race seriously and try her best to win it.)

1. Knuckle down
2. Pull out all the stops
3. Play hard ball

Marbles, the idiom: playing for keeps.
This common idiom might originate from the game of marbles.

The Origin Of ‘Playing For Keeps’

This phrase might come from the game of marbles. How so? In marbles, players draw a circle on the ground and then put some marbles inside. Afterwards, they take turns trying to knock the marbles out of the circle by flicking their own marbles at them. If they successfully knock a marble out, they might get to keep it if they win. I think at the beginning of a game, players can decide if they are “playing for keeps.”

Anyway, this expression with its figurative meaning has been around since at least 1842. For example, it is written in the Hattiesburg American newspaper from that year:

“In the second and third heats, George realized this was a mistake, because it made Joe angry and he started playing for keeps.”

Example Sentence(s)

  • Next time we play soccer together, I won’t take it so lightly; I’ll be playing for keeps!

Similar Example:

  • If I’m going to improve at the piano, I have to knuckle down and spend some time practicing each week.

Note: Do you want to learn the meaning of more popular sayings and see where they possibly come from? If so, Know Your Phrase has tons of expressions to explore! Browse through the full list of phrases by choosing a letter from the menu. If you don’t know, the menu is at the top of the page!