Playing For Keeps – Meaning, Origin

Meaning:

When someone is done playing around and they are about to get serious.

Example: Elena raced her friend four times today and lost every time. However, for the fifth race, she’s going to play for keeps.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Knuckle down
Pull out all the stops
Play hard ball
Marbles, the idiom playing for keeps.
This common idiom may come from the game of marbles.

The Origin Of ‘Playing For Keeps’

Marbles have existed for quite some time, apparently for thousands of years. As for the origins of this phrase, it may come from the game of marbles. How is this game played? Basically, the player’s goal is to hit their opponent’s marbles with their own, which is generally done by rolling a marble across the ground from a set distance, and hoping it collides with the target.

At the beginning of the game, players can establish if they are ‘playing for keeps,’ meaning if a player hits the opposing player’s marble, then they get to keep it. Of course, it’s also possible to just play for fun, with no risk of losing anything. When I was in school, the kids played for keeps, and fun.

This expression, with its figurative meaning, has been around since at least the year 1842, as it was written in the Hattiesburg American newspaper. There’s a part that reads: 

“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)

  1. Mary was having fun competing against her friend in a rollerskating race. However, once she lost, she said it was time to play for keeps. (In other words, she was going to try real hard on the next race.)

Note: Finding the origins for many popular sayings can be very difficult much of the time, as it’s hard to find the person or area where an idiom started. When the origin of a phrase are unclear, what you will see listed are the theories for how a phrase may have originated, but it might not necessarily be the case, so keep that in mind.

In addition, the quotes that contain a phrase may be from old newspapers, poems, or books that were written hundreds of years ago, but one should not assume that just because a book from the 1850s uses a phrase, that the specific book is responsible for its origins. Perhaps the author heard it from some place else! Just keep that in mind. Additionally, the quotes containing the expression are the oldest that I could find, so there may be an even older recording that I missed.