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Ace in the Hole – Meaning and Use

The phrase ace in the hole means a resource that is held in reserve until it can be used for an advantage.

This idiom refers to a play in stud poker. In this game, a “hole card” refers to a car that is held or kept face down until it can be played for its winning value. 

This popular poker phrase can also be used to describe an advantage in any game, business venture, sporting event, political race, or economic competition.

If someone says you have an ace in the hole, they think you have a secret resource that you will reveal at an opportune time to help you win.

One of the first known uses of this phrase is in the June 1886 edition of Iowa’s The Humeston New Era. The writer described a poker game saying,

  • “Thus matters went on until four cards lay in front of each man, face up and one turned down. Not a pair in sight and everyone thought each man had an ace ‘in the hole.’”

A more mainstream example was in the 1951 Billy Wilder film starring Kirk Douglas. It features a muckraking journalist who gets his audience to believe that a man is trapped in a cave (hole) so that he will be praised for the man’s rescue.

Another popular use was in a story by John Updike published in 1954. Then, in 1980, Paul Simon wrote a song with this phrase. Finally, George Strait calls his backup band his ace in the hole

Example of Ace in the Hole

This phrase is no longer only for poker. It can be used to describe a person’s position in many different games. Remember that ace in the hole refers to a secret ace in a poker game, so it can be used to refer to a player holding on to the winning piece in almost any board game.

For example, imagine if someone playing Clue held on to the card that solved the crime. That card would be his ace in the hole.

Another way this phrase can be used is when a talented player is kept on the bench until she is needed for the big winning play. Or a sportswriter might say a kicker is his team’s ace in the hole if he helped them win the previous game.

In addition to sports and games, this phrase is also used in politics. Perhaps a diplomat keeps a secret piece of intelligence agency data for the most opportune moment. When that information is finally revealed, the news may say that the diplomat played his ace in the hole.

More Examples

  • On May 17, 2013, there was a story about the takedown of high stakes gambling circles in Manhattan titled “5th Ave. Poker, With $25,000 Chips and an F.B.I. Ace in the Hole.” – The New York Times
  • On August 5, 2006, Angels’ pitcher Bert Colon had an injury that the Los Angeles Times wrote about in an article called “No Ace in the Hole.” –Los Angeles Times
  • On July 19, 2011, there was an opinion piece by Chris Cilliza entitled “Rick Perry’s ace in the hole: Rudy Giuliani.” –The Washington Post

Summary

Ace in the hole is an idiom from the game stud poker. At first, it was only used in the poker world, but now it has a wider meaning. Ace in the hole refers to a strategy of deliberately holding a winning resource until the most opportune moment.

Related: Here are some more commonly used expressions: Bear With Me, Duly Noted


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Posted by Patrice Riley
By Patrice Riley

Patrice Riley is the pen name of Dr. Deborah Riley. She is a retired English professor that enjoys grammar, literature and all things writing.

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