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What does “Playing For Keeps” mean?

The meaning of the phrase “playing for keeps” is that someone is serious about what they’re doing. People will often use this phrase if they’ve been playing around previously but are now ready to get serious.

For example:

Jacob lost the game because he wasn’t paying attention. He vowed that next time, he would be playing for keeps. 

Are there other phrases with similar meanings? Yes, here are a couple of similar sayings: play hard ball, pull out all the stops, and knuckle down.

Why do we say ‘Playing For Keeps’?

This phrase likely comes from the game of marbles. In this game, two players draw circles on the ground and place their marbles inside. Then they take turns flicking their marbles out of their opponent’s circle. If they win the game, then they get to keep the marbles that they knocked out. However, there is an option to play the game in such a way that the person gets their marbles back at the end. So when you start a game of marbles, you have to declare if you will or will not be “playing for keeps.”

This phrase first appeared in the Hattiesburg American newspaper in 1842. 

Helpful Examples

  • She won’t beat me again because now I’m playing for keeps!
  • If you want to get better, you need to start playing for keeps.

Related: Now that you know the meaning of “playing for keeps” learn about the origin of the phrase  “slow and steady wins the race.”

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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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