Playing for Keeps: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 14, 2023

"Playing for keeps" is an idiom that emphasizes the idea of wholehearted commitment and unwavering dedication. When playing for keeps, people are fully committed and determined to succeed.

In short:

"Playing for keeps" means being fully committed and determined, unwilling to compromise or give up easily.

What Does "Playing for Keeps" Mean?

"Playing for keeps" is an idiom that means engaging in a situation with severe, irreversible consequences. It suggests that someone is fully committed and determined to achieve their desired outcome, often using all available resources. Some of the common variations which are used are "In it for the long haul," "All or nothing," and "No turning back."

  • Serious commitment: When someone is "playing for keeps," they show high dedication and seriousness towards a particular endeavor or relationship.
  • Irreversible consequences: The phrase implies that actions have long-term or permanent effects. It signifies that there is no turning back or changing one's mind once they have embarked on this course.
  • Full utilization of resources: The person playing for keeps will employ all their available skills, knowledge, and assets to ensure success. They are willing to put everything on the line.

Where Does "Playing for Keeps" Come From?

The idiom "playing for keeps" is believed to have originated in the early 19th century, although its exact origins are unclear. The phrase is often used to describe a situation where someone is taking an action or making a decision that has long-term consequences or involves serious commitment. There are several theories about the origin of this idiom. Still, one popular theory suggests that it may have evolved from the game of marbles. In marbles, players would sometimes play for keeps, meaning they would keep any marbles they won from their opponents. This concept of playing for keeps eventually extended beyond the game itself. It became associated with any situation where the stakes were high.

Historical Example

"The political race in this district is going to be a tough one. Both candidates are playing for keeps."

-Times-Picayune, 1886

"She played her cards so well that she always played 'em for keeps."

-A Daughter of Thespis, Grant Allen, 1891

10 Examples of "Playing for Keeps" in Sentences

Let's take a look at how "playing for keeps" can be used in various sentences:

  • She decided to play for keeps and take a peek at the surprise party decorations before everyone arrived.
  • Once she decided to run for office, she was playing for keeps.
  • In the cutthroat world of business, they're all playing for keeps.
  • She doesn't date casually; when she's in a relationship, she's playing for keeps.
  • She was determined to win the auction by playing for keeps and set a price that no one could beat.
  • This isn't a practice match - they're playing for keeps.
  • They say relationships are like playing for keeps, but sometimes love can feel like a fly by night affair.
  • They're not just negotiating; they're playing for keeps.
  • He entered the poker game, playing for keeps.
  • When it comes to our rivalry on the basketball court, we're playing for keeps, and when it comes to our love for pizza, neither do I!

Examples of "Playing for Keeps" in Pop Culture

The phrase "playing for keeps" also appears in various forms in pop culture:

  • The movie Playing for keeps is a romantic comedy about a former sports star who's fallen from grace.
  • Playing for keeps is a song by Elvis Presley where he sings about a lover who's seriously committed.
  • In the TV show Game of Thrones, characters are often playing for keeps when it comes to the throne.
  • Bob Dylan's song 'Like a Rolling Stone' contains the line, "When you ain't got nothing, you're playing for keeps."
  • In the TV show "Friends," Phoebe tells Monica, "You better be careful with your new boyfriend because he's playing for keeps."
  • In the movie "Ocean's Eleven," Danny Ocean warns his crew, "We're not just out to have fun; we're playing for keeps this time."
  • The song lyrics of Taylor Swift's hit single "Blank Space" state, "So it's gonna be forever, or it's gonna go down in flames, but we are playing for keeps."
  • In the novel "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, a character says, "I'm tired of playing games. I want to play for keeps."
  • In a dialogue from the movie "The Dark Knight," Batman tells the Joker, "You think you can just steal from us and walk away? We're playing for keeps now!"
  • In an episode of the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," Barney exclaims to Ted about his new relationship, "Bro! This girl is amazing! I've met my match; I'm finally playing for keeps! "

Other Ways to Say "Playing for Keeps"

There are several alternative expressions that convey a similar meaning to "playing for keeps."

Some of these include:

  • He's not messing around; he's in it to win it.
  • She's taking this seriously; it's not just a game to her.
  • He's not just dabbling in business; he's committed to success.
  • She’s not merely dabbling in romance; she’s on a mission to find a lifetime partner or go to hell in a handcart.
  • Jennifer approaches every project with an all-or-nothing mindset.
  • The basketball team is putting it all on the line for tomorrow’s championship game to each their own strategy.
  • Mark decided to put aside any reservations and go all out, not holding back anymore.
  • Alex left nothing behind as they pursued their artistic career with zeal.
  • Emily confronted countless challenges, but her unwavering determination in tackling them was truly a sight to behold
  • John is committed to his new business venture; he's in it for the long haul.

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Playing for Keeps"

  • What does the idiom "playing for keeps" mean?

The idiom "playing for keeps" refers to the seriousness and intention of achieving a lasting result, typically in a competitive situation.

  • What is the origin of the idiom "playing for keeps?"

The phrase is believed to originate from children's games, specifically the game of marbles where the player keeps the marbles they win.

  • Can "playing for keeps" be used in non-competitive situations?

Yes, it can be used in any scenario where someone is seriously invested in the outcome.

  • Is "playing for keeps" common in spoken English?

Yes, "Playing for Keeps" is a commonly used idiom in both spoken and written English.

  • Are there other idioms similar to "playing for keeps"?

Yes, similar idioms include "In it to win it", "Go for broke", and "Pull out all the stops".

  • Can "playing for keeps" be used in a non-literal sense?

Yes, like many idioms, "playing for keeps" is often used in a figurative or non-literal sense.

  • Does "playing for keeps" has a negative connotation?

No, the phrase itself is neutral and can be used in both positive and negative contexts depending on the speaker's intention.

  • Is "playing for keeps" used globally?

Yes, while it originated in English-speaking countries, the phrase is understood and used by English speakers worldwide.

  • Can "playing for keeps" be used to describe someone's character?

Yes, it can be used to describe someone who is serious, committed, and determined.

  • Is "playing for keeps" a modern or an old idiom?

The phrase "playing for keeps" has been in use for many decades, making it neither particularly modern nor old.

Final Thoughts About "Playing for Keeps"

"Playing for keeps" is a powerful idiom that encapsulates the determination, commitment, and seriousness one might exhibit when pursuing a goal, especially in competitive scenarios. It's a versatile phrase with applications in a wide variety of situations and contexts.

Key aspects of the phrase"playing for keeps":

  • The idiom implies a serious commitment or engagement in a particular activity.
  • It suggests that the consequences or outcomes of the activity are important and long-lasting.
  • “Playing for keeps” often refers to making decisions or taking actions with the intention of achieving permanent results.
  • It can also signify a determination to win or succeed at all costs without considering the potential negative consequences.

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