Play for Keeps – Meaning and Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Playing for keeps means engaging in an activity or taking actions with a serious and determined intention, with the intent to succeed in mind. It’s not just fun and games anymore; it’s about playing to win. The idea comes from the old game of marbles where the winner would keep the other players’ pieces.

Idioms like this one are phrases where the words together have a different meaning than their individual definitions. They are so important to the English language because they help paint a picture with our words. Saying, “I’m playing for keeps, sounds way better than, “I want to win.”

So, take note as I explain the details behind the meaning, origin, and usage of this idiom.

Play for Keeps Meaning Explained

Play for Keeps – Meaning and Origin

Playing for keeps describes someone’s intent to participate to the fullest and to play with intense commitment, with the intention of retaining or achieving something valuable or permanent. Basically, it’s like saying, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right; I’m all in.”

I always play for keeps when I take a trip to the bookstore. No casual browsing for me. I’m there to spend some serious money!

Different Tenses to Use

  • Present Simple: He plays for keeps when it comes to business negotiations.
  • Present Continuous: She is playing for keeps in the chess championship.
  • Past Simple: They played for keeps in the school’s soccer match.
  • Present Perfect: We have played for keeps in every tournament.
  • Future Simple: I will play for keeps in tomorrow’s game.

Origin and Etymology of Playing for Keeps

The phrase playing for keeps gets its origin from childhood games where the stakes or marbles won during a game would be permanently kept by the victor. Eventually, it upgraded to idiomatic status, and this literal concept of children’s games became a metaphor for any situation where the participants are deeply committed, with lasting or serious consequences.

Playing for Keeps Synonyms

Use any of these alternatives to playing for keeps to hold the same meaning and intent in your sentence.

  • In it to win it
  • Going all out
  • Her to win
  • Fully committed
  • Dead set
  • With serious intent
  • All in

Using ‘Play for Keeps’ in Sentence Examples

Play for Keeps – Meaning and Origin 1

  • When it comes to my author career, I’m playing for keeps.
  • Fair warning: This isn’t a practice session; she plays for keeps every single game.
  • He warned everyone on the rival team that they were playing for keeps this championship.
  • If you thought she was joking, think again. She’s played for keeps since she was a rookie.
  • Tomorrow, when the new book launches, we have to play for keeps.
  • They’ve been playing for keeps in the industry for over a decade now.
  • Even during friendly matches, it’s pretty clear that Dan plays for keeps.
  • If you join this poker table, just know that everyone here plays for keeps.
  • I’ve never seen an adult play for keeps like that in a kid’s game.
  • Whenever there’s a debate in the classroom, Sarah plays for keeps and always has the final word.

Playing for Keeps With Grammar

From games of marbles to boardroom battles, playing for keeps has come a long way, symbolizing the seriousness and commitment of someone. Idioms are more than just words; they’re windows into culture, history, and human nature. There’s an ocean of idioms out there to learn, so grab a paddle and wade around our site for more!

Want to have more idioms in your arsenal? Check out some others we covered: