Play one’s cards right

Play one’s cards right is an idiom that came into use in the twentieth century. We will examine the meaning of the idiom play one’s cards right, where it probably came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To play one’s cards right means to do something intelligently, to execute a well-thought-out plan successfully, to behave in a way that anticipates others’ reactions in order to get the outcome one wants. The idea comes from the fact that in order to execute a winning hand in a card game, one must understand the strategy of the game and play the cards logically and well. The growth of the popularity of card games in Western culture gave rise to many idioms including have an ace up one’s sleeve, to hold all the cards, and to get lost in the shuffle. While the expression play one’s cards right can be found as far back as the 1600s, it was used in a literal sense until the latter 1800s. The idiom play one’s cards right gained popularity quickly in the latter 1900s. Related phrases are plays one’s cards right, played one’s cards right, playing one’s cards right.

Examples

So play your cards right, Boy B, keep your nose clean and your head down and you could be skipping out of prison at 22. (The Irish Mirror)

If you play your cards right, rehabbing houses can be very rewarding and incredibly profitable. (Forbes Magazine)

We are quite confident that very soon, if he plays his cards right, we will see him reap the rewards for his works on the big screen, too. (The Business Mirror)

If he plays his cards right, he will dominate British politics for much longer than pundits expect—and inspire imitators well beyond the shores of Brexit Britain. (The Atlantic)