Play one’s cards right

Play one’s cards right is an idiom that came into use in the twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kicked the bucket, blow off steam, piece of cake, hit the sack, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. 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.


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)

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