When the Chips Are Down—Facing Tough Times

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

When the chips are down means facing a difficult situation or a moment of crisis. It implies dealing with challenges or making critical decisions during tough times.

English language idioms such as when the chips are down are expressions that convey meanings beyond their literal interpretation. Mastering idioms enriches spoken and written communication by adding color, variety, and humor to language. Therefore, learning to use them accurately can greatly enhance expression.

In this guide, I delve into the meaning and origins of this idiom, offering insights into its accurate usage and context. Additionally, I provide related terms and phrases, along with expert tips for effective application. To illustrate its usage, I include real-world examples sourced from popular media.

After reading, test your newly found knowledge by taking our fun quiz. When the chips are down, I know you’ll come through! 

What Does the Idiom When the Chips Are Down Mean?

The idiom when the chips are down signifies a moment when everything appears hopeless or when one’s life is at its most critical. Typically, the phrase conveys a sense of desperation and hopelessness.

The Cambridge Dictionary says the phrase means “when you are in a very difficult or dangerous situation, especially one that makes you understand the true value of people or things.” Moreover, the Collins Dictionary states, “If you say that something happens when the chips are down, you mean it happens when a situation gets very difficult.”

My friend recently lost her job, leaving her struggling to keep her head above water financially. But I’m not too worried about her. When the chips are down, she’s always come through, and I know she will this time, too. She has a knack for overcoming challenges and finding solutions, even in the toughest situations.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of when the chips are down refers to a gambling scenario where players bet chips, and when they’re nearly out of chips, it’s a critical moment. Figuratively, it signifies a situation where things are at their most difficult or crucial, often when facing adversity or hardship.

How Is When the Chips Are Down Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom when the chips are down is used in a negative context to explain that you’re faced with a critical situation. This expressive phrase is frequently used in times of adversity, such as facing redundancy or a relationship breakup.

In the next part of my guide, I explain how to use the idiom in different contexts, give you some handy tips on its effective usage, and provide examples of the expression’s use in everyday language.

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom When the Chips Are Down?

  • In business: “Today’s sales figures are terrible. Fortunately, our team is prepared to work extra hard when the chips are down.”
  • In sports: “Even though we’re trailing by ten points, our basketball team has a long history of performing exceptionally well when the chips are down.”
  • In relationships: “Our marriage has faced many challenges over the years, but we’ve always stuck together when the chips are down, and we’re still together.”
  • In academic settings: “Even though final exams can be tough, it’s crucial to remain focused and remember that success usually comes to those who stick at it and persevere, even when the chips are down.
  • Health and well-being: “Coping with a serious illness is never easy, but I know you’ll find all the strength and resilience you need when the chips are down.”
  • Personal finance: “Bills are rising, food is more expensive than ever, and wages simply don’t seem to keep up. All that said, when the chips are down, I always find a way to manage.”

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom When the Chips Are Down?

  • Context matters: This idiom is commonly used to describe challenging situations or times of adversity, so ensure the context in which you use it is appropriate.
  • Communicate clearly: To avoid misunderstandings, always clarify what difficulties or challenges you’re referring to when using the idiom.
  • Versatility: When the chips are down is a versatile idiom that you can use in both casual and professional settings. Use the phrase to express determination and resilience in various contexts, including business meetings and presentations.
  • Be positive: Follow up the use of the expression with positive actions or solutions to emphasize the idea that despite challenges, you are committed to overcoming them.
  • Avoid overuse: As with all idioms, less is more, so don’t use the phrase too much, or it will lose its impact.
  • Know your audience: Be mindful of your audience if English is not their first language. You might need to explain what you mean in more detail to prevent misunderstandings.
  • Use personal experiences: If you can, share personal or relatable experiences to give context and authenticity to your use of the idiom. In addition, give real-life examples or stories highlighting times when you had to be resilient and determined to overcome adversity.

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom When the Chips Are Down?

This popular idiom is used in various media, including TV, movies, books, websites, and public speeches.

Here are a few examples of the idiom’s use in news outlets:

“When the chips are down, Manitowoc rises to the occasion every time.” (Seehafer News)

The issue, he bluntly told reporters, isn’t whether he’ll carry out his commitments to Netanyahu but whether, when the chips are down, Netanyahu will do the same for him. (Times of Israel)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom When the Chips Are Down?

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When the chips are down usage trend.

The expression when the chips are down originated from gambling games like pocket and roulette and refers to the time during a game of chance when the bets have been made, but the outcome is not yet known. 

Poker and gambling chips in the shape of discs came into use in the mid-1800s; before that time, numerous objects were used in wagering games, including coins and paper money. 

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

The idiom when the chips are down came into use during the mid-20th century. Since then, the expression has evolved into an idiom, meaning when everything seems lost or times are desperate.  

What Are Some Related Terms to When the Chips Are Down?

Here are a few synonyms and antonyms that can help clarify the idiom’s meaning. You can use these related terms to give your speech more variety and prevent repetition.


  • In times of adversity
  • When the going gets tough
  • When push comes to shove
  • In the face of adversity
  • When the going gets rough
  • When the heat is on


When the Chips Are Down: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about the Idiom When the Chips Are Down?

We have learned that when the chips are down is an idiom that means everything seems lost or times are tough. 

You can use this idiom literally and figuratively, and it’s extremely versatile. The phrase can be used in positive and negative contexts, depending on the situation, so be mindful of that when using it.

I probed the idiom’s meaning and origins, showed you how to use it in the correct context, and included some alternatives you can use to keep your language fresh. As you can see, idiomatic expressions are great for giving your speech color, depth, and flair. That’s why I love using them, and now you can too!

Discover hundreds of idioms like this one on our site. Why not explore them now?

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