Playing for Keeps – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you trying to tell someone to take what you’re doing seriously? If so, you could tell them you “play for keeps.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The meaning of “playing for keeps” is to tell someone that you are serious with your intentions and will put in your best effort.

It’s a competitive saying and a sign that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to secure an outcome in your favor. The phrase can apply to professional and social settings, and it’s a common saying in English, particularly in western countries.

If you tell someone you’re playing for keeps, it’s a way of telling them that they better bring their best performance if they want to get one over on you.

Example Usage

“I don’t recommend going up against John in any argument. That guy's playing for keeps, and you can’t win with him. He just won’t see your side of the situation.”

“Man, that guy really plays for keeps. This was supposed to be a friendly conversation, and he acts like it’s a professional debate.”

“Wow, Kim really is playing for keeps. Don’t cross her, or she’ll go psycho on you.”

“I’m going to pull out all the stops on this. These people need to know that I’m playing for keeps. I’m not messing around with this, I promise.”

Sure, you can try and go up against me if you want. I welcome the competition. Just know that I play for keeps, so bring your A-game.”


The origin of the expression "play for keeps" comes from kids playing games of marbles. According to language experts, the phrase has been around since 1842.

Marbles were common kids' playthings throughout the late 1800s to the late 1900s. Kids stopped playing marbles around the 1990s, with the release of the video game console killing the market.

The phrase refers to drawing a circle and flicking marbles into the center. If your marble lands in the ring, you collect all the opponent's marbles lying on the floor.

Players would ask each other if they wanted a friendly game, where they keep their marbles if they lost. Or, they could "play for keeps" where their opponents take their marbles if they win.

The earliest reference to the expression in print comes from the Hattiesburg American newspaper in 1842.

"In the second and third heats, George realized this was a mistake, because it made Joe angry and he started playing for keeps."

Phrases Similar to Playing for Keeps

  • Knuckle down.
  • Pull out all the stops.
  • Play hard ball.

Phrases Opposite to Playing for Keeps

  • At the end of your tether.
  • Bone idle.
  • Fed up with.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Play for keeps.
  • Playing for keeps.

Ways People May Say Playing for Keeps Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase to describe the action of playing games. While this is technically correct, it’s more common for people to use the expression to express their attitude toward a task.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Playing for Keeps

You can use the expression “play for keeps” to describe your attitude toward a task or event. You can use the phrase to describe your behavior or that of others. The saying also suits professional and social use.

You can use it at work to tell a team member that you approach every prospect with a pitch that shows them you’re playing for keeps.

Or, you could use it to describe another person’s competitive behavior. They do everything they can to secure a positive result as the outcome of their actions. It’s also a way to tell someone that you are finished playing around and things are about to get serious.

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