What Does Ace in the Hole Mean?

Ace in the Hole Meaning

Definition: Some argument or resource held in reserve until used for advantage.

The idiom describes a play in stud poker. An ace is dealt to a player who holds or keeps the card face down until played for its winning value. This is known as the “hole card.”

This is a commonly used American English idiom connected to the popularity of poker, but it has come to describe the same player advantage in any game, sport, business, political, or economic competition.

If you overhear someone refer to your ace in the hole, they recognize or suspect that you have a secret plan, idea, or resource that you refuse to reveal until the most opportune time to assure you win.

Origin of Ace in the Hole

How to use ace in the holeA writer for the June 1886 edition of Iowa’s The Humeston New Era described a poker game using the term,

  • “Thus matters went on until four cards lay in front of each man, face up and one turned down. Not a pair in sight and everyone thought each man had an ace ‘in the hole’.”

Some attribute its more mainstream popularity to a 1951 Billy Wilder film starring Kirk Douglas as a muckraking journalist who manipulates the public even to the point of endangering the life of a man trapped in a cave (hole) until he can claim the glory for the man’s rescue.

It is also the title of a 1954 story by John Updike, a 1980 song by Paul Simon, and the name of country singer George Strait’s backup band.

Example of Ace in the Hole

ace in the hole definition Once reserved for poker, this phrase is now used to describe a person’s position in several game situations.

As ace in the hole refers to the hidden and potentially winning ace in a poker game, it can refer to the player’s hold on the solution in virtually any board game.

For example, a player may have the card in hand that would solve the crime in a game of Clue. That would be her ace in the hole.

It might refer to the talented player being held in the reserve by the coach until needed for the big winning play. The sports writer might label the new kicker ace in the hole because he helped win the previous game.

Or, the diplomat may keep a secret about intelligence agency data until the moment is right. Once the leverage is used, the news will report the diplomat as playing his ace in the hole.

More Examples

  • A May 17, 2013 story about the takedown of high stakes gambling circles among Manhattan’s elite was titled “5th Ave. Poker, With $25,000 Chips and an F.B.I. Ace in the Hole.” – The New York Times
  • On August 5, 2006, the Los Angeles Times mourned the injury suffered by Angels’ pitcher Bert Colon in an article titled “No Ace in the Hole.” –Los Angeles Times
  • On July 19, 2011, Chris Cilliza published an opinion piece Called “Rick Perry’s ace in the hole: Rudy Giuliani.” –The Washington Post

Summary

Ace in the hole is a popular English idiom that stems from the game stud poker. Originally used only in the poker world, it now has a wider meaning to refer the strategy of deliberately holding a winning argument or resource until the most opportune moment.

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