What Does Playing for Keeps Mean?

Playing for Keeps Meaning

Definition: To do something seriously rather than for fun; to keep permanently.

Origin of Playing for Keeps

This expression originated in the 1800s and came from the game of marbles. In marbles, the players can play for fun or for keeps.

i play for keepsWhen playing for keeps, the winning player keeps all the marbles that he or she won. When playing for fun, the winning player gives the marbles back to the losing player after the game is over.

Over time, this meaning expanded to include whenever someone got serious about a task.

Examples of Playing for Keeps

Here is an example of two college friends who are playing a game of poker on the weekend.

Karl: Okay, I’ve got everything ready. I’ve got the cards, the chips, and some beverages.

Frank: Great. A few more of my friends are on their way over.

Karl: Perfect. So are we playing for keeps, or are we not betting?

Frank: Of course we’re playing for keeps! This is poker; it wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t get to keep the money you won.

Karl: I was just checking.

he plays for keepsIn this example, two friends use the idiom while at a crowded music festival.

Lily: Are you having fun yet?

Grace: I guess so. I still think it’s dangerous here.

Lily: We haven’t even gotten started! Come on; want to go to the front row?

Grace: Are you serious? There are thousands of people all crowded together between here and the front. We could be crushed.

Lily: I didn’t come to this concert to play around. I’m playing for keeps! Now get serious about experiencing this music to the fullest extent, or get out!

Grace: Jeez! Fine. Let’s do this.

More Examples

In the excerpt below, an organization is serious about stopping unlicensed taxis from operating. They will actually keep the cars of owners who drive illegally.

  • The Taxi and Limousine Commission is bringing back a controversial policy of seizing drivers’ cars on suspicion of unlicensed cab operations, The Daily News has learned. But this time, the TLC is playing for keeps. –New York Daily News

In this excerpt, a planet that may or may not exist would have very serious consequences if it hit Earth.

  • If all goes according to wild conjecture, planet Earth and the planet Nibiru are set to collide in the autumn, twin cosmic shooters in a game of apocalyptic marbles. Nibiru is playing for keeps, bringing sinkholes, fire storms and the general annihilation of life as we know it. –Washington Post


The phrase playing for keeps is another way to say the someone is doing something in earnest.