Play for keeps is an idiom that has been in use for over 150 years. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, 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 like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. 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; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom play for keeps, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.
To play for keeps means to be ruthless, to proceed seriously and without mercy. When someone plays for keeps he is committed to emerging victorious, at all cost. The expression play for keeps came into use around 1860 and refers to a certain way to play with marbles. In ruthless games, the marble players play for keeps– meaning that the victor gets to keep all the marbles he has won from his opponent during the game. Related phrases are plays for keeps, played for keeps, playing for keeps. The idiom is often shortened to simply: for keeps.
During the 76ers’ three scrimmages, Brett Brown said he learned a lot about his team as it gets ready to play for keeps. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
“I honestly warned him, the Republicans in the U.S. Senate and the House, they don’t play. They’re not like Republicans in the state Legislature — they play for keeps,” Cárdenas said. (Sacramento Bee)
What the prosecutors in this case underestimated was that Aaron Swartz played for keeps too and found a way to leave this world as an innocent man … but what a price. (Forbes)