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When Chips Are Down: Meaning and Origin of Phrase / Idiom

A gamer is putting chips down for making a bet.
Samyak Lalit | December 26, 2013 (Last update: September 23, 2017)

Samyak Lalit is an Indian author and disability rights activist. He is the principal author and founder of projects like TechWelkin, WeCapable, Viklangta, Kavita Kosh among many others.

Good morning TechWelkin Readers! Beginning from today, I am going to start a series on English language. Articles in this series are going to explain the meaning and origin of some of the most used English words, phrases and idioms.

Today, I am going to begin with the meaning and origin of the idiom WHEN CHIPS ARE DOWN. Just yesterday, I heard this phrase spoken by Joker in the 2008 movie “The Dark Night”:

“When the chips are down, these uh, these “civilized people,” they’ll eat each other.”

The idiom has the following meanings:

  • Being in a critical / desperate / decisive / nervous moment
  • Facing a bad time

Origin of this idiom lies is in the world of gambling. Some of the gambling games, like roulette and pocket, use “chips” as representation of money. Gamers put these chips down when they want to make a bet. Once the chips have been put down on the board –bet is considered to be final and one can not change it. So, that is a critical and nervous moment –when your fate depends on the outcome of the game.

A gamer is putting chips down for making a bet.

A gamer is putting chips down for making a bet.

In case you’re losing money in a game –the number of chips in your hand will go down –and that is a bad time! So, when the number of chips in your hand are down –you’re facing a bad moment. In the same context, there is another idiom being used: “running out of chips”. This phrase also mean the same, that you’re in trouble and amount of resources is depleting. Your situation is desperate in such moments.

There is another dialogue from Sin City, spoken by Jackie Boy: “Nobody ever really quits. A smoker’s a smoker when the chips are down. And your chips are down.”

Here, the meaning of this idiom is one that points to a critical and decisive moment. Even though resolute to quit smoking, (Jackie Boy says that) a smoker is highly likely to smoke when he is in a nervous situation.

Please add your valuable comments to this article in order to make it more elaborate. Cheers!


One response to “When Chips Are Down: Meaning and Origin of Phrase / Idiom”

  1. Neguin says:

    Thank you very much, great and clear explanation!

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