When the Chips are Down

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Idioms reveal the popularity of a perennially popular activity throughout the world and especially in the U.S. It's not baseball or billiards. It's gambling. It is surprising how many common idioms come from gambling. When the chips are down is just one of many American idioms. They didn't spring up only after Las Vegas became a gambling mecca, most of them date from much further back.

Meaning

When the chips are down means when times are bad or during a bad situation. It often has a much more specific meaning: A crucial and important moment with potentially bad outcomes where some type of action must be taken to ensure a favorable outcome. In most cases, it has the additional meaning of making one better appreciate the value of people or things.

Meaning and origin of idiom 'when the chips are down.
Meaning and origin of idiom 'when the chips are down.

Usage

This idiom is not often used in isolation to refer to bad times or bad luck. Its use is more specific. For example, you will not hear someone simply saying "The chips are down."

In usage, the expression tends to accompany some action or circumstance, often one that will affect the outcome of the situation or our outlook.

Examples

"When the chips are down, we find out who our friends are." (I.E. our friends will help us and those who do not help us are not our friends.)

"We run a non-profit here. People come to use when the chips are down."

"You can rely on me when the chips are down."

"I know that when the chips are down, I must have faith in God."

Poker chip bets with cards

Image by Images Money via FlickrImage Credit

Poker chip bets with cards

Image by Images Money via FlickrImage Credit

Origin

Gambling chips or poker chips, as they are usually called, are often used to stand in for real money. There is evidence that 'chips' were used for this practice in ancient Egypt. They have been used in the West for many centuries, as well. In the United States, during the 1800's chips were made of ivory and other materials until ivory became too expensive and rare. Then, clay chips with a shellac finish were developed. Plastic gambling chips came along during the 1950's.1

When the chips are down is an idiom which comes from these gambling chips, such as used in poker. In gambling, the time when the chips are down is when the bet has been placed. Just as this is a crucial moment in gambling when you may well lose your money, the expression speaks of a crucial time in a person's life.

As an idiom, it has been used since at least the early 1900's, such as in the book Floodtide, by Frank Yerby, published in 1901: "Yes, her. That's a mighty good act she pulls, playing up to a man thataway. But it's just an act. When the chips are down, she freezes up quicker'n a wink…"

Sources
1. Thompson, William Norman. Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015.

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