English idioms that originated from card playing - with Quiz

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Jane Lawson,  English Teacher at DailyStep EnglishHello, I'm Jane at DailyStep English!

This quiz and audio lesson will make sure you understand how to use these great idioms. If you are new to DailyStep English, please register for a free trial of 5 UK/USA audio lessons to help your English speaking, listening, vocabulary and pronunciation. 


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Idioms from card playing 
by Jane Lawson at DailyStep.com.

English has many idioms with their origins in card playing, and I guess your language probably has some too. To help you understand where these idioms came from, let’s imagine you are playing cards. At the start of a card game, the dealer deals all the cards to you and the other players. You then pick up the cards, hold them in your hand and look at them, to see if they are good cards or not. If you get bad cards that will make it easier to lose the game, we say you are dealt a bad hand. This might mean lots of low value cards, such as you can see in the top picture. If you have a very good hand, such as in the bottom picture with all the best cards in the pack, we say you hold all the cards..

During the game, you don’t want to let any other players see your cards, so it is best to play your cards close to your chest. This means you are cautious and careful not to give away private information. If, on the other hand, you decide to lay all your cards on the table, you are being completely honest about which cards you have and everyone now knows what you are capable of. If you do put your cards on the table, you are probably also inviting the other players to do the same. If you want to win at cards, it is important to play your cards right, and in some games, you may have the opportunity to play your trump card! The trump card is more likely to make you win, because that kind of card holds a higher value in the game you are playing. If you have a great card, such as an ace, and you are waiting for the right moment in the game to use it, we say that you have an ace up your sleeve..

You can learn how to use all these idioms below in the Audio Word Study. 

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Here is Audio Word Study #051 from Jane Lawson at DailyStep.com

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I hope you enjoyed the audio article above about idioms with their origins in card games. In this DailyStep Audio Word Study, you’ll find some examples of how to use these idioms in other contexts. Try to refer back to the article to remind yourself of the mental image of what the card players are doing, as this will help make the idioms easier to understand.

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1. be dealt a bad hand

Meaning: to be unlucky from the beginning because you did not get a fair share of opportunities.

Example: His family were extremely poor, and he had to look after his sick parents so he could not go to school. But now he is running his own successful company! It’s amazing how he has turned his life around, after being dealt such a bad hand in the first place.

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2. Hold all the cards

Meaning: to be in a strong position because you control the key elements of something

Example: Landlords hold all the cards in the property rental market. Tenants don’t have much power if their landlord decides to increase the rent.

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3. Play your cards close to your chest

Meaning: to be secretive about your thoughts and intentions, so that other people do not know what you are thinking or planning

Example: It’s impossible to know whether she will sell the company or not – she plays her cards very close to her chest, so we’ll just have to wait and see what she decides. (note: we can also say ‘she keeps her cards close to her chest’.)

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4. Lay all your cards on the table

Meaning: to be completely honest and open about your resources and your intentions

Example: I am fed up with these slow negotiations. I’ll lay my cards on the table – I can offer you two thousand pounds (£2000) for the car, and not a penny more. Will you sell it to me for that price? (note: we can also say ‘put your cards on the table.’)

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5. Play your cards right

Meaning: to behave in the right way so that you get an advantage or succeed in something

Example: If I play my cards right at work, I might get a pay rise.

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6. Play your trump card

Meaning: to use an advantage that makes you much more likely to succeed than other people

Examples: I didn’t think the caretaker of the manor house would allow us to hold a party there, but then John played his trump card – he’s the grandson of the property owner, so of course we had our party there after all! (note: this means that when John said that his grandfather owned the property, the caretaker decided to allow the party to go ahead.)

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7. Have an ace up your sleeve

Meaning: to have secret knowledge or a secret skill or possession which will give you an advantage

Example: I thought we would have to abandon the project due to lack of money, but John had an ace up his sleeve – he had enough money in the bank to cover the cost of the whole project!

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Now, try to write your own sentences using these expressions. Make sure they are true to your own life if possible, as this will help you to remember them better. I think that is enough for now, but look out for more idiom lessons in my future blogs on DailyStep.com.

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