ace in the hole


ace in the hole (idiom)
/eɪs ɪn ðə hoʊl/


  • a valuable resource or piece of information kept in reserve until it is needed.
  • something or someone held in reserve that can provide a decisive advantage when revealed or used.
  • an alternate or backup plan or strategy that can be employed if the primary plan fails.
  • a crucial asset that is saved for a critical moment to ensure success.
  • an undisclosed asset or factor that can be utilized to gain an advantage when necessary.

Example Sentences

  1. In negotiations, he always had an ace in the hole to secure the best deal.
  2. She kept her multilingual skills as an ace in the hole during the job interview process.
  3. The team’s star player was an ace in the hole, coming off the bench to win the game.
  4. Knowing the CEO personally turned out to be his ace in the hole during the merger talks.
  5. The company’s ace in the hole was its innovative new product line, which it unveiled at the last minute.

Origin and History

The phrase “ace in the hole” has its roots firmly planted in the world of poker, specifically in the game of stud poker. Players in this game receive a combination of face-up and face-down cards, referring to the face-down card as the “hole card.” An ace as the hole card is particularly advantageous, as it can significantly enhance the player’s hand, often securing a win.

Early Documented Usage

The term’s earliest known usage dates back to the late nineteenth century. One of the first documented references appeared in an 1886 issue of The Mineral Argus, where the phrase was used to describe a situation in poker where players hoped their opponents did not have an ace hidden as their hole card. Similarly, an 1886 issue of The New Era, an Iowa newspaper, used the phrase in the context of a poker game, further cementing its origins in gambling lore.

Metaphorical Expansion

Beyond the poker tables, the idiom quickly gained popularity and began to metaphorically describe any hidden advantage or secret resource that could ensure success when revealed. By 1893, the phrase had entered more general usage, as evidenced by a reference in The Helena Independent, where it was used in a political context.

Cultural Popularity

Interestingly, the term was popularized in mainstream culture by the 1951 film “Ace in the Hole,” starring Kirk Douglas. In this film, the phrase was used to describe a hidden advantage in a morally ambiguous situation, reinforcing its metaphorical meaning in the public consciousness.

Connection with “Ace Up the Sleeve

There is a notable connection between “ace in the hole” and “ace up the sleeve,” as both originate from card games and share the common theme of having a hidden advantage. “Ace in the hole” comes from stud poker, where a hidden ace provides a significant advantage, while “ace up the sleeve” refers to the act of cheating by hiding an ace in one’s sleeve to use at a crucial moment. While “ace up the sleeve” often implies deceit, both phrases metaphorically suggest possessing a hidden advantage that one can reveal to secure success. Despite their different connotations, they both highlight the strategic use of hidden benefits.

Enduring Relevance

Over time, “ace in the hole” has become a widely recognized idiom in the English language, synonymous with having a secret or hidden advantage that can be utilized at a crucial moment. This evolution from a specific poker term to a general expression highlights its adaptability and enduring relevance in various contexts.


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