When a situation is urgent or desperate, as in When the chips were down, all the children came home to help their mother. This expression comes from poker, where chips represent money being bet. When all the bets have been made, and the chips put down, the hand is over and the players turn up their cards to see who has won. [Late 1800s]
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.