Up the ante


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Up the ante'?

To raise the stakes, either in betting or in any form of conflict or competition.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Up the ante'?

To find out the origin of ‘up the ante’ we first need to know what an ante (pronounced like ‘anti’) is.

Walter Raleigh would have told us that it is a form of large South American tapir. In his memoire of his travels in Venezuala Discoverie Guiana, 1596, he wrote:

It [Guayana] hath a kind of beast called Cama, or Anta, as bigge as an English beefe, and in greate plenty.

However, the ante we are seeking isn’t a 16th century word but a 19th century one. The ‘ante’ is a stake put into the pot before play, in betting games like poker, begins. The player to the dealer’s left will put an ‘ante’ into the pot and anyone wishing to play must at least match it.

To ‘up the ante’ is, in effect, to raise the stakes, which can have the effect of causing those with insufficient funds to bale out of the game.

Here’s an early example of that in print, using the variant expression ‘raise the ante’, taken from a listing of the rules of numerous card games entitled Hoyle’s Games Improved, 1814:

After the first three cards are dealt [in brag], but before taking in, the eldest hand having seen his cards, may raise the ante.

In the USA ‘ante’ has another, slightly modified, meaning too. It is used to refer to money paid in advance in other circumstances than betting, for instance a down payment on a house purchase. Of course, someone could ‘up/raise the ante’ in that context too.

In recent years ‘up/raise the ante’ has been used more generally, in any context where there is a form of competition. For example, “In expelling US and UK diplomats from Russia Putin ups the ante in the new Cold War”.

Trend of up the ante in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.