What Does “He’s Not Playing With A Full Deck” Mean?

what does hes not playing with a full deck mean

There are a lot of confusing idioms that are used in the English language today. For instance, you may be having a conversation about someone when the person you’re talking to tells you that “he’s not playing with a full deck.” Do you know what they mean when they say this to you?

When someone tells you “he’s not playing with a full deck,” they mean that the person who’s being referenced is deficient either mentally, psychologically, or intellectually. In other words, they’re trying to be polite in saying that the person is either crazy or stupid.

he is not playing with a full deck guy looks nervous

Origin of the Phrase

The phrase “he’s not playing with a full deck” is one of many derogatory idioms that have originated in America. This insult implicates that a person is missing part of their brain. Some people say that this phrase originated from a time period when there was a tax on the Ace of Spades. During this time people would buy a deck of cards without it so that they wouldn’t have to pay this tax. However, most games would require a full deck of 52 cards so these people were thought to be foolish or not “playing with a full deck.”

One thing is for certain, the American stand-up comedian George Denis Patrick Carlin used the phrase in his stand-up routine on the Merv Griffin show in 1965. He’s quoted as saying, “Thank you very much golly! I think we all realize he’s not playing with a full deck folks.”

Some people don’t think that this phrase is rude at all. This is because when you’re playing a game of poker and you don’t have a full deck you’re using this phrase literally to mean that you’re not playing with a full deck of cards. This doesn’t mean that you’re crazy. It merely means that you’re missing at least one card.

Even if the expression isn’t being used to mean that someone is stupid or crazy it could still come across as being arrogant. It clearly depends on how it’s being said because when you read this phrase it could come across as either a simple statement of fact or as a put-down. This is why it’s so important to carefully edit your writing to ensure that the phrasing isn’t questionable when you’re using idioms such as this one.

Meaning of the Phrase

When you say that someone is “not playing with a full deck” you have to look at the context that surrounds this phrase to truly understand what someone means by saying it. Looking at the meaning of its words on an individual basis won’t tell you what the phrase itself means here. This is because the phrase is an idiom. Therefore the phrase has a complicated meaning. They’re used to allude to something different than what they’d mean if you were to take them literally.

Although you can trace the origin of this idiom back to 1965 it gained popularity in the United States during the 1980s. It’s a derogatory expression that’s used to mean that someone isn’t very smart or to allude that someone “has a bit missing,” or “isn’t all there.” In other words, the person who’s on the receiving end of this jocular insult was missing part of their brain or lacking in their sanity. Here the deck was referencing a deck of cards. Anyone who wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards wasn’t expected to do very well.

Some of the synonyms that could also be used here include:

  • Not mentally sound
  • Stupid
  • Dimwitted
  • Crazy
  • Mentally deranged
  • Not very intelligent
  • Not very bright
  • Mentally deficient

Some of the other phrases that are used in the English language to mean the same thing include:

  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water.
  • One sandwich short of a picnic.
  • The light’s on but no one is at home.
  • A few bricks short of a full load
  • One card shy of a full deck
  • Not firing on all cylinders
  • Two bricks shy of a load
  • Missing something upstairs

When to Use the Phrase

Now that you have a better understanding of what the phrase “he’s not playing with a full deck” means you’ll want to know when you should use it. This is actually one of those phrases that you can use in a variety of different situations. However, you should only use it when you’re talking to your friends, family, and close colleagues. This isn’t something you want to say when you’re in a professional environment because then it’d come across poorly. You also don’t want to use it when you’re in a meeting, talking to your boss at work, or writing a speech or a professional paper. If you were to say this phrase in one of these settings you’d likely be corrected. Even if you’re not corrected, the people around you would still be likely to reconsider your professionalism.

mad as a hatter synonym not playing with a full deck

It’s best to keep the usage of this phrase to friendlier environments. For instance, you may want to tell a friend that they’re “not playing with a full deck.” You could choose to do so because they’re always stumbling over their words, making mistakes, or missing out on parts of a conversation.

Some people can also be a bit cruel when they use this phrase. Here they may choose to use the phrase to refer to someone whom they’re only observing from a distance. In certain scenarios, using this phrase may come across as abusive. You may even look like you’re a bully. Therefore it’s really important to use caution when you choose to use this phrase.

How Writers Use the Phrase

Sometimes you’ll come across the phrase “not playing with a full deck” when you’re reading a book or an article. Here you can assume that the writer intends for the phrase to mean the same thing that it’d mean in everyday conversations.

A writer may choose to use this phrase when they’re talking about a character who’s thinking about how another character is acting. This may be because the secondary character has done something that the primary character finds outrageous or not particularly smart.

You can easily include this phrase in either dialogue or when you’re describing a character’s thoughts. However, you should use caution to make sure that you don’t include it somewhere that wouldn’t feel natural. This is something that a good writer is always on the lookout for to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

By no means does this suggest that you should never use this phrase when you’re writing a story. If you want to use the phrase “he’s not playing with a full deck” in your writing make sure that you’re using it when defining a character’s characteristics. This is actually one of the ways that many writers have managed to bring back old phrases that are no longer in circulation. In this way, writers are able to think outside of the box and show some of their creativity.

Using the Phrase in Sentences

Once you’re familiar with the meaning of the phrase “he’s not playing with a full deck” and how it should be used both in writing and in conversation it’s time to start using it in such places. Here are a few examples that’ll help you get started:

  • When you think about how many silly remarks he makes you stop to wonder if he’s not playing with a full deck.
  • Even though he’s an influential person, there are still some times when I get the impression that he’s not playing with a full deck.
  • I’ve overheard him talking to himself several times. It makes me think that he’s not playing with a full deck.
  • Although he’s considered to be quite an influential leader in his field some of the antics he’s been up to while at work leave me to think that he’s not playing with a full deck.
  • The new teacher is so different from all the other teachers I’ve had in the past that I wonder if he’s not playing with a full deck.
  • I think he’s a nice person but with some of the crazy things I’ve seen him do, I don’t think he’s playing with a full deck.
  • Now that I’ve heard his presentation I don’t think he’s playing with a full deck.
  • We couldn’t stop laughing at him after the crazy comment he made yesterday. None of us believe that he’s playing with a full deck.
  • Her jokes were so off the mark that we definitely believe she’s not playing with a full deck.
  • My dad is wondering if his friends are playing with a full deck. After meeting some of them, I’m sure he’s onto something.

sofisticated looking guy plays poker


While the saying “he’s not playing with a full deck” is somewhat popular today, it’s still important to use caution when saying it. The last thing you want to do is tell someone that you think they’re crazy when they’re your boss or some other important figure in your life.

Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.

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