43

I couldn't find a short idiom for a risky situation where you can either gain a lot, or lose a lot, but there is no in between.

In French, we use "quitte ou double", which was the name of a game where, at each successive question, either your gains were doubled, or you lost everything. It describes this well, but I doubt it still means something if translated word for word.

  • 3
    The title does not seem to agree with the idiom. Also please search online before posting a question. Good Luck. – Kris Nov 23 '16 at 10:00
  • 2
    @Kris I did make a prior search, of course. And I saw a bunch of expression (some of them suggested here: "double or quits", "double or nothing", "all or nothing", ...), but none of them seemed to stand out more than another, and none of them seemed quite natural. – dim Nov 23 '16 at 12:56
  • 1
    I think there are two categories of idioms here, depending on whether or not you get to choose to if you enter the risky situation. – Hurkyl Nov 23 '16 at 15:37
  • 1
    I think that the answer for this is going to change based on the number of bets. "Double or nothing" can be used for situations when you can increase your winnings, and often do it multiple times in a chain or walk away. Contrasting: if you want a single instance bet that could decide fates you get "All or nothing" which are bets you don't want to do multiple times because of how much risk is involved. Did you have an idea of how often you are talking about? – JGaines Nov 23 '16 at 20:38
  • @JGaines In my situation, there is actually only one. – dim Nov 23 '16 at 20:46

16 Answers 16

58

I was going to say "it's all or nothing" (As @Rathony said in the comments). But then I did some websearching. Read on.

"do or die", like "life or death" and "life and death", implies you could lose a lot, but doesn't imply that if you don't lose, you win. Only that you survive.

"high stakes" implies that you could win a lot or lose a lot. But it doesn't rule out the possibility that you could also break even or just win or lose just a little bit.

If you want to say "win a lot or lose a lot with nothing in between AND it is much more likely that you will lose than win", then you could go with "hail mary pass".

"double or nothing" exists, as does the less common "double or quits", but I don't think they have the same idiomatic usage as you attribute to "quitte ou double".

http://dictionnaire.reverso.net/francais-anglais/quitte%20or%20double/forced does suggest "double or quits" - in the sense of getting out of debt, or deeper into debt.

The same site also suggests "make or break", which I think is the best answer yet, because it has more of a hint or randomness and unpredictability than "all or nothing" does.

So I'll suggest "make or break".

  • 2
    You could add the phrasal verb double down to your very good list. It's good for describing when someone deliberately puts themself (further) into an all-or-nothing situation. – 1006a Nov 23 '16 at 21:16
  • 3
    "Double or quits" was quite common while I was growing up. It appears to mean exactly what the French idiom "quitte ou double" does. – Bill Michell Nov 24 '16 at 10:19
  • 3
    You don't think they have the same idiomatic usage? why would you say that? According to the OP's description of "quitte ou double" it's bang on! – Octopus Nov 25 '16 at 5:31
  • 1
    @Octopus I am relying on the OP's request for "a risky situation where you can either gain a lot, or lose a lot, but there is no in between." To me, "double or quits" means "double your loss, or clear your debt". Not quite the same. Also, "quitte ou double" appears designed to have multiple rounds, where as "double or quits" is usually single shot. So yes, "quitte ou double" is more or less the idiom being asked for, and yes, "double or quits" is more or less a translation of "quitte or double", but, for me, I get the feeling that all that 'more or less' adds up to a bit of drift. – Ben Aveling Nov 27 '16 at 7:04
  • The poker term all in presents itself as the extreme version of an "all or nothing" risk situation, because you're not only risking your entire holdings but compelling all others to risk theirs as well. – squidlydeux Feb 17 '18 at 1:51
55

An appropriate idiom is high stakes:

if you have high stakes in something such as a venture or decision, you have a major interest in its outcome

(Collins dictionary)

and it can also be used adjectivally:

  • involving the possible loss of a large amount of money: a high-stakes poker game
  • involving serious risks if there is no success: a high-stakes negotiation
  • A high-stakes test is one that is very important for the person who takes it.

(Cambridge dictionary)

Arguably this fits the title ("Idiom for situation where you can either gain a lot or lose a lot") better than the body, as it doesn't so much convey the 'no inbetween' bit, but that might be obvious from the context (e.g. in a 'high-stakes test' with a pass/fail outcome).

  • 5
    "The stakes are high" is also a common expression; it doesn't have to be the exact phrase "high stakes". – Muzer Nov 23 '16 at 13:36
  • 4
    I went into the butcher the other day and said "I bet you £10,000 that you can't reach the meat on those shelves up there." He said, "Sorry, I'm not taking that bet. The stakes are too high." 😂 – Fogmeister Nov 23 '16 at 19:09
  • 1
    Regarding doesn't so much convey the 'no inbetween' bit, ... Would a high stakes bet convey the no-inbeteeen nature of the situation. A high stakes cash game, on the other hand, has a serious of big bets and is not all-or-nothing. – k1eran Nov 23 '16 at 19:41
  • @JoeBlow you're right but it was past 5 minutes before I realised >.< do you reckon I could flag it for an admin to change it? #thatsWhatAdminsAreForRight? – Fogmeister Nov 25 '16 at 14:56
  • @Fogmeister - that pun works much better spoken. – Tim Nov 26 '16 at 16:54
20

There is "double or nothing." But you could perhaps also use "quitte ou double."

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • 7
    also "all or nothing" – Jeutnarg Nov 23 '16 at 16:42
  • 1
    This seems most correct to me as it's pretty much the exact translation, but in the UK I hear 'double or quits' used more often. – user198750 Nov 23 '16 at 17:15
  • "quitte ou double." is explicitly referred to in the question, and as such is unlikely to be a satisfactory answer, even if it wasn't French. – user4683 Nov 24 '16 at 13:35
14

What comes to mind for me is high-risk/high-reward. I couldn't find an actual definition in any dictionary, but there are a lot of examples here:

http://www.linguee.com/english-french/search?source=auto&query=high-risk+high-reward

  • I believe that this answer does not capture the aspect of no middle ground — you risk a lot, and you have a chance at a high reward, but is it possible that you'll break even or get a small reward? P.S. While your link may contain illustrative examples, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. – Scott Nov 27 '16 at 3:14
12

I've seen several other good answers on here, but I'll add this one as well since it's a more colloquial phrase:

"Betting the Farm"

And since I've seen a comment the OP put about waiting to see the result and possibly being in suspense of the outcome: "The die is cast" (Not that that particular one applies necessarily, but I like it anyway.)

11

Do or die is a common idiomatic expression used to convey the idea:

  • said when you are in a situation in which you must take a big risk in order to avoid failure:
    • On Tuesday, it's do or die in the final game.

Cambridge Dictionary

  • 1
    Could it be used in a situation where you actually have to wait to know whether you'll gain or lose? The "do" verb implies making an action, but in my situation, there is no more action to make (the action was made before, and the results will be seen later). – dim Nov 23 '16 at 9:57
  • @dim - don't read it literally, it is an idiomatic expression. – user66974 Nov 23 '16 at 10:00
  • 2
    "Make or break" is kind of similar. – Wossname Nov 23 '16 at 10:23
  • 1
    I prefer this answer rather than 'high stakes'. In high stakes you can lose but still gain something (shared pot). OP asked for no in between. – Zikato Nov 23 '16 at 12:59
  • 1
    I don't think you have anything to gain in a "do or die" situation, but you do have everything to lose. That's why it sucks to be in that situation. – Octopus Nov 24 '16 at 19:41
8

You could say "all in" -- this is the situation in poker where you bet all the chips you currently have, and therefore will either win the hand and stay in the game or lose everything and be out. This definitely has the sense of there being no in-between.

It can also imply that because you're in a risky situation where you could lose everything, that you're going to put the appropriate amount of effort in to ensure success. When Microsoft was entering the cloud services market, Steve Ballmer was known to say "we're all in in the cloud", which I always thought was a hilariously awkward sentence.

4

An expression I use for this, when bidding a rather dicky slam, or at other times, is "moon or bust". I can't find an exact reference for this, but the Urban Dictionary has a reference for or bust:-

or nothing

or die trying

An illustration of the point may be found here.

4

In such a situation you are playing a long ball game.
Refer SE question: What does "kick the long ball" mean?

Playing longball means to play for a few big pots with a few good hands instead of going for many, smaller pots with marginal hands, called smallball. The longball player waits for a good hand and then plays it aggressively, feeding pot early. https://www.pokerstrategy.com/glossary/Longball/

And for completeness, the opposite is a small-ball game.
Refer SE question: What does "Small-ball crap" mean?

Both these idioms are widely used in poker, sports and other fields to contrast high-risk but potentially lucrative strategies with more cautious strategies with lower potential gain.

4

the expression

in for a penny, in for a pound

suggests that you are already invested somewhat and now must either sacrifice your small investment or risk much more. it seems to capture the feel of "quitte ou double" only, in this case, it is "quit or multiply by 100". typically the expression is meant to suggest that you should increase your investment. if you want to discourage "doubling down", you would instead say "don't throw good money after bad"

side note: it's an old enough expression that it's original usages were in pre-victorian england. that means it originally meant "quit or multiply by 240". it also probably alluded to the fact that being in a debtor's prison was equally as unpleasant whether you were in the clink for failure to pay a penny or a pound.

3

There's one more expression you can use in this context, specifically when something is transitioning to more of a high stakes situation. In that case, you can say that

someone upped the ante.

The ante is the initial bet you have to put in the middle of the table in order to participate in that round. Literally, the phrase means that means that the dealer required that everyone put in a larger initial bet.

up the ante: to increase your risks or demands in order to get a greater advantage: The governor upped the ante in her war of words with the mayor, by calling him "dangerous" for the city.

(Cambridge dictionary)

1

Try the "64 thousand dollar question". This was a show where people answered questions and won prizes. The questions got more difficult and the prize was doubled each time. The contestant always had the choice to stop and keep the money won so far or continue and win double the previous amount. But if the contestant got it wrong all was lost. And the last possible amount was $64k.

There have been many more shows with the same idea but this was (one of) the first and the name stuck.

1

Mexican stand-off. Researched this situation to use within current WIP and this seemed to capture the essence of the situation. Confess the majority of my research is via Google.

0

A relevant idiom might be "boom or bust". I have heard it used a fair bit, especially in sporting contexts, drafting a player, and such. Often used in conjunction with the drafting of a certain player being considered a "gamble", and so forth.

Also gets used in other contexts, notably economics, though I don't believe in the kind of direct participatory sense that is being asked.

However, I do believe the sporting context fits.

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/boom+or+bust

Google Ngrams Search

-1

"Putting all your eggs in one basket" - means the result will be a complete success or complete failure.

It could be argued that the gain/loss element is missing from this answer but it is easily implied.

  • 1
    I was under the impression that this idiom only symbolized taking a(n unnecessary) risk. – user2962533 Nov 24 '16 at 23:09
  • 1
    @user2962533 It can imply that, but it means to depend your success on a single plan of action; therefore, you either succeed, or lose everything. I agree that this is not the best match for the question but it is still valid imho. – Mr_Thyroid Nov 25 '16 at 14:40
-2

Combining a couple of the above, in UK at least the most common phrase for this is a 'high stakes gamble'.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • Welcome to EL&U. Thank you for your answer, but please provide some sources to back up your answer. Brevity is OK, but fuller explanations are better. Read "How do I write a good answer?" to find tips on how to write a great answer. – Juan M Nov 23 '16 at 18:11

protected by tchrist Nov 23 '16 at 19:33

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.