I am looking for an idiom or expression which can be used to describe the action of someone deliberately playing below their skill level.

For example, a pool or billiards expert missing a few shots on purpose.

There are 2 situations where I am looking to use this expression, so, for any potential answer, I would like to know if it fits one or both of those meanings:

1. Negative Connotation

The player is playing below his/her skill level because they are trying to deceive (for example, getting their opponent to feel overconfident and bet money on the next game).

Example usage:

He’s ______-ing! He wants you to believe that he’s less skilled than he actually is.

2. Positive Connotation

The player is playing below his/her skill level because they want their opponent to have fun and not feel bad about losing by a heavy margin.

Example usage:

My father-in-law wanted to play chess so I had to __________ because winning in a few moves might have been a bit humiliating.

What I considered

  1. The expression “to dumb down” came to mind initially but it means something different.

  2. The verb “to hustle”.

    Dictionary definitions seem to imply that it would work only for the case with the negative connotation, but I am not entirely sure.

    Cambridge Dictionary suggests several meanings of the word, but the most relevant one is:

    a dishonest way of making money

    However, I believe that in colloquial usage the word tends to have a neutral or even positive meaning:


    The problem I have with this word is that it seems to be connected to money, but I would like something more general and not specific to making money.

  3. To go easy: This seems to fit the case with the positive connotation, for example, “I decided to go easy.” So this is one I’m heavily considering.

  4. To smurf: This slang word fits well but it’s only used in online gaming as far as I know.

  • Resharing this link: english.stackexchange.com/questions/260982/… It's not a duplicate because my question also explicitly asks about positive/negative connotations of the expressions, but it does have some useful expressions.
    – hb20007
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 7:37
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    It has virtually all the answers given here, for either motivation. And 'word or term for letting someone else have a chance to win' covers any motivation. // 'I think context is key here. A subtle shift in context can change the word that best fits. ... In the context of friendship or friendly competition, ... . But in a different context, it could be called hustling where you, as a skilled player, allow the opponent a win in hope of lulling them into a sense of superiority so you can 'double or nothing' the bet as a scam. ...' [And in a betting scam ...] DA. Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 14:03
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    If another question has some of the same answers, it doesn't automatically make it a duplicate. The question "word or term for letting someone else have a chance to win" is asking something different but has some similarities. This question is much more detailed, is nuanced and provides examples sentences. The other question has no details at all.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 16:40
  • @0.. How many 'sandbagging' / 'pull one's punches' [/ 'hustle', or maybe not] pages do we want on ELU? Commented Jan 9, 2022 at 18:02

6 Answers 6


There is the expression to pull one's punches:

  1. To act as if one is punching someone, without making any or much physical contact.

  2. By extension, to restrain one's commentary or criticism to avoid offending or upsetting someone. (Usually used in the negative.)

[for a boxer] to strike with light blows to enable the other boxer to win.

It can be used generally in situations of matches or negotiations to mean:

To refrain from deploying all the resources or force at one's disposal.


Bill has been barred from the boxing ring for pulling his punches. (negative connotation)

"I never pulled punches in my life!" cried Tom. (positive connotation)

Also, you might consider to go easy on someone:

to treat someone in a gentle way, esp. when you want to be or should be more severe (Cambridge)

  • Does it have any positive or negative connotation to it?
    – hb20007
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:19
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    I think it can receive both connotations depending on context. I can see that it is often used in the negative form of the verb.
    – fev
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:20
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    I think this is almost always used in that source's definition #2 -- to be milder with criticism. It feels very awkward describing a game. Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 7:24

It is called sandbagging and the verb is to sandbag. It started in poker and extended to other areas.

The definition of the term from Wikipedia:

To disguise the level of one's ability to play in various ways such as using a lemonade stroke; intentionally missing shots; making an uneven game appear "close"; purposefully losing early, inconsequential games.

The etymology of the term in Etymonline:

The meaning "pretend weakness" is by 1970s perhaps extended from the poker-playing sense of "refrain from raising at the first opportunity in hopes of raising more steeply later" (1940), which perhaps is from sandbagger in the sense of "bully or ruffian who uses a 'sandbag' (in the sense of a cosh or sap) as a weapon to knock his intended victim unconscious" (1882). Hence "to fell or stun with a blow from a sandbag" (1887).

The first usage in OED:

1940 O. Jacoby On Poker v. 35 Sandbagging occurs when a player who has a good hand..decides to pass in the hope that someone else will open.

  • Can it be used with a positive connotation as well? Like sandbagging to have a fun game?
    – hb20007
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:29
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    @hb20007 Yes, it can be used with a positive connotation. The context can determine it like a game between a father and his son.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:43
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    This should be the accepted answer.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 13:43

It's commonly described as playing down to (your) competition. Googling the expression (with 'your/their/his/her competition') returns many pages of results like these:

Chicago Tribune


I add hold back to the good existing list of possible answers.

Merriam Webster

hold back

  • to keep oneself in check
  • to refrain from revealing or parting with something

My father-in-law wanted to play chess so I had to hold back because winning in a few moves might have been a bit humiliating.



Conceal or disguise one's true feelings or beliefs.

Poker also requires analytical skill, but above all it requires skill in bluffing and dissembling.


You could therefore say:

He’s dissembling! He wants you to believe that he’s less skilled than he actually is.



Smurfing is gaming slang for when a highly skilled or ranked person plays in a match with lower skilled or lower ranked players. This is often done because they want to dominate a game.

  • 1
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    – Community Bot
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 21:16
  • If you read the Q carefully, it's not about playing against a person less skilled than you. It's about you playing with less skill -- like letting them win. Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 7:18
  • Smurfing doesn't involve playing at a lower skill level at all. The experienced player just creates a second account to get into the low ranked games (which they then destroy).
    – Laurel
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 11:09

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