'Not Playing with a Full Deck': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 21, 2023

If you've been wondering what 'not playing with a full deck' means, you've come to the right place. In this article, you'll learn the meaning behind the popular idiom, its possible origins, and how to use it.

Before we dive in, though, here's the short version:

  • When you say that someone is 'not playing with a full deck,' you mean that they're mentally, emotionally, or intellectually deficient.

What Does 'Not Playing with a Full Deck' Mean?

This phrase perfectly exemplifies how idioms can't be interpreted literally. It's not enough to understand the individual words; this doesn't help you understand the intended meaning behind the saying. Idioms allude to something different than what the words describe.

Having said that, looking at the literal meaning can help you deduce the intended metaphorical meaning. In this example, the deck referred to is a deck of cards. What would happen if you were playing a game and you didn't have a complete set of cards? You'd be at a disadvantage. And that's what this idiom means.

  • The idiom "not playing with a full deck of cards" means that someone is mentally or emotionally impaired or lacking in intelligence.
  • It suggests that the person is not thinking or behaving rationally or logically, as if they were missing something essential in their cognitive or emotional faculties.

Imagine, for instance, that you were talking about a friend who said he was recently abducted by aliens. You might say:

He's told me some crazy stories; I'm really worried he might not be playing with a full deck of cards.

It's a derogatory idiom and should only be used in colloquial contexts. It's normally used in the present participle form and tends to be preceded by the subject, then the verb 'be' in the appropriate form depending on the pronoun and tense used.

Where Does 'Not Playing with a Full Deck' Come From?

The exact origin of this idiom is unclear, but it is believed to have American origins and has been in use since at least the early 20th century. While the origin is uncertain, idiomatic expressions like this one tend to develop organically over time to describe common observations or behaviors.

There are a couple of theories as to its origins that I want to share with you today.

Taxes on Decks of Cards

Between 1588 and 1960, England imposed a levy on packs of playing cards. These taxes were often implemented by governments as a means of generating revenue. The idea was to tax a form of entertainment or gambling, and playing cards were a popular choice for such taxation because they were widely used for gambling and entertainment.

Many believe this is the origin of the idiom 'not playing with a full deck of cards' and that people used to walk around with incomplete decks of cards in order to avoid the tax.

But this rumor is unfounded and lacks evidence. As entertaining as it is, we can't accept it as the true origin of the idiom.

George Carlin

The other, more likely theory is that comedian George Carlin coined the term when he used it in his stand-up comedy skit during an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

He said:

Thank you very much golly! I think we all realize he’s not playing with a full deck folks.

This joke received a lot of laughter in the audience, suggesting this might have been the first they heard it. In any case, there's no earlier documented appearance of this idiom in popular media.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this popular idiom and its possible origins, let's take a look at how it's used in real-life scenarios by way of a few examples.

After hearing his bizarre explanation for the incident, I couldn't help but think that he's not playing with a full deck of cards.

Sarah isn't doing herself any favors with her conspiracy theories and alien abductions; some say she's not playing with a full deck of cards.

It's clear that the new employee is not playing with a full deck of cards, as he consistently makes illogical decisions.

When he said he believes the moon landing was a hoax, we all thought he must not be playing with a full deck of cards.

Her recurring mood swings and unpredictable behavior make me wonder if she's playing with a full deck of cards.

The politician's bizarre statements about elves and werewolves in the interview left everyone questioning whether he's playing with a full deck of cards.

People often avoided talking to the old man in the park because they thought he wasn't playing with a full deck of cards.

His inability to understand basic instructions led me to believe that he's not playing with a full deck of cards.

I find it difficult to talk to Jonny; I don't think he's playing with a full deck of cards. 

Despite his intelligence in some areas, his extreme phobias and superstitions make it seem like he's not playing with a full deck of cards.

Other Ways to Say 'Make a Mountain Out of a Molehill'

With English being such a rich language, there's always more than one way to say something. 'Make a mountain out of a molehill' is no exception.

Here are just some of the other ways you can say it:

  • not firing on all cylinders,
  • two bricks shy of a load,
  • and half a bubble off plumb
  • a sandwich short of a picnic
  • mad as a hatter
  • as daft as a brush
  • not the full shilling
  • out to lunch
  • one french fry short of a happy meal

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on the popular idiom 'not playing with a full deck of cards.' If you know someone who is not mentally sound or is acting in a way that is considered strange, eccentric, or irrational, then you might say that they are 'not playing with a full deck of cards.' 

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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