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When it really counts, meaning is almost never communicated according to the conduit metaphor, that is, where one person transmits a fixed, clear proposition to another by means of expressions in a common language, where both parties have all the relevant common knowledge, assumptions, values, etc. When the chips are down, meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common, what it is safe to talk about, how you can communicate unshared experience or create a shared vision.

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Is it safe to say that 'when the chips are down' is semantically almost the same as 'when it really counts', which is at the top of the paragraph?
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In this case, they are very close.

"When it really counts" can have positive meanings in other senses. For example "You had to work late a lot of nights over the last month, but for little Bobbie's softball game, you were there. You were there when it really counted." But "When the chips are down" is used to mean "when you face a situation with a lot at risk, and if it goes badly, you will lose a great deal."
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Yes and no. When it really counts, yes, but there are special circumstances concerning why it really counts. In the game of poker, the number of poker chips you have accumulated (small colored plastic discs maybe five cm. in dia.) determines your net worth, or your stake in the game. When your number of chips is down, it's quite possible you may lose your stake and be forced out of the game.

On the other hand, you might have more chips than anyone and be competing to win a big pot, giving you even more, perhaps forcing others out of the game. This would be another case when it really counts, but the circumstances and possible outcomes would be completely different, and "the chips are down" would not apply.
Grammar GeekIn this case, they are very close.
"When it really counts" can have positive meanings in other senses. For example "You had to work late a lot of nights over the last month, but for little Bobbie's softball game, you were there. You were there when it really counted." But "When the chips are down" is used to mean "when you face a situation with a lot at risk, and if it goes badly, you will lose a great deal."

OK. Thank you!

(I should have asked by saying 'Is it safe to say that 'when the chips are down' in this case semantically almost the same...' instead, to make the point of my question clear)