Using 'Jugar'

Verb Has Multiple Meanings, Many Translatable As 'To Play'

Picture of childre playing for lesson on Spanish verb jugar
Niños peruanos jugando. (Peruvian children playing.). Danielle Pereira/Creative Commons.

Jugar is usually the equivalent of the English verb "to play" and is used in much the same way. The most noticeable difference is that in standard Spanish the preposition a is after jugar when jugar is used to refer to the playing of a specified game:

  • Me gustaría saber si en Belice juegan al fútbol. (I would like to know if they play soccer in Belize.)
  • Aprendemos a jugar al ajedrez. (We are learning to play chess.)
  • Los estudiantes jugaron a la bolsa y no ganaron nada. (The students played the market and didn't earn anything.)
  • El actor jugó a la ruleta rusa con una pistola totalmente cargada. (The actor played Russian roulette with a fully loaded pistol.)

In parts of Latin America, however, the a can be omitted when referring to athletic contests. The absence of the a is a regional variation and shouldn't be imitated in most areas.

Jugar isn't used to refer to the playing of a musical instrument. For that, use tocar.

When followed by the preposition con, jugar sometimes carries a meaning similar to "to manipulate" or "to play around with." The phrase sometimes suggests that someone isn't treating something (or someone) with due respect or diligence:

  • Los chicos de cuatro años juegan con las palabras e inventan palabras e historias disparatadas. (Four-year-old children play with words and invent words and silly stories.)
  • Jugaste con mis sentimientos, como juega el viento con la hoja. (You manipulated my feelings, like the wind toys with a leaf.)
  • No voy a jugar con mi salud cuando lo que quiero es mejorarla. (I'm not going to trifle with my health when what I want to do is make it better.)
  • Chávez dijo que los banqueros privados jugaron con el dinero del pueblo. (Chávez said the private bankers gambled with the people's money.)

    Standing by itself, jugar usually means simply "to play": Jugaban todo el día. (They played all day.)

    The phrase jugar limpio is used to mean "to play clean," that is, playing fairly, by the rules or otherwise in a commendable manner. The opposite, to play dirty, is jugar sucio.

    In the reflexive form, if it doesn't mean "to play together," jugarse usually suggests gambling or taking risks:

    • Facebook y Twitter se juegan por lo más popular. (Facebook and Twitter are competing to be the most popular.)
    • Me jugué la vida porque tenía que triunfar. (I bet my life because I had to win.)
    • Ellos se juegan mucho más que nosotros. (They're risking a lot more than we are.)

    Remember that jugar is conjugated irregularly.