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Psychology of the Chip: Size Counts

Chips are the coin of the realm in casinos. For the most part their denomination isn’t particularly important. Baccarat tables use “big” chips because the game invites large bets, roulette tables use special colored chips to distinguish each player but for the most part the psychological value of the chip is mainly to disguise the true financial nature of the enterprise.

But poker, my game of choice, is different. Here chips play a very interesting and oft-overlooked role. No, I am not taking about how big stacks express power and control, and I certainly won’t go down any Freudian pathways —- you know, like psychoanalyzing male players with sexual insecurities who stack their chips in high towers….

I’m serious. A poker game can turn on factors like how many chips are on the table, how many are used to make a standard bet and the disparity between stack sizes of players at a table. These variables are not simple and they play different roles in limit games compared with no-limit and in cash games versus tournaments. Let’s take a look at two of the most obvious ways chips affect the game.

Stack size: Stack size is a critical factor in no-limit play, whether we’re talking about cash games or tournaments. If I have more chips than you I can break you in a single hand. If it’s a tournament, I can dispatch you to the rail in a similarly abrupt manner. Larger stack sizes increase potential wins. There are few things more frustrating than sitting there with the nuts with two opponents drawing dead and, because you failed to replenish your stack, have no claim to the ever-growing side pot. We’ve all seen countless examples of weak players doing this and depriving themselves of opportunities to recover. Large stacks also carry liabilities for your potential loss goes up. However, this factor is only important in no-limit and is far outweighed by potential gains.

There are other, more psychologically sensitive elements also operating here. When you arrive at a table take stock of the stack sizes of each player. Note whose chips would fit in a demitasse cup and whose could be used for the foundation of the new casino going up down the block. Most players initially assume that the big stacks are better players and the little bitty piles are the fish. This judgment may be amended later but the initial impression will have been made —- and if there is one thing psychologists know, first impressions are resistant to change. Sitting behind a short stack makes you look vulnerable, weak. Short stacks invite attack and aggression —- never a good thing.

Note that the chip-stack factor plays itself out differently in limit play than no-limit —- particularly in low- and mid-level games. In no-limit games you are usually limited in the size of the initial buy-in, typically to 100 times the big blind. If you arrive at a $2 - $5 no-limit game anyone at the table with less than $500 in front of them is likely (although not necessarily) losing on the session and someone with two thousand stacked up is almost certainly ahead. These patterns are not so obvious in limit play since players vary so much in the size of their initial buy-in. The obvious psychological gain is to always buy in for the max in no-limit and for more than the 20 big blinds that conventional wisdom recommends in limit. And reload if your stack gets whittled down.

Chip denomination: You wouldn’t think this is an issue (after all, 25 bucks is 25 bucks so who cares if there’s a single green chip or five redbirds sitting there), but it is. A huge pile of $5 chips makes for more action than a small one of green and black chips, even if the amount of money is the same. The Tropicana in Atlantic City spreads their (in)famous “pink” game, which uses $2.50 pink chips. If someone comes in with a stack of chips of other denominations, players will howl in protest until they go exchange them for pink chips. The game is played at $7.50 - $15.00 limits but it plays bigger than any $10 - $20 game I have ever seen. Dealers call bets by the number of chips not the money, “three chips to call,” “raise, twelve chips to go”.

Similarly $20 - $40 games with $5 chips often play bigger than $25 - $50 games with $25 chips; $75 - $150 games with green chips typically have more action than $100 - $200 games with black chips. There is something very meaningful, even intimidating about putting out two stacks of three for four chips each that just isn’t captured by a single chip tossed on the felt. There is something satisfying about sitting behind a castle of chips that isn’t conveyed by a tiny stack, even if both stacks will buy the same amount of groceries.

The attendees of ATLARGE (ATLlantic city Annual Rec.Gambling Excursion an offspring of BARGE which is Big August Rec.Gambling Excursion – there is also a MARGE in Mississippi and several other ‘ARGE gatherings around the country) have been known to take this principle to bizarre extremes. They will play an all white-chip game that is over-the-top wild. It isn’t unusual for an ATLARGE’r to be sitting behind literal mountains of white chips, sometimes in excess of a thousand. But ‘ARGE’rs tend to be a little crazy….

In tournaments, especially smaller weekly and daily events that many poker rooms run, chip size plays a similar psychological role. As the number of players goes down and the blinds and antes go up, the tournament directors “color up” the remaining chips, taking those of smaller denomination off and replacing them with more valuable chips. In many tournaments this is done too quickly. There is a distinctly dispiriting feeling to leaving on a break with a dozen or more towers of chips only to return and find each of your stacks of $25 chips replaced with a single $500 chip and your empowering mountains of $100 chips now sitting in pathetic stacklets of some oddly colored molded clay.

When this happens players often fail to appreciate their true stack size. They begin to regard a chip as “just a chip” rather than treating it with the monetary respect it deserves. I have talked with several tournament directors about this. They mainly turn a deaf ear. I suspect that they are very much aware of the effect of coloring up early and like it for it tends to end the tournament faster opening the tables up for cash game play.

So, in summary, there really is a psychology of the poker chip. In fact, there are other aspects that I don’t have room for, like the simple fact that chips don’t look or feel like “real” money and those phallic towers that guys like to build. Maybe next time.

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