Pulling information from a player's poker chips

February 07, 2017 3:00 AM


When I was a teenager about 70 years ago, sometimes a group of us would spend a rainy Sunday afternoon playing poker on the kitchen table; perhaps, many of you older folk did the same. But we didn’t play for money. We played using matchsticks to count score. Besides, in those days, who had money they could afford to lose!

Today, quite a bit older and more affluent, we usually play for money. But, rather than use cash, we play for chips that represent money. In the casino, you exchange your cash for a batch of chips before starting to play.

The idea is to win as many chips as possible; the more the merrier. Preference for playing with chips is the case not just in casinos and card rooms, but frequently also in home games. It’s much more convenient than betting with coins or paper money. Chips are much more convenient to handle and easy to count up when you cash in. Making change is also much more convenient using chips of different colors to denote value. Aside from these conveniences that strongly favor the use of chips, there is also a psychological factor that few players consciously think about: You can get a lot of valuable information from players’ chips.

Chips are inanimate objects, so how can you get valuable information from them? Good question. When I get seated at the poker table, one of the first things I do is study my opponents – the people whose chips I am hoping to win. Which players have the most chips?

These are likely to be the winners up to this point. I reason that these players are more likely to be skilled players. Those with few chips are bound to be the losers – and less skilled than the others. Of course, this may not be the actual case. A poorly skilled player may have just lucked out and won a couple of big pots. On the opposite extreme, a truly skilled player may have hit a streak of bad luck. Perhaps he just suffered a bad-beat in a huge pot –costly, to say the least.

After I have been seated and playing for a while, and a new player comes to “my” table, I watch to see how many chips he buys-in for. If it’s the minimum – or not much more, I classify him as a relatively unskilled player, or one who cannot afford to lose very much. Most likely he is a tight player, prone to play only strong starting hands, rarely investing in early positions unless he is one of the blinds, and much easier to bluff out. He usually stays to see the flop less than 20% of the hands dealt to him.

If and when he raises, I pay attention: He probably has a powerhouse. And, I am more likely to muck my hand unless I too have a strong hand – a made hand or a premium drawing hand. By the same token, some of my more skilled opponents observe how many chips I have in front of me – and make decisions on that basis when playing against me. When I have many high stacks or several racks, they give me more respect. They are less likely to raise or try to bluff me out.

In that regard, one mistake I often see is when a winning player changes several racks of chips for a few large denomination chips, and then partially conceals them among his remaining chips. His opponents may not realize his “wealth” and pay him less respect when they are in a hand against him.

By the way, I have seen players come to the table carrying several racks of chips. Very likely, they are seeking to gain that image.