Weighty Issues: Don't Let Cheap Chips Get You Down

Jeff Madsen
J-Mad: Feeling the drag of the cheap chips at the USPC in 2007?

I was recently playing in a tournament where management had just cracked out a set of brand new chips that had been manufactured specifically for that event.

They were solid, heavy with sharp, crisp edges and a kaleidoscope of colors around the edges. They felt important.

I felt rich ... although no more so than any of the others sitting there running through their own special rituals, stacking, restacking, riffling, flipping, drop-and-twisting.

We were late in getting started (big surprise!) and I found myself mentally wandering to other venues where I had played and the kinds of tournament chips I've riffled and flipped.

The one that stood out was the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City where I often played when I lived on the East Coast. The Taj had regular tournaments from baby events to major competitions including the US Poker Championship, which they held annually.

Thinking back, I had this vague sense that there was something "cheap," something vaguely unimportant about those Taj events

This didn't make a lot of sense, because many of the tournaments I'd played in there were a lot bigger and more prestigious than this one here, the one we were all waiting to start.

Bryan Devonshire
One way to fix the light chip problem? Build a giant stack of them.

But there it was and I've learned over the years to trust my intuitions. But still, it didn't add up.

Well, today I read an article by Nils Jostmann and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam and suddenly, it all made sense.

I do love it when things that are murky and muddled in my mind suddenly become clear and make sense --- especially when poker is involved and it is psychology that provides the answer.

It turns out I was reacting to a fundamental psychological principle that, until Jostmann's work, was almost completely neglected.

As he puts it: "weight is an embodiment of importance," for what Jostmann and his colleagues discovered, as strange as it sounds, is that heavy things are more important than light things.

In other words: They have greater significance and greater emotional value.

Jostmann simply handed a clipboard to people and asked them to fill out a questionnaire evaluating the worth of a variety of objects.

If the clipboard on which the survey was placed weighed about 1,000 grams people rated the objects in the list as worth significantly more than if the clipboard only weighed some 600 grams.

And remarkably, while people are holding the heavy clipboard they rated reasonable decisions as fairer than when they held the light one and, even more impressively, they engaged in more elaborate thinking.

I assume there is a limit to this effect (handing people a clipboard weighing 10 kilos is probably not going to produce this effect) but within the range of weights they tested the effects were quite strong.

Now I understood. Those tournament chips at the Taj were embarrassingly cheap. They were light and flimsy. They had none of the heft and solidness of the truly majestic ones I was (attempting to) riffle.

Luca Pagano
Moral of the story: casinos should use solid, heavy chips at the tables. If they don't, make them heavy with your mind.

And, totally unconsciously, I was taken in by Jostmann's little demonstration. The Taj chips didn't feel important, but these new ones did!

If you can catch a rerun of one of Taj-run US Open events on TV, check out the chips. You'll see what I mean. I'd always hated those cheap pieces of pastel-colored clay the Taj used.

Now, thanks to Nils Jostmann and his colleagues, I know why.

Is there a moral here for the world of poker? Well, sort of. Casinos should use solid, well constructed chips at the tables. It won't really change much in who wins and who loses.

But, and I guess this is important, everyone will have a better time, rate the games as better and of greater monetary value and they will have a more satisfying, solid experience.

I don't know Jostmann personally, but the guy certainly looks like a poker player.

More psychology articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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Kimjo 2009-12-13 07:12:33

Nice article, wanted to add that I have documented this phenomenon in the "field". Here in Argentina, poker is a relatively new phenomenon and chips on the table are often the same used throughout the casino. That having been said, there are a large variety of chip types being used in cash games. They range from ultralight polymer chips to heavy metal and plastic composites. The liveliest games are the ones with the light plastic chips. It seems the players, myself included, find it harder to grasp the monetary value of the chip in play as its texture lends nothing to help you make that determination. Personally, I'm in favor of chips that disconnect the player further from its actual value. :)

Jones 2009-09-30 15:25:00

mull it over for a bit. it'll come to you.

Smith 2009-09-30 14:01:00

Why is this random article under "strategy"??

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