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A Side Order of Chips

Problems created by misplaced chips at the table

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Jul 11, 2006


"To change and to improve are two different things." - German Proverb

Things change - it's the way of the world. And not just the big things, like the geopolitical structure or the level of man's knowledge, but the little things, too - mundane habits, personal rituals, trivial customs. These changes can be premeditated or spontaneous, random or contrived. The forces triggering them can range from a superior idea or fresh vision to ignorance and mere carelessness. Unawareness of tradition, indifference to tradition, even a rebellion against tradition - these are all possibilities, too. Whatever their origins, some changes turn out well, and some - well, not so much.

Sometimes change occurs gradually, and sometimes all at once. One day in 1994 I woke up to discover that a great many of my acquaintances who, only a day earlier, had been saying things like: "I should have gone home" and "I wish I had begun earlier" were suddenly uttering: "I should have went home" and "I wish I had began earlier." Of course, this widespread mangling of verb tenses didn't really happen overnight - it just seemed that way to me.

In the poker room, I've recently noticed one of those changes, the kind that sneaks up on you. It's a personal custom that just yesterday was extremely rare, and now suddenly it's everywhere. In the overall scheme of things, this annoying habit is a relatively small matter, but as small matters go, it can lead to big problems.

You may have noticed it, too. Suddenly there are legions of poker players who consider it perfectly natural to keep their chip stacks, not in front of them, but off to the side. If you haven't noticed this yet, you will soon, because as surely as there are more players doing this, so too are there more folks complaining about it.

I suspect this new trend is attributable to the fact that many newcomers to cardrooms these days have received their initial orientation from watching final tables on television, where the field has been reduced to a handful of players, each of whom has amassed a mountain of tournament chips. In such a setting, it makes perfect sense for the finalists to spread out and make themselves comfortable. But a ring game in a bustling cardroom is a different animal altogether, and here are some problems that result when players don't keep their chips in front of them:

Problem no. 1: The floorman won't know there's an open seat.
If a player in Seat 3 keeps his chips in unoccupied Seat 4, there's no way for the floorman, as he makes his rounds, to see that there's an open seat, which means the players on the board will have their waits unnecessarily extended.

Problem no. 2:
A prospective customer who's passing by won't know, either.
This situation applies when there are no names on the board. And if the passerby is the type who would gladly sit down if the seat were available right now, but who doesn't care to wait, he's likely to cruise right on by to other attractions - and isn't he just the sort of impatient, compulsive fellow you'd rather have in your game than investing his money at the nearest blackjack table or slot machine ? Now, presumably the dealer knows the seat is open and should inform the floorman, but what if he doesn't? And don't be too quick to blame the dealer here, for if the previous dealer never informed him, he'd have every reason to assume that those chips belong to a player who simply happens to be away from the table. That being the case, it could be another 20 minutes or so before he alerts the floorman that the player in Seat 4 is missing in action, only to discover that there never was a player in that seat.

But wait just a minute, you say. How plausible is this scenario? Wouldn't someone at the table - either the dealer or at least one other player - notice at some point that the player in Seat 3 has been betting with the chips in Seat 4 (even if only the blinds)? Not necessarily. Why? Because of:

Problem no. 3:
Chips In Two Spots
The fact is that many new players today have adopted the habit of placing some of their chips in front of them, and some others off to the side. In cardrooms where players are allowed to have racked chips on the table, it's become increasingly common to see players with a rack (or several racks) of chips off to the side, outside their elbows, while at the same time keeping a "working stack" between their elbows. And since the chips in front are the ones used for wagering at any given moment, it can take quite some time to realize what the situation is.

Problem no. 4: Confusion regarding whose chips are whose
Given Problem no. 3, it should be pretty obvious that Problem no. 4 is inevitable. I can't tell you how often I've been at tables lately where two players (or more) have chips in front of them, with an additional rack of chips placed equidistantly between them. When you look around the table, and see chips not only in Seat 1, Seat 2, and Seat 3, but in Seat 1.5, Seat 2.5, and Seat 3.5, how are you supposed to determine whose are whose? You can ask, of course, but there are a number of scenarios in which that question could cost you. After all, depending on the circumstances, the player you ask could deduce that you're holding a monster and are curious about your potential payoff. So he folds instead of paying you off. Or, under different circumstances, an opponent could rightly conclude that you suspect you're beat and are concerned with how badly you might get hurt. Which leads us to what is by far the most serious potential problem …

Problem no. 5: Confusion regarding a player who appears close to all-in
If you've played poker for any length of time, you have undoubtedly found yourself in the following situation: Starting with good cards, you bet (or raise) accordingly. Then the flop comes, and it's favorable, so you continue to bet what you believe is the best hand. Midway through the action, however, another player shows such strength that you're forced to re-evaluate, and you conclude that your hand is second-best. But since it's a multiway pot and this player has only a few chips left, you keep the pedal to the metal in order to build a side pot that will salvage the situation. Imagine how upset you'd be if, instead of declaring himself all in as he reaches for the last of his chips, your opponent suddenly "refuels" by reaching instead for the three racks of chips sitting adjacent to him. Understandably, your first reaction would be: "Those chips are yours? Are you kidding me?"

In such a situation, the misleading placement of chips has a dramatic impact on the action. This kind of thing should never happen in a poker game, but recently I've seen it happen several times - and it's not surprising that some bitter accusations about angle shooting have ensued, with some players suggesting that the confusion was created deliberately.

What can be done to prevent this ? Like most problems, big and small, what's needed first and foremost is awareness. After that, it's just a matter of dealers and floorpeople being alert - and imparting to new players that "squaring up the table" applies to chips as well as chairs.