Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chip stacking the Grump way

I have been realizing lately that one of the most characteristic, identifiable features of The Grump Way of Poker is how one stacks one's chips, and that I have never described it for my readers. (For a story of how somebody once recognized me, having never seen a photograph of me, at least partly by how I stacked my chips, see here.)

So yesterday as I commenced a session at the Venetian, I resolved to take occasional photographs of how the chip stacks shift over time, thus illustrating the rules for how they are to be kept.

I had hoped that the session would be one in which the stacks kept growing and multiplying. Alas, it was not to be. Turned out to be one of those uber-annoying sessions in which one gets an endless string of second-best hands: queen-high flush losing to king-high flush, second nut straight to nut straight, overpair to flopped set, etc. I was wary enough that I didn't lose a ton of money on any of them, but it was just a slow, depressing, step-wise death spiral downward.

Still, the basics of proper aesthetic chip stacking can be learned just as well from a shrinking stack as a growing one, so I'm going to run with it.




OK, in the above shot we have been brought our chips by the runner: $300 worth, consisting of 58 reds and 10 whites.

The first thing to note is that the chips cannot be kept in stacks of 20. Oh yes, I know that this is very popular, but it is wrong. It's just too easy to knock them over, and too hard to keep them really neat and straight and precise. No, no. Chips must never be in stacks of more than 10. Were my name Sklansky, I might call that the Fundamental Theorem of Poker Chips.

So we're going to break these big stacks down. But there's another complication here. See that Palazzo chip on top of the third stack? Well, the Venetian has scads of those things, plus a smattering of other commemoratives--Wayne Brady, Jersey Boys, and the occasional leftover Gordie Brown. Obviously--well, at least I hope it's obvious to everybody--those can't just be mixed in with the regular chips willy-nilly. [shudder] They must be segregated.

(Someday I will have to do a full rant on the proper ratio of standard-issue chips to commemorative chips. Lots of places get it completely wrong, including the Venetian.)



OK, in the above shot you can see that I have divided the red chips into the special ones on the left and the regular ones on the right. That's a pretty typical ratio for the Venetian, just under 1:1.




Here we go. You can now see that the chips have been broken down into stacks of no more than 10 chips each. There are several things to notice here.

First, it may catch your attention that there are suddenly some chips missing. Yep. See those cards in the preceding shot? Those were two queens, and I lost about $50 when I ran them into somebody else's A-Q, and two more aces came on the board. That was about my fifth hand at the table, and it was a foreshadowing of how the whole session would go.

Second, you can see that the stacks of ten are two deep. This is the usual correct number. If you keep accumulating more, you might eventually have to go to three deep, when you run out of comfortable room along the rail. This is usually the high point of a session for me: the Three-Deep Chip Stack Rearrangement. It is a cause for happy dancing inside the head. There is no universally prescribed number of stacks before getting to the three-deep threshold; it all depends on how close together the seats are (don't want to encroach onto your neighbor's space, you know), what seat you're in (and hence the degree of curvature of the rail), and other factors. This is an advanced technique that I think I'd have to give individual lessons on, when students are ready.

The next thing to notice is key: the development of some stacks of less than ten chips. At all times, there must be at least two, but no more than three, stacks of exactly five chips each, plus one smaller stack of one to four chips if there are any left over after making the correct number of five-stacks. There actually is a pragmatic, poker-related reason for this. When I'm in the middle of a hand, I want to minimize the time and mental energy it takes to make a bet or raise or call of a particular size. Having a couple of stacks of five chips each, plus the stacks of ten, makes it trivially easy to pick up a combination of the desired amount without having to stop to count. $80? A ten-stack, a five-stack, plus one loose redbird. No counting required. Counting not only distracts you from the other stuff going on (like what opponents are doing), but slows down the game, and potentially causes you to give off tells, such as hands shaking, making counting errors, and so forth.

In limit games, by the way, all of the above goes out the window, and it's really best to keep at least a good number of chips in stacks of the two betting amounts, for exactly this reason: you just grab them and put them out, no counting required, no delays, no distractions.

Finally, you should notice that the commemorative chips have disappeared. Where did they go?




Oh, there they are! Yes, they are hiding. The way to dispose of them is to put them in stacks of nine, each capped by one regular chip as a disguise. The first of these stacks is always to be the inner-left one, followed by the outer left, just above it. (I should have pushed a few chips from that stack aside, too, so you could see that the boundary between special and regular chips is about a third of the way down that second stack.) Repeat this pattern as needed.




Now for the final step: Making everything neat and tidy. Of course you need to make sure that the chips are as close to perfectly on top of each other as possible. It's best when they have just come out of a rack, but one doesn't get that luxury too often. Just do the best you can. Then you want the stacks a uniform distance from the rail. The proper spacing is the width of a silver dollar. You do keep a silver dollar on you to use as a card cap, right? Well there ya go. You use it as shown in the photo above. And now you've got stacks that anybody can be proud of!

Ideally, you're sitting in the 1 seat or 10 seat (see here for an explanation of why I prefer those; I forgot to include this point in that list). There, the rail is straight, so you can make two-deep rows of ten-stacks pretty much as far as you want, and everything will be neat and square. But you can't always get that. Yesterday, for example, I was stuck in the 3 seat, where table curvature is about maximal. That produces a problem, because the top and bottow rows will get out of alignment. You just have to do the best you can. Sometimes you can cheat a bit on the spacing between the stacks and the rail (i.e., a bigger gap in the middle, less toward the ends), so that you trade uniformity of spacing for neatness of the rows. It's not always an easy call.




Oops--I took yet another hit (don't remember which one it was), and suffered further stack shrinkage. But we adjust and move on. Just to reinforce the importance of the balance between five-stacks and ten-stacks, notice here that the mandatory number of five-stacks is, as shown, three. If I combined two of them into one ten-stack, that would leave me with just one five-stack plus the "leftovers" stack of two, which is simply unacceptable.




Ah, I did win one pot, and had a momentary reversal of fortune. Of course, not everybody is scrupulous about keeping the visually disruptive special chips out of play as much as possible, so every time you win a pot, you pick up some and have to stash them away out of sight, in accordance with the policy prescribed previously.




See? My ratio of special to regular chips has gotten worse, because my losses were all regular ones, but the pot I won had a mix. So now the commemorative chips are occupying a greater fraction of the stacks--but we just have to deal with that. One trick I use to combat this problem is to use the mostly-commemorative stacks when making larger bets or calls in which I'm not confident of where I stand. If I'm going to lose some chips, might as well fob off the icky, irregular ones instead of the nice regular ones.




Uh-oh, another big loss. Now I have a problem. By the standard five-stack rules, the above is the correct arrangement: One ten-stack, three five-stacks, plus one (or is it two? can't tell for sure) singles. But this is admittedly a not very pretty arrangement. So for this special case, one is allowed an exception, as follows:




This rearrangement produces five five-stacks, which is suboptimal, but has the aesthetic advantage of not having a single ten-stack standing there all by itself, looking awkward.


OK, that's it for the photographs. Two more hits, and I was broke and went home. Not my day. Hey, it happens.


I think I can anticipate some questions.

Q: Wouldn't you be better off paying more attention to the poker game and less attention to which chips go where?

A: No. What a stupid question! Next?


Q: What about the $1 chips?

A: Ah, excellent point. Two years ago (two years ago yesterday, in fact, I now notice) I put up a post about my preference for keeping somewhere between 5 and 15 $1 chips. Like with the stacks of five and ten red chips, this is primarily so that I can easily make any bet size I want or need to with minimal time counting, no need for change being made, etc. The same rules apply for stacking them, i.e., they are kept in stacks of five (plus whatever extras make a stack less than five), except for the rare occasion that I have so many that I can make a couple of ten-stacks plus the five-stacks. Very few casinos have commemorative $1 chips--the Venetian is a rare exception. For that reason, I have never felt the need to treat "special" and "regular" $1 chips differently, which is why in the above photos you see the two species (or are they races? I'm not sure) freely intermixed. It's probably a shocking sign of horrible laxness on my part, but that's how I feel about it.


Q: Doesn't it bother you that the pictures on the chips are oriented in random directions?

A: No, and it shouldn't bother you, either. People who insist on aligning the chips (or at least the top ones on the stacks) so that they are all facing the same way, or who line up the marks on the edges of the chips into perfectly straight lines or fancy curves or spirals, well, they're just pathetic, sicko, obsessive-compulsives who ought to get themselves on some powerful psychotropic medications. That is just plain weird and unhealthy. Conversely, the chip-stacking rules I'm talking about here are perfectly rational, healthy, normal, and are so clearly aesthetically and pragmatically correct that they should be obvious to any right-thinking poker player.


Q: Doesn't keeping especially neat and orderly chip stacks give off information about your style of play?

A: Yes, it does. Even before I became aware that people like Mike Caro had published this observation, early on in my poker playing I noticed the obvious correlation that people who keep their chips all tidy tended to be quite tight, whereas those who didn't care about their stacks tended to play loose. But I don't worry about it. The frequency with which one plays hands is just about the most obvious feature of any player's style, and anybody paying even minimal attention will figure it out quickly anyway. Besides, the more firmly entrenched I think my tight image is at a given table, the more likely I am to (A) use it to bluff, and (B) raise with nontraditional hands that might combine with the board in ways that opponent would never anticipate. In other words, I use the image of tightness more to my advantage than most opponents can use it to figure me out.


Q: Do you really do this stuff, or are you just yanking our chain?

A: I really do it. Every time, without fail. There are, by now, enough readers who have spent time at the tables with me that they might pipe up in the comments to testify to this fact.

13 comments:

Ray said...

just WOW

Andy said...

And the Grump officially becomes a nit...

BWoP said...

Fascinating, yet oddly disturbing . . . but fascinating nonetheless.

I have my own chip-stacking protocol, but it is nowhere near as evolved as yours.

Perhaps I need to spend more time playing poker so I can hone my chip-stacking skillz.

--S said...

"People who insist on aligning the chips (or at least the top ones on the stacks) so that they are all facing the same way, or who line up the marks on the edges of the chips into perfectly straight lines or fancy curves or spirals, well, they're just pathetic, sicko, obsessive-compulsives who ought to get themselves on some powerful psychotropic medications. That is just plain weird and unhealthy. Conversely, the chip-stacking rules I'm talking about here are perfectly rational, healthy, normal, and are so clearly aesthetically and pragmatically correct that they should be obvious to any right-thinking poker player."

I may stop laughing some time next week. My OCD addled self really wanted to reach through the screen and 'fix' your stacks ;)

Lucypher said...

I agree the best stack height is ten, rather than twenty for the eact same reasons - 1) 20 doesn't stack as well as 10 and 2) stacks of ten are the quickest for me to count.

genomeboy said...

I think the 10 chip stack also works to your advantage because it looks more amateurish, thus giving people the impression you might be less competent than you are.

FWIW, if I'm really bored, I will start to align the marks on the sides of the chips, or make patterns to spell my kids names etc...

Michael said...

Outstanding post. Did it feel odd to continue to take pictures of the varying stacks?

Grange95 said...

At the local casino, they have two kinds of commemorative chips; one is ugly while the other has a horse head that regulars refer to as "Mafia chips" (reference to The Godfather). When I get new chips from buying in or raking a pot, I always sort out both kinds of chips. The ugly chips are first to be put in play, while the Mafia chips are safely tucked away in a stack (or on a good night, stacks) in the back. If I have a large stack, I will start capping off stacks with extra Mafia chips. I can always spot a loser right away; he bets his Mafia chips instead of hoarding them. Thank gawd for idiots!

P.S. I am developing a new plan to deal with a number of of my pet peeves at the table, including slow rollers, people who won't turn up their hand at show down, people who cut their chips by ones or twos, and people who stack their chips in stacks other than 20 to a stack. My plan involves tasers. You have been warned!

Freight Train said...

How about shuffling chips?
Don't you have a 'one-off' stack for shuffling?

Jon s said...

"One trick I use to combat this problem is to use the mostly-commemorative stacks when making larger bets or calls in which I'm not confident of where I stand."

Good info here. I'm not sure how often you play readers but this is info that some might use unless it's the opposite of what you really do...hmmm now I don't know how to proceed....

Great post BTW.

diverjoules said...

I laughed the whole way through the Chips Stack segment. How funny.

"they're just pathetic, sicko, obsessive-compulsives who ought to get themselves on some powerful psychotropic medications. That is just plain weird and unhealthy."

THEY???? LOL.. Love your blog.

Rakewell said...

Michael: Of course it felt odd to take pictures of the chips. But it's possible nobody knew what I was doing, because it wouldn't look much different from when I'm checking messages on my phone. Besides, there are plenty of things that already tend to make other players at the table think I'm a bit off--doesn't much matter if I add one more.

Freight train: Shuffle chips? Never. There are oodles of reason not to. (1) I hate the noise of chip shuffling in poker rooms. I'd ban it if I could. (2) Chips are coated in all sorts of germy nastiness; get them stacked, then handle them as little as possible. (3) People tend to give off tells when the chip shuffling speeds up, slows down, or stops. (4) Why give opponents one more visible indication that you've spent a degenerate amount of time at poker tables?

Willrr said...

Interesting, I tend to do the opposite at the venetian, putting all of the Palazzo chips topping my stacks because I find them the most aesthetically pleasing. I agree however, that chips with faces of performers on them are universally awful and should be banned or actually "limited" edition.
I had the worst OCD problem at an indian casino called turning stone which had awful commemerative chips which must be hidden in the manner that you prescribed. They also had tournament chips which had different things on either side, a horrible sin, one side read TS while the other read Poker (there were no denominations only colors to signify). In any case, I used to constantly turn all of the chips TS side up as soon as I won a pot, to the amusement of people I had played with before and recognized what I was doing.