Money in poker is not like money in any other context. Money is both the medium and the message. I’d like to say that, in poker, money is post-modern. Let us, therefore, deconstruct some of the roles of money in the context of the game.
Money in poker is like a zen koan or a taoist aphorism: you have to simultaneously care and not care about it. This is, as you might imagine, preposterously difficult to do.
Most of us, if we were raised by reasonably responsible parents, actually care a good deal about money. We have some sense of the value of money: x amount of money is a dinner out, y amount of money is a month’s rent or mortgage payment, z amount of money is a year of college tuition or a car. We worry about money, we make budgets, we scrimp and save for desired expenditures, we have JOBS (for heaven’s sake!) so that we can pay our bills and provide for our families. We plan for retirement. We look with smug pity at people who paid full retail for something we got on sale.
Conversely, however, if we are well-balanced individuals, we don’t care too much about money. There are definitely things we wouldn’t do for any amount of money. We tend to be appalled by people whose sole goal in life is the accumulation of wealth. It’s not for nothing that we are familiar with the phrases “filthy lucre” and “money-grubbing.” We are concerned about laying waste to our powers, “getting and spending.” And there’s a world of difference between an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage and the kind of profiteering and exploitation that has stocked the bank accounts of the world’s wealthy.
People’s lives are definitively shaped by their relationship to money: an early experience of poverty or excess, for example, can have a profound effect on a person’s personality and life goals. Marriages are often strengthened or broken depending on the degree to which the spouses have compatible views on how to manage money. Businesses big and small, and indeed whole societies, rise and fall with their ability to keep money flowing in healthy and constructive ways. There is just no getting around it: money matters. A lot.
Now, welcome to the poker table.
At the poker table, we use money to keep score. We use money to communicate with the other players. We use money as a tool and a weapon. It may seem as if winning money is the object of the game—and of course on some level it is—but actually, the goal of the game is to consistently make decisions that will lead to the greatest possible expected value. My goal is not to win this pot, although that would be nice. My goal is to play this pot in such a way that, if I did it this way every time I encountered these circumstances, in the long run I would maximize my profit. This is a very different proposition, and while it concerns probability it is in no way about gambling. (This is hard concept to grasp. We will return to it again and again.)
The multiple roles that money plays in a poker game have some strange repercussions.
I will never forget the first time I sat down in a casino to play poker for money. Despite having played in small stakes home games, and online (for amounts ridiculously beyond my bankroll, in retrospect), the first time I pulled out $200 ACTUAL DOLLARS to buy into the $1/$2 game, my hands were shaking and I felt vaguely queasy. I don’t think my hands stopped shaking that entire first session, and I’m pretty sure I came close to fainting when I had pocket aces and made a raise to OH MY GOD TWENTY DOLLARS!!!
Even Monopoly, which is purportedly a game all about making money, has the good sense to make most of the action in the game involve moving a gamepiece around a board and collecting cards. In poker, the way we distract ourselves from what seems to be the inherent lunacy of PLAYING WITH MONEY AS IF IT WERE A FOOTBALL is to substitute chips for cash. This is the first, and probably essential, step in distancing ourselves from the madness. Pay no attention to anyone who says that the use of chips is purely for the convenience of the players. I would wager (no pun intended) that chips were first invented by casinos, and probably not first for use in poker games. The sole goal of casinos is to separate fools from their money as efficiently as possible. These businesses realize that no sane person is going to scatter large-denomination bills all over a roulette table. The guy’ll look at the money lying everywhere and think, “Oh crap, that’s a whole lot of money! I could buy myself a really high-end hooker and some quality blow with that cash!” (Or whatever, you get my point.)
But chips are different. Psychologically, chips don’t really belong to you; after all, they have someone else’s name printed on them, or perhaps they are eerily blank-faced. You don’t own them, you are just borrowing them for the duration of the game. They are not cash. They are not credit cards. They are Money Once Removed. And like those biologically distant cousins, you just can’t work up the same feelings of attachment and investment as you can for those creatures nearer, dearer, and more familiar to you. Chips have a way of slipping through your fingers. I have watched people toss their last $100 chip onto the table saying something like, “Oh well, it’s getting late, I might as well gamble,” and proceed to lose it in what is essentially a coin flip or worse. They would never do that with a hundred dollar bill, or five twenties. These are the same types who calculate the tip at a restaurant to the third decimal place.
So, is the use of chips an Evil Plot?
But it’s also incredibly helpful, because in order to deploy money appropriately in a poker game, you MUST be able to detach from it to the appropriate degree. In fact, one of the challenges with chips (if you play enough) is that it becomes possible to fetishize them almost to the same degree that the entire culture fetishizes cash. Look around the poker table and you will see classic signs of the disorder: towers of chips built with obsessive care; people who count and recount their stacks, who segregate their buy-in from their profits; the fearful nursing of the shortstack to the great detriment of optimal strategy. People get stack envy, for god’s sake. People finger their chips and stroke their stacks in ways that are laughably erotic.
When I look back at the frightened gal who quaked as she bought in for $200, I have to marvel at the emotional distance in my relationship to money that I’ve travelled in a few short years. There’s a drawer in my desk at home, now, where I keep my working poker bankroll. (My working bankroll is different from my overall bankroll by a large amount.) But by any reasonable standard, it’s a whole lot of cash. Until recently I’d only once had $500 in cash on my person, and that was when (many years ago) I had to buy an airplane ticket and for some reason I couldn’t use a credit card. I remember walking from the bank to the travel agency (yeah, like I said, DECADES AGO) in a state of near panic, imagining that everyone would know that I had a large amount of money in my pocket. These days, if you see me in a casino, it’s likely to the point of routine that I’ll have $500 in chips immediately to hand, and ten times that much cash in a safe somewhere nearby.
Even thinking about it boggles my mind. Except that, more and more, it just doesn’t. It reminds me a bit of the transition I went through when I became a professional photographer, and started to acquire high-end camera equipment—sophisticated bodies and really pricey lenses—and at first was deeply anxious when I used them. Eventually, they became merely familiar and beloved tools of my trade. I was not afraid of them anymore: I was no longer concerned about whether I would be worthy of them, live up to their quality, prestige, and excellence, or make best use of them. I knew I wasn’t going to break them or embarrass myself with them. I tossed them casually into my camera bag and got to work.