Friday, August 14, 2015

A Chip Off the Old Block

The atmosphere inside the walls of a casino is unreal, at times surreal. Very few casinos, especially older casinos, have windows that allow day light in and none have clocks in view. The idea is to block out reality and allow patrons to forget whether it’s night or day, or what time of the night or day it is.

And the tinkering with reality doesn’t stop there. Gambling in a casino means turning in your real currency for a time and using a substitute currency while you are there. What we call chips or checks/cheques or even tokens date back to the early 19th century and there a many reasons why they are still used today. Most of the reasons are for the casino’s benefit, of course. When you think about it, this subterfuge is not a whole lot different from substituting “paper” money for gold and silver and getting everyone to agree with the ruse.

 The primary characteristic of the casino chip is its uniformity. While each casino may emblazon their chips with their own distinct decoration, (casino name, location, emblem, or logo) they all are mostly of uniform shape (round), size (about the size of an old half-dollar), and weight (lighter than a silver coin but heavier than a modern one). Clearly stamped on each chip is its denomination - $1, $5, $25, and $100 – for the vast majority of chips in play. Other higher denominations are available and the highest value chips may even be larger or in a completely different shape than the common ones.

 Chip uniformity includes color and casinos basically all agree in this area - $1 chips are white or blue, $5 chips are red, $25 are green, and $100 chips are black. Values above these can be of varying shades of yellow and pink, mauve and puce, lavender and lilac according to each particular casino’s whim.

Uniformity leads to convenience, especially when it comes to counting chips. Chips are stacked in piles of twenty, each of the same denomination. In a blackjack table “rack” every twenty chip stack is separated by a clear marker. A security guard or a pit boss can easily tally the worth of the chips on any given table – stacks of $1s equal $20, stacks of $5s equal $100, stacks of $25 chips equal $500, and a stack of black $100 chips equals $2000. Higher chip values are generally separated out, kept to the center of the rack and tallied separately.
One of the advantages of this uniformity among gambling chips is that players can easily determine the worth of the chips in their neighbor’s stacks. At a poker table, especially a tournament poker table, players are cautioned to display the stacks of their larger denomination chips so that others can easily determine the value of their stacks.
 Of course, casino chips are not valued for their intrinsic worth alone – they make great toys! Watch just about any experienced gambler fiddle with his/her chip stack and you will see a demonstration of some of the best digital acrobatics ever imagined – the twirl, the thumb flip, and my favorite, the butterfly.

But, the main reason for using chips instead of legal tender is that research has proven that people gamble more freely with substitute money than they do with real money.

Our friends in the gaming industry have recently gone a step further in their quest to separate us from our money while we are still smiling. Once upon a time if you put good old American quarters into a slot machine, good old American quarters came out when you lined up the 7s. These days you insert bills, any denomination will do, and when you win the counter records your winnings – nothing tangible, nothing to hold, just wealth held in abeyance. If you are smart enough to stop playing while the counter is recording sums over and above what you first put in, you may be lucky enough to get to the cash-out machine and turn your ticket into winnings. Or you can just put it back into another machine because even though it represents money it doesn’t really look and feel like money.

 And before I leave the subject of one-armed bandits (now, of course, they have no arms, just buttons!), what about the penny machine. Years ago fun loving slot players always knew where the banks of penny and nickel machines were. At one time or another we all made that journey to the furthest corner of the casino floor where all the unluckiest players gathered to slowly recoup a grub stack after having lost the rent money at higher level slots. These days the penny and nickel machines are right out in front, rows upon rows of them. Why the change of heart on the casino’s behalf and the proliferation of low denomination slots? Once again, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. 

The 1cent and 5cent labels attract players as do the relatively huge jackpots that are offered. So what’s a few pennies? Actually, in many cases the jackpot is only available to those who press enough buttons to register 250 or so of those pennies per spin. A great many people play at this level regularly but would never think of playing a dollar machine where the jackpot is available for only 200 pennies! But, we keep coming and we keep playing so it’s not really strange that they keep changing reality for us. God only knows what’s coming next! God and Steve Wynn!

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