The age old saying goes something like this: The guy who invented gambling was brilliant, but the guy who invented chips was a genius.
The reason behind this saying is that chips remove from gambling the real world of money. Gamblers tend to have very short memories. Once they purchase chips, they easily forget their real world value, making losses on the green felt seem relatively painless — at least until they go to cash out.
Home poker has largely embraced this concept. Games that used to be played with silver change and paper money are now often played with poker chips. If you're hosting a home game, you may well be considering the purchase of nice set. A set of 500 chips, in three or four colors for different denominations, should be enough for your typical game of one to two tables. Which chips exactly will depend on your tastes and your budget.
Here's a summary of what's out there to help you find just the right chips for your game. To get a really good sense of all of your options, I suggest that you check out the online stores that specialize in poker supplies.
Poker Chips: Low to High End
At the very lowest end of the chip market are the very lightweight, 2 gram or so, thin plastic chips that many of us played with as kids or in high school and college. They are typically sold in packs of 100, often in red, white, and blue. These are the chips available for purchase in nearly every large pharmacy and in groceries, right in the same area as the packs of playing cards. They'll run you $2.50 to $3.95 or so. If you look around you might find a really inexpensive version of them in the dollar stores — selling for $1.00.
These plastic chips are fine in a pinch, or with young or inexperienced players who have never been to a public poker room or casino. But they feel and sound so much cheaper than what you'll find in a casino or other public poker room, that they may be inadequate for your more serious players.
One step up, and what I first purchased back in the early '90s when I started playing in casinos around the United States, are solidly colored, imitation clay chips, actually made up of a heavy plastic weighing 8 grams a chip or so. These are generally marketed as "super diamond chips." They can be purchased online for between $.06 and $.10 per chip, and sell in "sleeves" of 25 single color chips.
These imitation clay chips are perfectly adequate for your home game, especially if you are running multi-table tournaments and want to be able to afford a lot of chips for a relatively little amount of money. Since they lack any striping, spotting or design, some players might not prefer them. But I've used mine in large tournaments and in home games for 25 years and never had a complaint (at least not to my face).
Slightly more expensive, and by far the most common chips that are sold to poker players today, are the metal filled, clay composite chips, with a myriad of different designs, strips, and spots. They are usually sold as part of chip set, including an inexpensive aluminum carrying case. These can also be purchased in sleeves of 25 from some companies, but are more typically sold in units of 500 or 1,000 as part of a set.
These clay composite chips come in a large range of prices. The 500-chip sets, for example, can be purchased online for anywhere from $39 or so up to $300 (not including shipping), based on the quality, design, and weight of the chip. Each chip weighs anywhere from 11 to 14 grams.
I've noticed that at the very bottom of that price range, the clay composite chips tend to be of unacceptably poor quality. I once purchased a 1,000-chip set for $90 and paid $45 to ship them (they're heavy, and shipping is generally expensive). The chips arrived with 20 red chips equaling the height of only 19 white chips. They had many other defects in them as well. I had to send them back for a refund — and got stuck with one way of the shipping. If you are ordering these metal-filled chips, then, I recommend you order no cheaper chip than the ones selling for about $150 for 1,000.
The next step up are the ceramic chips that sell for about $.40-$.75 or so each. Nevada Jacks is the most popular brand of these chips. These also come in sets of 500 or 1,000. They are known for their brilliant colors and sharp detail. They are not metal filled, and they don't make the metal clanging sound when they bump together. Players rave about them.
The most expensive, regularly produced variety of chips are the casino-quality clay chips made by the Paulson company, typified by the Top Hat and Cane design. These chips cost roughly $1.25 a chip, or from $1,100 to $1,400 for a set of 1,000. If you want your home poker chips to be just like those in a casino and you don't mind paying for them, these are the ones for you.
There is one another option to consider. Some chip manufacturers will customize your chips with your own design. These can come as a "hot stamped" imprint, as a printed label that is permanently affixed to the chip, or in the case ceramic chips the design can be built into the chip itself. Prices for this option vary widely, so shop around if this interests you.
Keep in mind that you'll almost certainly want a case in which to store and transport your chips. There are a few options in this department as well.
The most common are the thin aluminum or vinyl attaché cases. These are most frequently made with room for 500 chips, and a few extra spaces for cards. There are also chip cases that accommodate 250, 350, 750, and 1,000 chips. They sell for between $20-$50 and can vary some in quality, though it's usually next to impossible to tell from the pictures which ones are more sturdily made. Look for reinforcements in the corners.
Also, the 1,000 capacity chip case, when filled with chips, will be too heavy for some to easily carry around. You might be better off ordering two 500s instead. There is also, now, a 2,000-chip case that comes with wheels for easier transportation. If you run tournaments or move your game from place to place, you might be tempted to get it, but I don't recommend it. From everything I've read and heard, it is not built with sufficient sturdiness to survive much use. Tales of handles and wheels falling off upon first use are legend.
There are a few other chip case options. One is a clear lucite chip case. It is built for 1,000 chips, stacked in chip racks of 100 each, and sells for around $50. This is very useful if you run tournaments and want to easily have your chips organized for simple distribution to a large group of people. It's also extremely sturdy, easy to stack, and doesn't dent, scratch, or otherwise deteriorate from regular use (unlike the aluminum and vinyl cases described above). It's what I use, and I recommend it highly.
Finally, for those who care about how your chip cases look, there are some very nice wooden storage boxes. They tend to be cube shaped, come in a dark finish, and have shiny, small metal handles, one on each side of the box. They aren't easy to carry, and so would be awkward and inappropriate if you transported your chips regularly. But they do look nice sitting on a shelf. They sell for about $50 separately, but like all other chip cases, they are often included in the price of a chip set.
I would immediately rule out the very cheap plastic chips and the very cheapest of the metal filled chips. Beyond that, however, I don't think there is really much of a difference in how your poker-playing guests will react to the chips.
I've played in home games with exquisite ceramic chips and with Paulson's. They were beautiful to behold. But I noticed no one really seemed to care. I've found that poker players are typically so completely engaged in how much they were up or down that the look of their chips was the last thing they cared about. That being said, you might care about that, and might take great pride in having a truly beautiful set or chips that remind you of what you play with at the nearest casino.
One last item to consider — there are very few brick-and-mortar stores that sell a wide variety of poker chips (The Gambler's General Store in Las Vegas is a great exception). Target, Walmart and a few other national retail chains may have boxed sets for sale, but the chips themselves will still be hidden. That means for the most part, you'll probably be looking online at an image of a chip — not the real thing — when you contemplate a purchase.
For that reason, I recommend that before you buy a complete set of chips, especially an expensive one, that you either purchase or ask the company to send you for free some sample chips. Catalogs, computer screens, and the like don't really do a chip justice. For that you'll need to see, hold, and use the chip itself.
Sure, it may cost you $5 or $10 to get a small sample set of chips from the manufacturer. But that's a much less costly option than ordering chips you don't want and having to return them.
Also in this series...
- Hosting an Awesome Poker Game at Home: The Poker Table
- Hosting an Awesome Poker Game at Home: Who to Invite
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.
Photos: "Ready for poker," Laura, CC BY 2.0; "Poker Chips," Indi Samarajiva, CC BY 2.0; "Poker XII," Bastian Greshake, CC BY-SA 2.0; "New custom ceramic chip set," BigMikeSndTch, CC BY 2.0; "Poker anyone?" uzi978, CC BY-SA 2.0;.