Wednesday, 7th June 2023 21:39
Home / Poker / A rare glimpse inside the EPT chip room

Where do poker chips go at night? Who makes sure that everyone in the tournament starts with the same amount of chips? And how can you be sure that everything is fair, that no one gets more or fewer chips than they deserve?

The answers to all these questions lie, as ever, with the European Poker Tour’s (EPT) team of tournament staff, whose years of experience maintain the highest level of game integrity.

And where chips are concerned, that is the specific responsibility of the people who spend their days and nights surrounded by chips: counting them, sorting them, delivering them, and bringing them all back again.

This week in Paris, PokerStars Blog was allowed into one of the EPT’s inner sanctums: the chip room. Accompanied by EPT tournament director Toby Stone, we met Anna Vazzolla and Simone Busolin, two of the tour’s most experienced and expert chip handlers in the business.

They are nimble-fingered and even more dexterous of mind. Quite simply, they know absolutely everything there is to know about chips. And they play a huge part in ensuring the EPT runs as smoothly and as fairly as players have come to expect.

COUNTING THEM OUT, COUNTING THEM IN AGAIN

At any one time on the European Poker Tour, there might be close to 100 tournament tables in play, hosting four or five separate tournaments. One event might be just starting as another is crowning its champion. Players might be paying ‚ā¨300 for a seat while others are stumping up ‚ā¨50,000.

It’s why the EPT equipment warehouse in London contains around 400,000 individual chips. And why vast numbers of them make the journey across the continent for every single stop.

The on-site warehouse is the chip room, a closely guarded, secure space where the dedicated staff gets everything in order.

The EPT has hundreds of thousands of chips

Ahead of a tournament, that means putting together the racks of chips that the dealers will take to the tables and split into individual stacks. During play, it means providing replacement chips for chip races.

And any chip that leaves the room, has to come back again. This represents one huge counting job.

“We count them all out, and we count them all in again,” says Stone, describing the importance of keeping track of every last chip. Referring to his staff, he adds: “They always know what’s out there. And obviously we have a count of the chips, so we know what’s in here.”

ALSO READ: CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING: HOW POKER CHIPS ARE MADE

The chips are kept in drawers in specially designed cabinets. And Vazzolla and Busolin will prepare a specific number of chips required for every tournament table. This can’t be automated. There is no specific chip-counting machine. It means that the pair of them need to stand beside the drawers, pull out the right colours, and prepare rack after rack after rack, until there are enough prepared.

Stone will have an idea of how many players are expected for a specific event, and so will be able to calculate how many tables and how many chips are required. But it’s thanks to the skills and tirelessness of Vazzolla and Busolin that the racks are prepared accurately and in time.

And they’re quick. They estimate it takes around 25-30 minutes to prepare 70 tables worth of chips.

“We can prepare fast,” Busolin says. “But sometimes we’re really busy. We’re eating with one hand, and the other hand we’re counting chips.”

Vazzolla adds: “We don’t sit down. We stand.”

KEEPING TRACK

Ahead of a tournament beginning, the dealer controller assigns each dealer their tournament table. They then collect the table’s chips, along with cards, all-in triangles, cut-cards, etc., and take them out on to the tournament floor.

The chip room staff records precisely how many stacks they have prepared and sent out of the room on a “Chip Control Sheet”. There is one of these pinned on the wall for each tournament in play.

The sheet details the tournament start time and the starting stack, among other crucial information. Which also includes the specific “chip set” being used.

The chip control sheets

The EPT has eight “sets” of chips, which it rotates and uses at random through its various events. Chips used for low buy-in events will never be used for High Roller events, and vice versa. It ensures that if a player attempted to pocket a chip and re-introduce it in a different event, it would never represent significantly higher tournament equity.

“We’ll have a set for minus ‚ā¨1K, a set for between ‚ā¨1K and ‚ā¨4K and then a high roller set,” Stone says. “We’ve got multiple sets. These guys know what set to use‚ĶYou’ll never see a high roller set in a ‚ā¨1K event, because if somebody takes that chip, they can’t bring it into another tournament.”

BUSY, BUSY, BUSY

There’s no such thing as a truly quiet day in the chip room. But the rule of thumb is that the busier it is on the tournament floor, the less hectic it will be for Busolin and Vazzolla.

While that may sound counterintuitive, it makes sense when they explain it.

“The chip room works opposite from the playing room,” Busolin says. “When you have a lot of tournaments, but they’re small, that means a lot of work for us. We need to take care of all of those chip races, we need to confirm with registrations, we need to prepare stacks. That’s a big job for us. But when outside is super busy with big tournaments, like 1B of the Main Event, that’s the best day for the chip room.”

He adds: “Outside there are a lot of players, but they’re all in the same tournament. So once we have prepared that big tournament and it goes out, basically we only have to take care of that tournament‚ĶThe chip race is going to be crazy, OK, but it’s only one. And there will be only one set of bags.”

THE CHIP RACE

Another hectic moment comes during a chip race. The point in a tournament at which the lower denomination chips are taken off the table. It’s another point at which potential errors could creep into a tournament organisation, if things aren’t done properly.

That’s why the EPT process is so carefully orchestrated by experienced staff, who have more policies in place to maintain utmost integrity.

The first safeguard against potential miscounting takes place at the table itself. Where the tournament director will instruct only one player to “buy” all the lower denomination chips from all the others.

Anna Vazzolla has 17 years casino experience, most recently as dealer controller and in the chip room

This is to make sure there is only one major transaction, rather than several players getting coloured up simultaneously. As ever, the fewer moving parts there are, the lower the chances of mistakes.

The strict auditing of chip numbers helps this process significantly. If, for instance, the 1K chips are leaving the table in a chip race, the chip room staff already know precisely how many 1K chips are at the tables. They therefore know precisely how many higher denomination chips to send out at the break.

The 1K chips will not, of course, be equally spread across every table. So the box in which the chips are transported — known as the crystal box — will include more than is strictly necessary. This number is strictly recorded, of course.

(Incidentally, a full crystal box weighs about 15kg. Fancy carrying a couple of those out to the tables, multiple times per day?)

KEEPING AHEAD OF THE GAME

The racks of chips go out with a card bearing every table number. And after the chip race is complete, the swapped out chips come back with the same card, alongside any of the higher chips that weren’t required.

Back in the chip room, they count through the returning chip racks to ensure that the same number of chips that went out have come back. If there’s a discrepancy, it can be remedied before players return from the tournament break. And before they had any idea anything might have ever been amiss.

But there’s a further safeguard too. The returning chip racks remain with their table number until every player is re-seated. Players come back to the table, recount their chips and, assuming everything is fine, carry on with their play.

A full crystal box weighs 15kg

If, however, a player thinks they have the wrong number of chips, the chip room team know precisely the racks that went out and came back from that specific table. It means they don’t need to be searching through mountains of chips to ascertain what, if anything, has gone wrong.

MISSING CHIPS

“If a player says ‘I’m missing chips,’ we say: ‘Look, this is our procedure.’ We counted the chips on and we counted them off,'” Stone says. “Chips don’t get mixed in until the players have all come back and the floor has come in and said, ‘We’re good.’ That means no one has come back and said, ‘Ah, I’ve got some chips missing. There was a mistake here.’ If there was a mistake, we know which table it was, and we can take these chips and we can count it.”

It’s also crucial, of course, that no one unauthorised can access the chip room. Nor get their hands on chips without good reason.

“No staff member can get hold of chips without going through chip control and they have to request chips and give the reason,” Stone says. This might be to race off the 100s in a tournament, for example. But it would be far from OK for someone not involved in the day-to-day operation to pick up any chips and take them away.

SOME EXPECTED LOSSES

For obvious reasons, you can’t expect to keep hold of every single one of those 400,000 small discs. Some do go missing along the way.

Thankfully, the nature of poker tournaments means there is a kind of self-policing procedure in place. Players will take extra special care of the highest-denomination chips as they are most valuable in the tournament setting.

And if you’ve ever wondered why the tournament staff seem to delay the introduction of the biggest chips until the last moment, that’s deliberate too.

Simone Busolin worked first in the chip room on the Italian Poker Tour before moving to the EPT

“We never lose the big value chips, the 25Ks and the 100Ks,” Stone says. “We’re very careful when we introduce those chips. We don’t introduce the 25Ks until very late, as late as we can. The reason being, if somebody did have a 25K chip and they could bring it into the tournament, it’s nearly worthless. It might be four big blinds. This is the reason we introduce them late.”

The important thing is that the staff is ahead of the game and can track any discrepancies in the chip counts. They can then go back through the audit trail and discover what might have happened.

THE AUDIT TRAIL

“We always know what we’ve lost,” Vazzolla says. “At the end of the tournament, we know. We keep the sheets at the end of every day, and we know what is up or down.”

Busolin adds: “We also note here if a player moves from one table to another, and they lose chips on the floor, we know that this tournament is missing 5K, because someone lost them on the floor. We just keep track of everything, so we know what is outside, and if it’s not, for which reason, and where is the problem.”

Stone says: “As a procedure we always count the chips on the tables when we get to three, two and one tables, to ensure it’s accurate and to catch if any chips are introduced at this important in-the-money stage. At the end of the event we count all the chips coming back and it’s checked by chip control to ensure the same amount came back as went out, and if it didn‚Äôt there will be an investigation.”

KEEP CHIPS SAFE

Once a year, Stone himself goes to the London warehouse and manually counts every single chip in PokerStars possession. It’s at this point that he’ll figure out whether the company needs to buy any more chips, or needs to make any kind of changes to its sets.

The current sets are something like five or six years old, and still going strong. And when you remember that each chip costs about ‚ā¨1 each to manufacture, you realise that you don’t want to be needing a full chip change too often.

“To buy them, it’s a big outlay,” Stone says. “If you were to replace this every couple of years, you’re talking a 300 grand bill every couple of years.”

It’s another reason why it’s so important for the chips to be in such safe pairs of hands.

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