Poker is a fun and exciting game that is played live or online by millions of people around the world each day. But is there a way to play a friendly poker home game without one of the game’s most important props – poker chips?
No chips? No problem! This article will give poker fans and players ideas and choices of things to use – including household items – to play a game of poker when there are no poker chips to be found! For more about the definition and history of poker chips, you can check out this helpful Wikipedia article.
The Best Live Poker Chips are Still Poker or Casino Chips
Before we get into creative ideas for value-based accessories that can be used as chips in a home game of poker, it’s probably best to keep in mind that there is really no 100% perfect “substitute” for actual poker or casino chips.
However, real poker chips can be expensive to purchase (relative to a micro stakes home game) and not every casual group of poker players is going to expect their host to issue poker chips that can cost hundreds of dollars for a game in which the maximum buy-in per player may be less than one dollar.
If there are no bona fide poker chips around, novelty poker chips (which are typically lower quality, lighter, less durable, and far less expensive than professional poker chips) will work nicely. Although novelty poker/casino chips may be harder to pull off “chip tricks” with and may not make the same sound, most novelty sets will include different color palettes so players can assign denomination differences between chips based on their color.
It might be a good idea to review denominations of non-professional poker chips ahead of time (as many will not include a number-based value) before you actually play for real money. However, fun poker games can also be played at home and with friends even if there is no real money element involved.
Coins for Poker Chips: A Logical Replacement
Coins that are minted in a local currency can be a logical second choice for casual poker games when there are no poker chips available. Players are likely to already be familiar with their exact, face-value denominations, and will be able to easily distinguish between a penny ($0.01 USD), a nickel ($0.05 USD), a dime ($0.10 USD), and a quarter ($0.25 USD).
Although coins may not “stack” quite as handsomely as real poker chips (meaning a minor nudge of the table could easily send 20 pennies stacked on top of each other clattering down), players can easily see a pot “build” as action ensues. For example, a $0.02/$0.04 Limit Texas Hold’em game with four players seated at a table can have a starting pot of $0.06 (assuming the only forced pre-hand contributions are those of the Small Blind and Big Blind). But once several rounds of betting have occurred, players can see the per-hand pot “grow” in volume as more coins pile in – and (if agreed upon beforehand), players can act as “banker” to exchange five pennies for a nickel, 15 pennies and a dime for a quarter, etc. when the poker pots grow.
A lot of “Gen-X” poker players started out playing poker for real money at home or in a college dorm. In these games small denomination coins were typically used to play a variety of poker games such as Texas Hold’em, Omaha, 7 Card Stud, 5 Card Draw, and others.
Household Items That Can Replace Poker Chips in a Pinch
To avoid constant confusion, the best household items to use to replace actual poker chips need to have some basic characteristics:
- Uniformity – if a household item is going to represent $0.01 for instance, you’ll need a LOT of these that look exactly the same or very similar. The same goes for all other denominations used.
- Small Chip Replacement Size – you may have a lot of soda (or beer) cans around the house (maybe full or maybe empty), but these are likely too cumbersome to stand in as poker chips. A good rule for household items to be used as poker chips is that they should be no larger in size than standard playing cards.
- Larger Sizes for Larger Denominations – a half century ago, buttons, marbles, or clothespins were common household items plentiful enough to use as a substitute for poker chips, with larger or more colorful accessories representing larger denominations. Today one might used different sized paper clips, for example.
- Something that Doesn’t Mark the Cards – In general, don’t use foodstuffs as a replacement for actual poker chips, as edible food may quickly mark the cards or provoke a “grimy” poker playing experience. Or, worst of all, you might find your big value “chips” eaten!
Below is a list of modern day household items other than coins that one might consider using as a replacement for poker chips.
- Toothpicks and, Cotton Swabs, and Cigarettes: While these props tend to be elongated (i.e. not “stackable”) they might be plentiful enough around a typical household to serve as a makeshift poker chip when the host doesn’t have another option readily available to start a poker game. Keep in mind that by “cotton swabs,” I’m referring to products such as Q-Tips.
- Pre-packaged and/or Individually Wrapped Candy: Unpackaged chocolate might be the WORST kind of candy (see above about marking the cards) while individually wrapped candies that are traditionally used in “piñatas” might be the BEST makeshift poker chips. Seriously… don’t use chocolate unless you’re playing a home poker game in the freezing cold. (If you’re wondering, Cheetos don’t work well either).
- Silverware, Plastics, and/or Cooking Utensils: While these can become “bulky” quickly, poker home game hosts might find this to be an acceptable emergency replacement for poker chips. If you have enough spoons, forks, and butter knives (metal or plastic), you may be able to play a few hands of casual poker before becoming bored – as props really DO matter in a poker game.
- Metallic Props: Screws, bolts, nails, and nuts may be available if the host is proficient with tools. However don’t be surprised if these get temporarily “lost” during the course of the game, only to be stepped on later by the host or a family member long after the poker game has concluded. The same goes for metal bottle caps (sorry Fallout 4 fans).
There are still other props that can be used to substitute for poker chips, but generally speaking, it is recommended you AVOID using things like unpackaged medication (both prescription and over-the-counter), glassware, or anything else that can in any way be considered delicate or dangerous to handle.
Digital Poker Chips – Going “Online” With Your Home Game
Decades ago, there wasn’t really technology for poker players to organize and play a home game online, or even a “digital poker chips” app (ad free or otherwise) that could assist with the elements necessary to carry out a home game. This has changed in recent years, as popular app stores hosted by sites like Google and Apple offer a wide variety of free and premium software to help you play an actual casual poker game at home.
Perhaps one of the best options for digital poker chips is to simply organize an online poker home game using the software of today’s mass-market poker sites. On sites like PokerStars, you can acquire (or purchase) play-money chips – aka virtual poker chips – and set the parameters for a private poker game that only you and the participants you choose can attend!
Poker Chip Apps can also be a very attractive and versatile option, but it’s advised that hosts “shop around” for the best poker chip apps available on the internet while also ensuring that the software can perform in a way that satisfies all the players involved. Poker Chip Apps may also require a certain amount of “inter-connectivity” between individual mobile devices in order to work properly.
Alternative to a Blind in Poker
The terms “Small Blind” and “Big Blind” have become synonymous with mainstream poker due to the amount of high profile programming that has been available on cable TV shows and social media sites since the 2000s. But does your poker game HAVE to have a “blind?”
The short answer is, “No.”
While supplemental to blinds in many poker games that are currently played (both live and online), ANTES can be a great alternative to a blind in poker. What’s more, antes may stimulate action and loosen the game significantly depending on the format and value of antes that are agreed upon by all participants.
Antes (as a substitute for blinds) work especially well if there is only one person who deals in a poker home game. Plus, antes can improve game rule simplicity by requiring that each participant dedicate a certain amount to the pot BEFORE the hand begins – without the need to rotate (and keep up with) which players need to pony-up the blinds.
However, for this to work in a fair way, the game host should still make a point to rotate the player positions for each hand. If one player is always acting first or last, there will be unfair advantages/disadvantages in such a game by design alone.
All-in-All, There’s No Substitute for Poker Chips
While the options mentioned above may give you some ideas for getting a poker game started, you might find that your heart still YEARNS for real poker chips after making use of the recommended props. There’s simply no 100% substitute for a real poker chip when it comes to playing a live poker game.
Coins and cotton swabs may get your game going on short notice, but sooner or later, dedicated players who meet regularly are going to prefer actual poker chips – just as they will prefer actual poker playing cards rather than “Uno” or “Old Maid” playing card props.
The next logical step for any player who wants to learn how to play poker is to be able to play poker with props that they can observe on TV shows, live streams, and websites. If you’re ready to use real poker chips for your home game, we encourage you to take a look at our Top 3 Tips for Poker Home Game Chips article.
A poker game host truly DOES have a wide variety of options to choose from to stand in for poker chips in a pinch. Some of these options are very inexpensive. The more expensive options do, however, generally offer a higher quality product.
Summary: Substitutes for Poker Chips
Considering the 1980s “throwback” factor, coins will probably be your best “poker home game” bet for props to use when actual poker chips aren’t available.
Coins are easily found, readily available in large quantities, and don’t take up a lot of table space. They also make a nice “clink” sound when grasped or raked, have predetermined denominations that local clientele will be familiar with, and can be used to represent real money without a fuss.
From experience, I can tell you that a poker game using coins can be a LOT more fun than a poker game that uses non-monetary props such as toothpicks, cigarettes, or cotton swabs. Although these options are viable for a one-off poker game in which no other props can be found.
Avoid unpackaged foodstuffs, medicine, and other objects that aren’t efficient for being freely distributed around a poker table without causing other problems. Rather stick to “tried and true” poker chip substitutes like coins.
If your casual poker game survives more than a few meetings, you’ll find that you’ll soon be tempted to replace substitute props with the actual thing – real poker chips!