Our Daily Bleg: If You Don’t Bargain With Chips, Why Say It?

Here’s the most recent guest bleg from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. His past blegs can be found here. Send us your own bleg requests here.

For years I have been posing a question about the term “bargaining chip” that no one has yet answered.

This is widely assumed to be a poker metaphor, but I do not know of chips being used for bargaining or trading in poker or any other game. What exactly is the metaphor?


@chris#23: what are you talking about poker has sidedeals all the time, spoken and unspoken.


When the chips are down...
...the buffalo is empty


I always believed that a chip was simply something that held value (perhaps even destructive value). So possessing such a thing can put you in a strong position to bargain.


The Vietnam era theory is bunk. The term appears much earlier in other parts of the country. From the 27 November 1941, THE TIMES RECORDER (Zanesville, Ohio), pg. 4, col. 4:

"One memo on the admittedly 'fantastic and complicated' problem warns that the United States must begin negotiations with London for such an agreement before Uncle Sam exhausts his Lend-Lease funds or enters the war more formally and actively. Washington, it is pointed out, must overcome expected British opposition to this pooling arrangement while we have these 'bargaining chips' in our hands."

I can't blame you though -- you're the typical naive NYTimes reader, you probably assume something doesn't exist unless it has made its way to New York or is in the NYTimes.


I'd like to echo DB (#4). Some sort of "results" or "findings" posts, or other follow-ups for these blegs, would be very useful and highly appreciated.


I think you're being too literal in looking for a game involving both chips and bargaining. "Chip" has long since made it's way into the lexicon in settings having nothing to do with any game. "In the chips," "down to one's last chip," "the chips are down" -- all those expressions, while originally applicable to games involving chips, have spread to other areas, so that no one hearing them has to reconstruct the metaphorical origin to understand them. In this context, it's easy to think of chips merely as assets, and no stretch at all to call some relatively minor asset that might be bargained away in negotiations a "chip."


From a 19 year old William Safire column:

"A chop mark was placed on coins and documents to verify authenticity, and gave the word another sense of ''trademark, signature stamp.'' A bargain-chop was an option on opium (and some think it may have been the basis for bargaining chip). In pidgin English used by traders in what was called the Far East (now Asia), coolies were sent in a hurry, or chop-chop."


There's no bargaining in poker? Looking at the "bargaining models of war" in the political science and economic literatures alone would make poker look like a structured and institutionalized bargaining game and much easier to model than the processes that typify demand, escalation, and conflict in international relations.


Out of curiosity, is there an answer section for any of these blegs? For the ones that ask a specific question (e.g. what is the origin of..?), has anybody actually figured any of them out? Call me lazy, but I don't feel like checking through hundreds of posts to see if anyone got it right.


Fred wouldn't happen to be related to Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro would he?

I think in a poker game chips are considered to be represent your assets (money, property etc.) and so "chips" has become another word to use for assets you have.

drinking first, writing second, thinking third

No...it's from the "My Three Sons" episode when the youngest son went on a bender at the neighborhood bar with Uncle Charlie downing Tanqueray after Tanqueray. He was a bar ginning Chip.


I don't think there's any reason to think it doesn't come from poker. In poker, or any casino game involving chips (blackjack, baccarat, craps) the chips represent the amount of $ you have with which to wager. They are your buying power, or wagering power, if you will.

This is particularly relavent in games like no-limit poker. In no-limit, the size of a player's "stack" or the number of chips he currently has in play, can be as much a determinant on the outcome as the cards are. You simply have more leverage if you have more chips, and a player who is "down to his last chip" is in a very weak position.

And, of course, this is equally true in a bargaining situation. Except in bargaining, often you use a concept as an asset, or something intangible. ("If we do it your way, the children suffer.") To express something intangible as an actual asset in a bargaining session, one might use a metaphor. I think the analogy to poker and other games is obvious now, hence "chip" being a readily-available metaphor.



After reviewing the now 22 comments on this post, I have concluded that silly people leave comments. Not one of you have bothered to analyze what the original saying means before trying to figure out its origins.

My interpretation of the phrase "bargaining chip" is that it refers to a side deal that someone is willing to negotiate in order to get a bigger or more important deal to go through. This is consist with freely available definitions online.

If I want to buy a car from you and I know that you really need me to help you with your math homework, my tutoring is a bargaining chip I can use in the car deal.

I don't see the relationship to poker. Poker does not have side deals and more importantly poker players don't talk about "bargaining", so I don't see how the phrase could have emerged from that sub-culture. I don't care about game theory analysis about poker; I care about the historical linguist path that the phrase took.

The theory of games is irrelevant. What matters is how people talk about games. If poker players don't talk about bargaining, it's highly unlikely that the phrase emerged from that sub-culture.


Steve Rosen

Maybe it's because no one can eat just one.


Well, if you don't already know, I'm certainly not going to explain it to you.


I believe this is not related to poker chips (or other gaming), but comes from "chip" meaning "a piece cut off" (from cipp and to French as chipe) and originally was the share beam of a plough. The bargaining chip was something you would extract from the whole as a sign of good-faith.
Note that "chit" is not related and comes from the Sanskrit chitra, and originally meant official note or notification.

Tim Felsky

Are we really talking about the etymology of the word "chip" when used to describe the liquidity of an asset? Poker Chips, Blue Chips, etc

Jan Bannister

Might be a corruption of 'Chit', which meant a type of IOU years gone by...

Joshua Macy

According to the OED the sense in which bargaining chip used is an asset possessed by one side that can be surrendered in return for a corresponding concession. So, yeah, poker or any other sort of gambling chips.


A bargaining chip is a chip that is placed on the table during bargaining, just as a poker chip is a chip placed on the table while playing poker.