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Bank robber Willie Sutton said:

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all.

I don't understand what he meant by "the money was the chips". I can't find a meaning of "chips" that seems to fit.

If it means "the money was the main reason", doesn't it contradict what he said in the previous sentence (that is, that he was doing it for the thrill of it)? The sentence does begin with "but", which means that it could contradict the previous one, to some extent. But I'm not convinced.

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    It's not a particularly memorable usage for the context. The stereotypically legendary answer to Why do you rob banks? is Because that's where the money is! Rightly or wrongly, also attributed to Sutton. May 30 at 12:19
  • @FumbleFingers Indeed. I ended up on Wikipedia because that answer is mentioned in today's Dilbert strip. It turns out he never really said it; instead, he said the sentence I'm asking about. May 30 at 12:50
  • Yes, that sounds likely. Imho, most incredibly witty turns of phrase like this usually turn out to have first been coined by someone far less famous, and/or the exact wording has been changed to make it more "memorable". But at least we're not being asked to believe that Mark Twain or Winston Churchill was the "original source" for this one (if you believe the Internet, those two seem to have been the first people to say just about everything else! :) May 30 at 13:08

6 Answers 6

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This quote is taken from his book "Where the Money Was," in the chapter "Sutton's Law."

A few sentences before the quote, he says of the other "because that's where the money is" quote:

I will now confess... that I never said it.

He then offers an explanation of his actual motives, beginning with the text you quote. We can improve the context by reading further:

I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all. The winnings. I kept robbing banks when, by all logic, it was foolish. When it could cost me far more than I could possibly gain.

He is indeed comparing money to chips won in gambling, and "that's all" - not a means to a life he wants, just a thing he gets as a result of chasing the thrill.

He reinforces this idea in the next paragraph by discussing his motives for breaking out of jail. While freedom is the obvious motivation, he again focuses on the action and the attention of the moment, rather than the result of success.

If any enterprising reporter had ever asked me why I broke out of jail, I suppose that's what I would have said: "Because I was in." But also, you know, because there's a thrill that comes from breaking out of jail, after years of the most meticulous planning, with everybody watching you, against all the odds, that is like nothing else in the world.

TLDR: He compares money from bank robberies to chips won gambling, but says it's not the reason he kept robbing banks.

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    Specifically, “the winnings” is money won from gambling. That could be in poker, where people frequently play for valueless tokens, but casinos use chips for all their games and require patrons to cash them out when they leave. That’s the most important piece of context here, I think.
    – Davislor
    May 30 at 21:16
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An alternative, again treating "chips" as "poker chips" would simply be treating the money as a way of keeping score, rather than something valuable in and of itself.

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    I think this is the correct answer. You often hear professional poker players who are playing with huge sums of cash talk about how its the playing (and winning) that gives them a buzz and the chips are just the way keep score. May 30 at 17:59
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The only thing that comes to mind is "poker chips." Perhaps he's comparing robbing a bank to a poker game where the prize is chips?

It's a very unusual and unique use of the word. I wouldn't worry that it doesn't make sense because it doesn't really make sense to me, either.

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From TheFreeDictionary...

in the chips
slang Wealthy, especially unexpectedly (allusion to having won a lot of gambling chips)
You're in the chips now that you got the inheritance from Aunt Louise.
Thanks to that huge court settlement, I'm in the chips now.

Given the gambling origins of the usage, it's clear OP's cited speaker gets a "thrill / buzz" of "winning" by robbing banks, figuratively equated to the excitement of winning gambling chips in a casino.

But like @swmcdonnell, I wasn't familiar with this usage before now (the exact phrasing of the cited example is trivially derived from the above definition). So my advice to learners is you should avoid using it yourself, because it's quite likely you won't be understood.

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As per the context given here ..."but to me the money was the chips" ...means money was trivial for him.He loved the act and execution of robbery ...money was just a by-product of that process.

'Chips'is used as a metaphor to devalue the classic notion of money

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If it had been a later British robber, my first thought would have been a culinary reference : with fish and chips or steak and chips, the big deal is the fish or the steak. Chips are just what comes with it.

But Sutton was early 20th century US. I'm not sure whether chips/fries or crisps/chips were a typical serving suggestion then, or how they referred to them.

I'm not saying poker or casino chips are any less likely, but it's where my mind went initially, and even though I've not been able to find any sources to back it up it seemed such a good fit that I thought it was worth a mention as a possible alternative.

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  • Yes. If he had not been American, this would almost certainly have been the correct answer. Jun 2 at 5:34

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