Casinos have been around since the famed “Ridotto” opened in Venice in the 17th century as the world’s first state-sanctioned gambling venue. However, games of chance were played exclusively with cash for nearly two hundred years until the card game known as “poker” became a fixture of mining camps, gambling halls and saloons in the “Gold Rush” days of the American West. That’s when prospectors began wagering with jagged pieces of gold and silver, ore in the form of nuggets or pellets, and small bags of gold dust as well as metal tokens and “chips” made of ivory, bone or wood to represent the value of precious metals deposited with the game’s organizer or “bank.”
In the 1880s, manufacturers began producing uniformly designed, circular “poker chips” composed of clay combined and compressed with sand, chalk or shellac. Over the next fifty years, colorful red, white and blue clay chips would gradually become the common medium of exchange at poker tables, replacing the confusing hodge-podge of precious metals, coins, tokens and paper promissory notes. Their usage would also spread to other games, from faro to blackjack, craps and roulette, setting the stage for gaming hall-branded chips when casino gambling was legalized in Nevada in the 1930s.
New Ways of “Making Money”
U.S. Playing Card Company soon became the leader among casino chip manufacturers, developing clay chips with imprinted lithographs to show denominations and the logos of the issuing casinos. These chips were coated with a polyurethane liquid as a seal and they endured as the industry standard from around 1940 right up until the company closed in 1985. Meanwhile, competitors began offering plastic chips for table games and branded metal tokens for use in slot machines.
Today, very few slot tokens are still in use, replaced almost universally by electronic currency handling devices that accept paper bills in exchange for “credits” and print out paper “chits” for redemption of credits into cash. On the other hand, casino chips are still the primary mode of betting at gaming tables, with colors signifying the chip values, such as white for 1 unit, red for 5, green for 25, black for 100 and blue for 500. In Europe, large denomination chips are typically rectangular rather than circular. Some casinos issue larger-sized chips for larger values, and others have metal inlays applied to their high-value chips.
Typically, every casino features a unique set of chips to distinguish its own chips from those of competitors. Each chip or token on the gaming floor must be backed up with a corresponding amount of cash, and in most jurisdictions, casinos are not permitted to honor another casino’s chips. To prevent counterfeiting, artwork of a very high resolution or photographic quality is used. Custom color combinations applied to the chip edge distinguish particular casinos, too, and ultraviolet markings may be made on the inlay.
Chips as Collectibles
According to Paul Fraser Collectibles of Bristol, England, collecting vintage casino chips has become “an increasingly safe bet in recent years…. Many have increased in worth to hundreds or even thousands of times their face value.” As proof, quite recently on the auction site eBay, a seller listed a $5 chip for sale from the Cotton Club, one of the earliest Negro casinos licensed to operate away from downtown Las Vegas. Because the historic club existed only from 1945 till 1957, its house chips are a rare find, indeed. The $5 token has ended up worth $4,125.
And that’s certainly no fluke. It is quite common nowadays for chips to appreciate greatly in value after a casino’s closure. As examples, a 1946 die-cut $5 chip with brass inlay from the opening of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel has been appraised by Heritage Auctions as worth at least $4,000, while a rare 1950’s era $5 chip from the Sands Hotel and Casino has been valued at $30,000 or more.
Even casinos in current operation find that customers like to take their chips home as souvenirs or possible investments in the future. Mindful of interest in collecting, many casinos have gone into the business of producing special “commemorative chips” in conjunction with championship boxing matches, celebrity performances and similar events, hopeful that collectors will hoard them away like uncashed checks.
In the 1990s, for instance, the Hard Rock Casino featured photographs of rock musicians on its chips and changed them every month. Caesars Palace discovered that some 90%~95% of its commemorative chips were walking out the door and never coming back, so to celebrate the casino’s 25th anniversary, they minted a $25 promotional chip in a limited edition of 50,000 pieces. By the time the chip was removed from table play, only 900 remained—a net profit to the casino of over $1.2 million.