"The guy who invented poker was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius."- Julius "Big Julie" Weintraub
They're the diamonds of Las Vegas; small, colourful tokens that can represent tens of thousands of dollars. You'll find them stacked alongside poker's best, embodying either the ecstasy of success or the misery of defeat on the battleground of the poker table. Few things characterise Vegas better than the casino chip.
But there's far more than meets the eye to these ever-present symbols of poker triumph; with RFID chips, ultraviolet markings and identification tags, modern chips stand at the junction of technology and money, and are just as fascinating as the casinos which distribute them. Alongside this technical intricacy, casino chips come with some intriguing questions.
We'll take you on a journey into the depths of gaming's history, delving deep into the hidden world of casino chips and the wealth that lies within.
Why have hundreds been found at the bottom of Lake Mead and in casino foundations?
How is it that you can find chips for sale from casinos that were never built?
Why must a gaming regulator be present upon the destruction of chips?
In the 21st century, it's pretty difficult to imagine a casino without chips. They're ever present icons of gambling, rattling through slot machines, clicking between each other in the hands of players, however Nevada, the heart of gaming today, only legalised gambling in 1931 once prohibition ended. Before this, the entire industry was illegal, and the casino games that we play to this day existed only within a criminal-run underworld.
In the first days of poker in the 1800s, it was customary to bring naturally valuable objects to the table such as nuggets of gold, coins, pieces of ivory and gold dust. These were messy, unstandardised and open to fraud – something had to change.
Early gambling tokens were developed in the mid-1800s. The issue with these was that they were unmarked, so could easily be forged. There are even tales of saloons ending games with more chips than they started with! The next chips were generally made of ivory, and incorporated markings of the establishment that made them. Each set at this time was unique, usually hand-engraved, embossed or inlaid.
The first chips as we know them today were produced around the 1880s, when clay editions began to be mass-produced. These were standardised, harder to forge, and ushered in a whole industry.
Whilst to a lot of players, there's no substitute for genuine clay chips, these days tokens can be made to resemble them in a variety of ways, including with the use of cheaper, injection-moulded plastic. Although the technology housed within chips has changed markedly over time, these small, round chips look set to remain a feature of the casino for years to come.
Although, from the start, it was evident that chips provided a clever way to bring a level of standardisation to gaming, the first designers surely didn't know the significance of what they were giving life to. Despite their ability to improve gameplay, incorporate artwork, represent value and make stacking easier, the true genius of poker chips lies in their power to make people play more.
As tender, gaming chips only hold value within the casino - you can't pay your bills with casino chips - so players are far more likely to spend them freely than they would their money.
Chips these days tend to be made of a clay or ceramic composite, with number markings and a weight of between 8 and 10 grams. The miniscule differences in weight, feel, colour and composition mean that a fraud sticks out to casino staff like a sore thumb. Although chips can look similar – or even identical - to the untrained eye, in reality they're anything but.
Modern chips often also contain unique serial numbers, as well as complex technology such as UV markings, holograms and microdots. Due to the discreet chip technology used in the modern age, we can often only speculate as to the security features of the casino chips that we hold in our hands. What we can say, however, is that you're far more likely to strike lucky on the floor than to successfully dupe a casino.
Probably the biggest obstruction to those foolish enough to try to rob a casino is the RFID chip. These small, inconspicuous electronic tags are housed within modern chips, holding data about the chip's monetary value and activity, as well as a unique serial number. RFID chips are recognised by special RFID readers around the casinos, which will deactivate stolen chips the moment they leave the premises.
RFID sensors are also housed in modern poker tables; these hotspots allow dealers an accurate count of chip value, speeding up the gaming action, as well as giving them the ability to gauge players' individual activities and the legitimacy of their chips. RFID chips can also be used to encourage playing. We know that casinos use psychology to keep people betting, by hiding the passing of time, offering free drinks and featuring seductive decor; it's reasonable to suspect that – using RFID technology – casinos will be able to keep their most valuable customers spending with well-timed drinks, bonuses and snacks when they see their chip movement slowing.
The effectiveness of RFID chips has been proven by the likes of ambitious – but foolish – criminal Anthony Carleo in 2011. Carleo made off with over a million dollars' worth of chips, brandishing a gun and wearing a motorbike helmet. Unfortunately for him, once the chips left the building, they were deactivated, meaning they were little more than scrap! Carleo was caught when undercover police – posing as buyers – caught him trying to sell them, a pretty inconspicuous end to what started as a news-making armed heist.
RFID chips would have been able to stop the likes of serial cheater Richard Marcus from performing his most famous trick, dubbed 'The Savannah'. This was an ingeniously audacious ploy, but was based on chip miscounting. Firstly, Marcus would place three $5 chips on a number in a game of roulette, placed in such a way as to hide a $500 chip beneath, unseen. If he won, he would reveal the hidden chip and celebrate. Should Marcus lose, he swiped the hidden chip away when the dealer wasn't looking! Marcus knew this trick would work as casinos only checked wins for cheating at the time, and it was only his losses that were faked. By the time his cheating was discovered, Marcus had won an estimated $5 million for his exploits!
Nowadays, these clever little chips form the currency of almost every casino; it's rare that you'll walk into a gaming location around the world without finding these famous, clay-based tokens. The authentic experience that casino chips give to the player whether playing blackjack or poker, combined with the security and business bonuses they offer the house, mean that we're unlikely to see the end of them anytime soon.
In general play, chip values range between $1 and $5000, with chip colours and denominations varying from place to place. Denominations of over $5,000 are generally limited to specific high-rollers' rooms, where their value frequently reaches as high as $25,000. Although they seem a lot, these don't even touch some of the chips out there today in terms of value.
Up until regulations were introduced in Nevada in 1987, the burial rituals of poker chips were, let's say, unusual. Before chips became the property and the responsibility of casinos, their owners came up with some pretty audacious ways to get rid of them.
One way was to dump them at the bottom of Lake Mead, where the deep waters concealed them for years, until divers came across them by chance. Many of these chips were made white by the water over time. The lake, created by the Hoover Dam, is also said to be home to other unwanted Vegas objects, such as the bodies of those assassinated by the mob!
Poker chips have also been found in the foundations of casinos upon their demolition, such as the New Frontier and the Dunes. Whether these chips were placed in foundations for superstitious reasons, or if it was more a matter of getting them out of the way, is up for debate, but it's certainly fascinating to think that the foundations of existing Las Vegas casinos could be a chip collector's goldmine.
As we now know, it's not just water and concrete that can house valuable casino chips. In 2011, around 30,000 chips were found in a car park in Carson City, Nevada, from the Travelodge casino which closed in 1979. The chips were discovered accidentally, and the site was soon filled with collectors from around the state hoping to get their hands on some gambling history.
Casino chips have also been found in the deserts around Las Vegas, apparently another formerly acceptable method of disposal! Due to the scorching heat, some of these chips melted, leaving only the metal inserts from within.
Given the huge levels of audacity, inventiveness and, frankly, criminality of many early casino owners, there are sure to be many more fascinating dumping grounds for expired chips to be discovered. Who knows how many hundreds or even thousands of dollars those chips will be worth?
In 1987, regulations came into place in Nevada that marked a transformation in the fate of expired casino chips in the state. Suddenly, the old rule of 'out of sight, out of mind' didn't work so well for casinos, as the chips were now their property so disposing of them was their problem. The intention of the new regulations was to fight counterfeiting and forging, meaning that it was widely celebrated by gambling companies.
These regulations caused some trouble for people who owned a lot of chips, as their collections – which could once be used as cash – now belonged to the casino and were only of use in games. In order to ensure that people's chips have only been bought or won in games, casinos now ask for a gambler's playing card when they cash out. If they suspect foul play, the casino is entitled by law to refuse to cash in their chips.
Since the 1987 law was passed, casinos are obliged to arrange the destruction of their chips when they expire. Often the very companies which bring chips into the world will be those who take on the role of destroying them. A regular method of destruction is loading chips into purpose-built lorries, where they're crushed to dust. Overnight, a 25,000 dollar token can become a speck in a colossal mass of clay. This hero-to-zero transformation is very 'Vegas' indeed!
Once a chip expires, it becomes a collector's item, but not all of these are equal under the keen eye of an expert. There are few greater experts on the world's gaming memorabilia than Charles Kaplan, a one-dollar chip collector and gaming enthusiast. Kaplan is the acting chairman of the Casino Chip and Gaming token Collectors Club's (CCGTCC) Museum of Gaming History, as well as webmaster of Chip Guide, a vast online directory of casino chips, set up by the late Greg Susong. We spoke to the poker chip guru and veteran token collector about the roots of his passion.
"People collected them because they liked them, and got together to trade with each other and compare chips - money had nothing to do with it."- Charles Kaplan
However, as more and more people got involved in the hobby, some chips emerged as rarer, and therefore more valuable. At this time, books like The Chip Rack were written, which gave tokens a set value, and people realised that their collections could be worth a bomb! These days, as well as individuals collecting their chips, organisation like the CCGTCC work to preserve casino chips as recent history. Kaplan told us that "The history is still alive, it's there in front of us. This is the time to preserve it". With what gaming represents to America – the success of risk and reward over centuries of prohibition, as well as the history of the US mob and capitalism more generally – the importance of preserving chips is clear.
If you're looking to collect for yourself, but don't know what to look out for, here are some of the best indicators that chips may be valuable:
The next time you're about to put those last chips on the table, think about what you're holding in your hand: a truly unique piece of casino memorabilia containing the very latest in RFID technology and with a history of prohibition and illegality. One day in the future, long after their fellows are crushed to dust, these chips could be worth a fortune… so why not start a collection for yourself?