By Michael Knapp
In many ways, casino chips and tokens represent the perfect collectible item. They are durable, often rare or in limited editions, and are pleasing to the eye, often with elaborate commemorative designs. But, more importantly, in terms of defining casino chips as a true collectible, they have an intrinsic value combined with phenomenal investment potential.
The majority of chip collectors, or Chippers, as they are commonly known, get their first start with slipping away a single chip as a souvenir, perhaps as a reminder of the first visit to a particular casino or to commemorate a large jackpot won. It is a common misconception among many of these first time collectors that the chip is something that they have to sneak away from the casino undetected. The reality is that a chip or token not redeemed for cash represents 100% profit for the house, and most any casino is more than happy to sell you as many chips as you desire to take home.
Many of these new collectors are also surprised to learn that they are incorrect in even the name of the item being collected. Generally speaking, a casino issues “Chips” to games such as Roulette, where chips are given to the player that do not have a specific denomination printed on the face of the chip. In games such as Blackjack or Craps, players are issued “Checks” (or Cheques), which refers to a betting token that does have a specific face denomination. The two terms are commonly mistaken, and rather than complicate a hobby that should be simple and enjoyable, most Chippers use the two terms interchangeably.
While chip collecting has probably been around just as long as the concept of using discs for wagering, it has only been in recent history that the hobby gained popularity with the general public, particularly after the legalization of casino gambling in Las Vegas in the 1930s. Naturally, there were both legal and illegal casinos around the world using chips prior to the legalized gambling in Las Vegas, but prior to this it was not possible for a domestic gambler to hold onto a chip as a souvenir or collectible without it being considered contraband.
Even though this time period was considered the true birth of chip collecting by many people, it was not until more recent times that the hobby really took off and became popular among the masses of people. The organization that has the largest membership of chip collectors in the world is The Casino Chips And Gaming Tokens Collectors Club. This international organization is less than 15 years old, which is considered youthful by most professional standards, and serves as a tribute to how popular chip collecting has become.
One of the larger attributes to the popularity of chip collecting was in the process by which the chips were manufactured. Traditionally, casino chips were made of ivory, wood or clay compositions, which were replaced by the resins used today. However, a significant milestone in the history of casino chips came in 1987, when ChipCo International developed the process of producing full color graphic designs on chips.
The manufacturing process developed by ChipCo meant that chips could now be decorated with fine text and rich graphics or casino logos, making them as much an advertising tool as one for betting. The initial reaction from the common player was amazing, and many gamblers found themselves unable to resist the urge to begin collecting chips from each of the casinos they visited.
As the 1980s came to a close, many casino operators began to notice that their stock of chips was being depleted, only to turn up in some patron’s private collection. The result was that the casinos began to see the potential for chip collecting to become a viable revenue stream for their business, and many casinos began to issue special chips designed specifically to capitalize on the collector markets. These special chips often consisted of Limited Edition (LE) chips, often numbered to further enhance their value as a collectible. Casinos also began to issue commemorative chips, featuring everything from celebrities and pop culture icons to cartoon characters and classic cars.
As more and more casinos began to offer these special promotional chips, the interest in chips as a collectible item soared. Also, with more options in chips to choose from, many collectors began to refine their collections to focus mainly on special groupings of chips. The average chipper collects chips and tokens that value in denominations from $1 to $25. Most people will focus their collection on a particular niche, such as casinos from Vegas or Atlantic City, or perhaps even collections for Riverboat or Tribal casinos.
Once collectors had a taste for the newer, prettier chips, many people began to feel that their collection was incomplete without finding those rare and obscure pieces that would complete their collection. There was something particularly special about the older Las Vegas casinos. The thought that perhaps the Rat Pack or Bugsy Seigel had used the chip at one point made them a priceless piece of gambling history that no collector could resist. Similarly, many collectors develop a taste for chips that came from illegal underground casinos. A complete resource for collecting these chips can be found at ChipGuide.com
With more and more people collecting, it didn’t take long before the demand began to outweigh the supply of some chips, and collectors began to realize that the Limited Edition chips of today could very well be the rare obscurity diligently sought after by the collectors of tomorrow. At the very worst, assuming it is done before the closing of the casino, the chip could always be exchanged for full face value, making them an almost risk free investment.
Not many people would consider a collection of casino chips to be a sound financial investment to wager one’s future on, but very few chips sell for less than the purchase price, so these wonderful little discs soon found themselves joining the ranks of coins, comic books and baseball cards as items that are collected for fun, but with the intention of future profit.
Unlike these other collectibles, there is no official grading system available for casino chips. This is a controversial topic that has been debated many times as the hobby gained in popularity. Surely it would increase the value of one’s collection if the chips could be professionally graded according to condition, and then sealed in cases to prevent any further wear and tear on the chip. However, unlike coins, there is no mirror finish or near-microscopic stamps on the surface that can be analyzed to determine value. Most collectors generally grade their chips informally with ratings of Uncirculated, Excellent, Used, Worn or Cancelled.
Even if you never intend to sell your collection, or even if that collection consists of a single chip from your one and only trip to Vegas, it is ideal to get a chip that is in the best condition possible. Two of the biggest issues new collectors face are chips that are cracked or warped. Sometimes collectors will invest a great deal of time in building a collection only to later, after they are more experienced and know what to look for, notice that some of their prized chips are warped or cracked.
A warped chip is generally easier to spot, even if the warp is a very slight one along a portion of the edge. A common trick many experienced collectors use to determine how straight the chip’s edge is would be to hold a small stack of chips between the thumb and forefinger. By being able to compare the edges of several chips together, it is easier to pick out which have the straighter edges. Of course, things such as moisture and temperature changes can cause a chip to warp even if it were perfectly straight at the time of purchase, so remember to keep your collection away from water and in a temperature controlled environment (not in public storage).
Cracks can be a bit trickier to locate, as a hairline crack in a chip can blend in very naturally and can be very difficult to spot. Once you have selected a chip that is not warped, hold it by the edge and rotate it repeatedly at different angles in front of the light. Even the smallest fracture in the chip will allow some level of light to shine through and allow you to view a crack that would have otherwise been invisible.
Of course, as with any collectible item, it is something that should be done because it is fun and enjoyable, not because of any expectations of profit. These chips are tiny pieces of history, that each hold the story of big wins and big losses in a place where dreams come true with the flip of a card. The older chips especially have a special feeling of mystery at the history they hold, a feeling that many chippers refer to as “Gangster Sweat” on the chips.
Regardless of what specifically attracts you to the chips, you will find them to be a collectible that will provide years of enjoyment, especially when looking for that one rare chip that will complete a set. And, as old casinos are replaced by new ones to constantly change the Vegas skyline, these chips will become a rare glimpse at “what use to be” and will make a priceless heirloom for future generations.