By Michael Knapp
I’m often asked ‘Is this chip [or token] collectible?’ or ‘How do I know whether a chip [or token] is collectible?’ The answer to those questions is always a simple yes! To collectors of casino chips, tokens and other memorabilia, virtually everything is collectible! Often what someone is really asking may be: ‘Will this chip increase in value?’ or ‘Is this a valuable chip?’ or ‘How much will this one cost me?’ But those questions are different from the question whether a particular chip is ‘collectible’ or not. Some people, especially with the large number of ‘limited edition’ chips which have been issued over the last three or so years, are asking whether limited edition chips are more desirable than others, and whether it makes sense to collect chips that are not limited editions or commemoratives.
If you read my first column, you may recall our discussion of starting a collection merely by visiting all 12 casinos in Atlantic City (for example), and picking up one of each chip of $5 and under from the tables, at face value. That complete collection of current Atlantic City chips up to $5 would cost $102. Those chips are perfectly ‘collectible’ because they represent all chips presently in use in New Jersey. One day, they will all be obsolete (no longer used in play). When that happens, New Jersey law requires that all remaining obsolete chips be destroyed, and that will necessarily make the chips left in collectors’ hands more valuable. To me, however, ‘collectibility’ is not best measured in terms of ‘value’ or ‘cost’ or ‘price.’ What is collectible is what a collector is pleased to save. Perhaps an example is a question I received in e-mail a few years ago. A collector had purchased a $5 chip from El Rancho Vegas (1941-1960) for $50, and asked whether he had overpaid. He mentioned that the chip showed significant fire damage, and this was my answer: ‘Your chip isn’t terribly scarce, no. The average retail price for a $5 mustard cord rim El Rancho Vegas chip is $30-$39, in very good condition. Yours isn’t, so the average retail would be below that range. ‘What you have, though, is an interesting and unique piece of Las Vegas history, even aside from its value as a collectible chip. You have a chip from the first hotel built on what would eventually become the Las Vegas Strip, back when there was no Strip, and there were only little dumpy casinos downtown. When Reno was the big city in Nevada, and the center of everything. When illegal gambling in cities like Newport and Covington, KY; Hot Springs, AR; Galveston, TX and a few other places was plusher and larger and fancier than anything in Las Vegas.
Two chips ‘ a $5 and a $25 ‘ burned and deformed in the 1960 fire that burned the hotel to the ground. They are flattened where they were sitting in chip trays on the tables. To this day, the site of El Rancho Vegas, the first hotel ever built on the Las Vegas Strip, remains vacant.
‘In 1960, Beldon Kattleman was the owner of El Rancho Vegas. The Gaming Control Commission had recently issued the first of many “Black Books,” a publication with the names, photos, and aliases of “undesirables” who were barred from NV casino/hotels.
‘One of the people in the book was a Marshall Caifano, aka John Marshall, a Chicago mobster, who allegedly was the go-between for the Chicago mob in Las Vegas. One day Kattleman saw Caifano in the ERV casino. Fearing loss of his license if he continued to let Caifano play, Kattleman threw him out.
‘In what the Las Vegas authorities called “a fire of suspicious origin” ERV burned to the ground within two weeks, in the middle of the night. The cause of the fire has never been determined.
‘If you have a copy of Donn Knepp’s Las Vegas: The Entertainment Capital (and if you don’t, I’d suggest getting a copy – it’s one of the best and most enjoyable books written about Las Vegas history), you’ll find a photo of ERV on page 35, and a photo of the hotel in flames as your chip was being partially melted, on page 145.
‘I hope I haven’t bored you with all these stories, but to me, it’s what makes chip collecting a fun and exciting hobby. And I mention all this just in case you might have felt bad about what you paid for the chip.
‘After all, to be able to hold a piece of that kind of history in your hand is…….well, perhaps not “priceless,” but………….you decide!’
It seems to me that people who put too much emphasis on price or cost or value are missing the point. Collectors collect because they enjoy their collections and what’s in them. To me, the stories behind the chips are what distinguish a collection from a mere bunch of stuff piled somewhere in a shoebox. And there are stories behind virtually every chip ever issued, whether they’re limited editions or commemoratives or regular issue chips that stay on the tables for years.
To illustrate that type of story, let’s talk for a moment about tokens rather than chips. Casino tokens are generally ‘younger’ than many chips, but not everyone knows why. The story of how casino tokens came to be is an interesting one in itself. Chips, of course, in one form or another, have been around for centuries, and ivory, mother-of-pearl, bone, agate, and other forms of older chips are very desirable in themselves. But that’s another story!
Originally, casinos in Nevada (which was the only jurisdiction in which full casino gambling was legal) used silver dollars for slot machines and often for table games as well. When the U. S. Mint announced that ‘silver’ dollars would henceforth be made from plated copper-centered blanks, rather than from silver alloy (1964), casino customers began taking ‘cartwheels’ home with them in bulk, gambling that silver dollars would increase in value.
The casinos were having trouble finding fodder for the slot machines, because the banks were no longer supplying silver dollars. The gaming industry went to the Nevada legislature, and to the U. S. Congress, and petitioned for permission to make their own silver-dollar size and weight replacements for legal tender coins. Eventually, that legislation was passed and the first casino tokens were issued in 1965. Soon all Nevada casinos were having their own tokens minted for them.
In 1971, however, the U. S. Mint produced the first Eisenhower silver dollars, hoping that they would be accepted as replacements for the $1 bill. Once again, casinos were prohibited from minting their own tokens because the federal government was issuing a similar weight and size coin. For the next 9 years, casinos used their remaining supplies of tokens minted before 1971, and then used the Eisenhower dollars. Throughout the 1970’s, it became evident that the Eisenhower dollar would not replace the $1 bill, and the Mint stopped making them. Casinos once again were permitted to mint their own dollar-sized tokens.
Interestingly, when the Susan B. Anthony smaller dollar coin was made in 1979, virtually no casinos changed their coin acceptors to take the newer, smaller dollars. In fact, we know of only one casino token ever made in the Susan B. Anthony size: one from Boardwalk Regency (now Caesars) in Atlantic City, NJ. Boardwalk Regency did have some machines that accepted the SBA size dollar. Their original tokens were made in that size, and are now sought after by collectors!
While gaming chips date back centuries, and casino chips more than a century, casino tokens are of much more recent vintage, dating only back as far as 1965. Yet a complete collection of casino tokens is almost impossible to put together these days. And there are some extremely rare tokens indeed!