The Basics of Collecting Casino Chips
When I took the plunge, and decided to hit the tournament circuit a few years back, I was like every other poker player who thought they had what it takes.
I put in my time studying online, and I patiently applied those skills in the live setting, all while hoping to catch that elusive “good run” at the right time. And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I did better than the average amateur turned aspiring poker pro. Made a few final tables, pocketed decent prize money, and even had a chance to win a World Series of Poker Circuit ring before losing a long, heads-up match.
Alas, it was not meant to be in the end. I discovered that what truly separates the pros from the rest of us isn’t knowledge of the game, but dedication to the grind. I just didn’t have it in me, and after a year or so spent traveling from casino to casino, I tucked my tail and returned to the “real world.”
And when I did, I realized that I’d acquired a new hobby along the way – collecting casino chips.
I’m not talking about the chips I tried to win at the tournament tables, as taking those home is a crime punishable by property-wide bans if caught. No, I began pocketing the standard casino chips used at in cash poker or in table games like blackjack and craps.
Whenever I entered a casino for the first time, I wound up playing cash game poker or hitting the table game pit, and invariably I’d keep a single $1 chip as my own before leaving town. At first, I was simply seeking a memento from the new experience. Eventually, though, I realized that every casino used slightly different, and singularly unique, chip designs.
And from there, I was hooked.
These chips are yours once you purchase them from the cashier’s cage – or better yet, win them – at the tables. Indeed, casinos are more than happy to let you take home chips as a souvenir. The house has already collected cash in exchange, and with the chip safely stashed away in your shoebox somewhere, they never have to settle up.
Based on an inventory of my burgeoning chip collection, I’ve visited at least 60 casinos during my travels. Those include megaresorts like the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip to a dusty little cardroom called Bucky’s in Prescott, Arizona. A few of my chips aren’t even issued by a proper casino, as most of the “underground” card clubs and private games etch their branding on a stock chip.
In any event, this collection provides me with a window back in time, and a tangible connection to my many poker memories. One look at any of them instantly reminds me of a place and time – a smoky room at Harrah’s Cherokee casino in North Carolina, a huge bad beat jackpot hit at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, or a bachelor party at Atlantic City’s crown jewel, the Borgata.
In light of the enjoyment I’ve found collecting chips, I’d like to introduce readers to this fun new hobby. I’ll begin with a basic rundown of my approach to collecting, before providing you with a few handy tips to make the most of your casino chips.
Red, White, and Blue
The first aspect of your collecting style to decide on concerns the denomination of each chip.
Every casino uses a standard system of chip denominations, beginning with the $1 unit. These “singles” are almost always colored in white or blue shades, and they’re obviously the cheapest way to get in the game.
Chips also come in $5 units, and these are invariably colored red. Beyond that, you may find $10 chips at a few casinos, especially in the poker room, but these aren’t always available. And moving up the ladder, you’ll find $25 chips (usually green), and $100 chips (usually black) to play with.
Personally, I collect the humble $1 chips purely as a cost-cutting mechanism. Remember, you’ll need to pay the cash equivalent to obtain a chip from the cashier’s cage – and the money spent essentially becomes a sunk cost. In other words, once you part ways with cash in exchange for a collectable chip, you won’t be seeing those funds again.
Sticking to the $1 chips keeps my accounting simple and easy too. When I count my casino chip stash and see 60 of them, I know I’ve spent just $60 on a hobby that has spanned several years. Moving up to $5 chips multiplies the cost of collecting in kind, and I’m just not sure I’d enjoy spending $300 on the same hobby.
Deciding which chip denomination to base your collection around is a matter of personal preference, and depending on your financial situation, you may prefer to up the ante with $5 or $25 chips.
Many casinos even appeal to the collectors out there with specially themed $1 chip designs. You’ll find chips commemorating the holiday season, the venue’s headlining show, or a casino’s 20-year anniversary in business.
For the most part, these specially designed chips are limited to the $1 denomination, while $5 chips and up stick to a stock design. I enjoy grabbing a handful of white or blue $1 chips and examining their various themed designs, before selecting the one which speaks to me most.
Set the Ground Rules
This aspect of chip collecting is purely optional, but I find it offers a bit of structure to the whole thing.
Basically, my ground rules for adding a new chip to the collection revolve around actual play. Simply stepping foot inside a new casino isn’t enough to warrant adding that venue’s chip to my collection. Instead, I must place at least one wager somewhere on the floor to make it “count.”
Originally, I began collecting chips from any casino where I played poker, but that constraint proved to be more trouble than it was worth. I realized many casinos don’t even offer a poker room, and in the case of Las Vegas mainstays like Monte Carlo, the Luxor, and Hard Rock, venues have closed their poker rooms down in recent years.
With this in mind, I expanded my ground rules to include any sort of bet. Typically, if the place is a poker-free zone, I’ll hit the blackjack tables and try to grind out a winning session. I also dabble in craps and roulette when I’m in the mood for pure gambling. In any case, I always make sure to get change for a $5 chip, before keeping two $1 chips (the cleanest of the bunch) off to the side.
If the session goes poorly and I lose my stake, I have two $1 chips left in hand – one to toke the dealer with, and one to bring home with me.
Depending on the situation, however, I’ve been known to slap a $10 bill down on the roulette table felt and bet $9 on single number wagers. If lady luck smiles on me that day, I hit the buffet with my $30 or so in profit. And if she’s not in the mood, I still have a lone $1 chip to pocket and polish later on.
Keep ‘Em Clean
Why would I polish my casino chips, you ask?
In a 2009 op-ed penned for PokerNews, tournament reporter and author Paul McGuire posed a simple question: can touching poker chips make you sick?
McGuire had a good reason to ask too. As a roving tournament blogger, assigned to interact with poker players for 14 hours per day during the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, he was on the front lines of poker’s germ warfare.
Within the op-ed, McGuire asked his local physician, Dr. Charles Stillman, whether exposure to poker chips might increase his odds of contracting an illness.
The most common infection is Staph (Staphylococcus aureus). The real scary one is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) because it’s just that — resistant to the main antibiotic used to treat it.”
One of the studies Dr. Stillman mentioned was conducted in 2007 by biologist Brian Hedlund and his research team at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). Commissioned by Bluff magazine, Dr. Hedlund’s study involved analyzing chips obtained from five casinos on The Strip.
According to Hedlund’s findings, a single casino chip is home to thousands of microorganisms, including the staph and MRSA germs.
Now, before you abandon the idea of collecting casino chips altogether, you should realize thousands of germs aren’t all that much of a threat. At this very moment, your own hands carry more microorganisms than the average casino chip.
As both doctors mentioned, the usual accumulation of germs found on a casino chip isn’t nearly enough to compromise a healthy person’s immune system. Unless you suffer from immunodeficiency issues of some sort, handling casino chips is perfectly safe.
Even so, I always take care to wash my hands after sourcing my latest chip. I’m not talking about a deep scrub with Purell or some other antiseptic, just a simple wash with hot water and soap. It’s better to be safe than sorry, after all.
And when I get my chips home for the first time, I also apply a splash of rubbing alcohol with a wet cloth to finish the cleaning process. I do this to remove the last traces of germs, first and foremost, which are evident in the black smudges that often pile up in the contours of a chip.
But even if the chip was scanned with a microscope and found to be germ-free, I’d still give it a good wipe down before adding it to my display, simply to add an element of shine. Casino chips are used and abused during their time on the tables, and a little bit of elbow grease goes a long way in restoring their natural luster.
Just be careful when cleaning chips affixed with logo stickers. Major casinos usually opt for laser etching or some form of permanent printing, but smaller operations often opt for stock chips and a simple sticker instead. If that’s the case, go as light as you can with the cleaning and avoid directly contacting the sticker with water or rubbing alcohol.
Show Your Stuff
At this point you have a pile of casino chips, and clean ones at that, spread out or stacked on your desk somewhere. Where should they go next?
That’s another matter of personal preference, but for my money, the best bet is a display case frame that can be hung from your wall.
You can check out the eBay page for “casino chip display” to get a better idea of what I mean. As you can see, these chip display cases come in all shapes and sizes, but most use a simple square design with circular cutouts where your chips go.
Once you have enough chips to fill about half of the display – the typical frame holds about 100 of them – feel free to insert them and hang the thing already. Chip collecting isn’t a completist hobby by any stretch of the imagination, so you don’t need every space in the frame to be occupied before putting it on display. And indeed, seeing those empty spaces staring back at you provides a certain sense of motivation to keep adding new chips as time goes by.
For my own chip collection, I try to arrange them based on geography. All of my chips from the Las Vegas Strip are grouped together, while those from Downtown / Fremont Street have their own row. The “Off-Strip” joints like South Point and Gold Coast get their own group, as do other regions like Atlantic City and Los Angeles.
Any chips obtained from an underground card club or private game get their own row as well.
And as an Arizonan, I devote a separate section in the display to my hometown casinos.
That’s just my personal approach to laying out the chips, and I’m sure you’ll come up with a pattern or design that fits your personality. That’s all part of the fun that comes with collecting.
To help you find some inspiration on that front, take a look at a few of the more well-designed casino chip displays floating around out there today.
Blast from the Past
One of the more interesting aspects of casino chip collecting is the sheer scope of variety you’ll find.
Per the latest statistics compiled by the American Gaming Association (AGA), the United States is home to 510 commercial casinos. Just 10 years ago, however, that number stood at 455 – meaning 55 new casinos have opened up in the last decade alone.
And those’re just the commercial casinos, mind you. When you add another 470 tribal casinos operated on Native American reservations, you’ll find nearly 1,000 venues on the map – and that’s just the American market. When the international casino industry is factored into the equation, collectors literally have thousands of options to choose from.
The old Dunes on The Strip was imploded in 1994, replaced by the extravagant Bellagio. The Sands gave way to the Venetian, the Hacienda became Mandalay Bay, and the Aladdin was transformed into Planet Hollywood.
While the buildings may be gone by now, these old casinos once had millions of visitors streaming through the doors each year. And when those guests headed home, casino chips invariably traveled from Sin City all over the world.
Today, a thriving market for historical casino chips can be found online, where collectors look to find their own personal Holy Grail. Maybe it’s the casino your parents spent their honeymoon at, or the old card room where you once cut your teeth learning the game. Whatever the case may be, plenty of collectors out there specialize in sourcing hard to find historical chips.
As you can see by perusing the eBay page for “old Vegas chips”, historical casino chips run the gamut in terms of price, appearance, condition, and even their use.
For just $5, you can purchase an old “steak chip” issued by the Golden Nugget way back when. Emblazoned on the chip is a message reading “please present to line cook,” and I assume these were handed out to friendly faces by floormen. With a steak chip in hand, a lucky player could sit down at the Golden Nugget restaurant, flick their token to the line cook, and enjoy a juicy steak dinner free of charge.
While I don’t collect historical chips myself – not yet anyhow – I can certainly appreciate the sentimental value these old tokens hold. Little stories from the golden era of casino gambling, like the steak chip and so many others, are gradually being lost as the older venues are imploded. With a casino chip that may be 50 years old in your collection, you’ll always have a link to those stories close at hand.
Keep Clear of Collecting Catastrophe
So far, I’ve focused on what to do as a casino chip collector, so let’s finish things off with a few words of warning.
Casinos are notorious for their tight security controls, and as the old saying goes, the “eye in the sky” is always watching. I’ve already explained that pocketing a casino chip and taking it home with you is perfectly legal, and even encouraged by the house, so why worry about cameras?
It’s all about context in this case.
If you’re playing in a cash poker game, the house rules will almost always include a provision about keeping all chips in play on the table. In poker parlance, pocketing chips while still in the game is known as “going south,” and both the floor staff and fellow players won’t be very happy if they catch you violating the rule.
Going south is prohibited for several reasons, but the main one involves game integrity. If a player just doubled their $100 stack through you, it stands to reason they should have at least $200 in play on the next hand. If they decide to go south with two of the green $25 chips, however, they’ll only have $150 in play for you to win back. That’s not exactly fair, which is why casinos frown on removing chips from a live poker game.
Now, if you’re removing a lone $1 chip from the table, nobody should give you any guff. That deduction doesn’t affect the game dynamics in any way, and indeed, players are permitted to use in-game chips to tip cocktail servers or the dealer.
Even so, I always advise new collectors coming from the poker world to exercise caution and common sense. Just wait until the game breaks and you’re racking up your stacks to snag that sweet $1 chip, and you’ll avoid any possible drama.
And for tournament players, those chips are property of the casino at all times, and removing even the smallest T25 chip can be grounds for immediate disqualification. This exact situation occurred in 2015 during a major tourney in Italy, and even though the player was simply joking with a friend, he was 86’d from the final table.
This rule holds true for table games too, although it’s not enforced in the same strict manner. When you’re playing blackjack or craps, you’ll be moving chips to and from the table quite frequently, and to be honest, the dealer, stickman, and pit boss have more important things to watch for when monitoring a table.
Once again though, it’s best to simply avoid any implication of cheating or malfeasance by keeping your chips clearly visible while still in the game.
Collecting casino chips can be a fun and rewarding hobby. Follow the guidelines in the basics of collecting casino chips listed above and you can quickly get started and avoid many of the potential challenges.