The Birth and Burial Rituals of the Classic Casino Chip
Behold the noble gambling chip.
They are the currency of casinos around the world; essentially issued by the Bank-of-Whatever-Casino-It-Is , and as good as cash while on their turf. But there’s probably a lot you don’t know about this valuable commodity; things like when they were first invented, how casinos determine which ones are valid, and what happens to them once their useful days are over.
That’s right: casino chips have an expiration date, but each house decides for themselves when that is and where their chips will go be “buried.” And that expiration date could vary from a few months to several decades after issuance. But first, let’s discuss their birth, a good 250 years ago or so.
Birth of the Casino Chip
It was sometime during the 18th century that gambling in public took off in popularity in Europe and beyond. The initial problem, of course, was that people came from different countries and currencies were not predictable or regulated the way they are now, so gold or silver coins with intrinsic value (or other valuables such as jewels) were used. Obviously, it was pretty difficult to determine values, so some venues traded these for pieces of ivory, bone or clay to clarify who was gambling with what.
Of course, you know what happened next: that’s right, forgeries. So the next step in the evolution of the casino chip was an early form of “branding.” The only surviving remnant of this type of rustic “chip” is an early plate that holds a printed value on it, presumably used to create checks such as those seen in the early days of the Monte Carlo casinos (the ones in France, not the one in Las Vegas).
Fast forward to the early days of the 20th century (pre Vegas) casinos, and chips as we know them had come into existence, but there was great variance from one joint to the next. Even the materials used and sizes were all over the map. The general rule of thumb was, the bigger the chip, the more it was worth; but forgery still plagued casinos everywhere, which gave birth to the casino-specific versions that were more difficult to copy.
As the 20th century moved forward and demand grew, chips were manufactured, but although now a somewhat standard size, they were still made of widely varying materials, ranging from clay to exotic (and pricey) ivory. That eventually changed as these chip makers were able to use high-pressure machinery to morph composite materials into chips as we know them today. Did you know there is a standardized chip measurement and weight? Today that amounts to 39 millimeters in diameter with a weight ranging from 8.5 grams to 20.5 grams.
Goodbye Mr. Chips
But let’s get back to where Las Vegas casino chips go to die. Back in the day, many casinos simply dumped used chips into Lake Mead, and some can still be found there by divers today. More fascinating, though, are poker chips that ended up in chunks of concrete used in the New Frontier’s foundation slabs, created when the casino – originally built back in 1942 – got a facelift and the word “New” added in 1955. Demolished in 2007, the concrete art came to light when chips from the Sands – and even metal tokens from Laughlin – showed up within its craters.
Poker player and chip collector extraordinaire Mike Spinetti – who owns Spinetti’s Gaming Supplies in downtown Las Vegas and knows as much about the history of chips as anyone – says “when chips became not current, casinos didn’t know what to do with them. I have no idea who started it, but they’d go into the concrete.”
Construction crews at the Dunes (in 1993) found hundreds of dollars worth of chips in its foundation and turned them over to various casino execs at the Bellagio that was then being built on that site; MGM Resorts’ Alan Feldman still has his chips on his desk today (MGM Resorts International took over the Bellagio from original developer Steve Wynn when his Mirage group merged with MGM in 2000).
Regulations Roll In
Up until 1987, casinos could put their used chips just about anywhere: underwater or into concrete (much like where some humans probably ended up back in the day as well, according to lore).
That’s the year Nevada’s regulators presented Regulation 12 – a new law that required specific methods of destruction for out-of-date chips, while officially making chips the property of casinos (we’re not sure who they were supposed to belong to before that). Because nothing ever really changes under the sun, three guesses what the reason was for this tightening up procedure: you guessed it, theft and counterfeiting production.
Players could now no longer, legally, pay back debts with casino chips, as the law says they can only be used while gambling, not away from the tables. Of course, trying to enforce a law like that with people as freewheeling as gamblers is somewhat akin to trying to herd cats.
Theoretically, when players cash in chips today, casino cashiers are supposed to ask for their player’s cards, on the presumption this proves their chips were earned gambling. Actually, all it proves is that they have a player’s card, but whatever.
We do know that larger denominations of chips now have microchips in them, and their play can be tracked. This is to prevent someone stealing – and then trying to cash out – these chips, and it works quite well. Nevada law gives casinos the authority to refuse to cash even their own chips if it “knows or reasonably should know” that the chips were not obtained with an honest day’s play.
And that’s not all that’s now regulated when it comes to chips: new casino chips have to be pre-approved by the Gaming Control Board before they can be manufactured, and must include detailed information about the new chip’s design and security features (as well as what the casino plans to do with the ones about to be disposed).
And what might those security features be, you ask? Well, the ones we know about are things like ultraviolet markings and ID tags only discernable via radio waves, but we’re pretty sure they’re not going to spill the beans on all the fancy stuff crammed inside a casino chip these days. Let’s just say you have to be pretty stupid to try and pull a major heist – as several brain surgeons now sitting in the joint can probably attest in hind sight.
And today, chips can only be destroyed with board-approved disposal companies; many are loaded into specially equipped trucks that crush them into dust. (Too bad they can’t carbonize them and resell them as man-made diamonds). A gaming regulator even needs to witness this final farewell to chips.
So now you know everything there is to know about casino chips – well, except how to amass them when you’re gambling; that you’ll have to figure out on your own.