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Collectible Casino Chips

Collectors Turn to Casino Chips, Seeking Fun, Profit and a Link to Gambling History Through These Fascinating and Colorful Pieces of Clay and Plastic That Don't Lose Their Value Even After They Leave the Gaming Table
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

It was December 31, 1958. New Year's Eve in Cuba. Thousands of partiers were gambling in the island's famous Havana casinos--among them the Flamingo, Riviera, Tropicana, Hilton and Capri. The reveling ended, however, with word that Cuban President Fulgencio Batista had fled the country, leaving it to revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. With a new government poised to take control of the island in the coming days, Cuban peasants sacked the casinos that had long barred them from entering. Gaming tables and slot machines were avenues.

Nearly 30 years later, the value of those chips has been restored many times over. Cuban chips have become prized possessions to many within the expanding cadre of casino chip collectors.

It's not the value of Cuban chips, however, that attract most of today's collectors.

"I felt they had true beauty, the artwork and history behind them," says one New York chip collector who doesn't want his identity known, should it make it more difficult for him to bring chips out of Cuba. "The reason I started collecting Cuban chips is because the casino business is interwoven with the history of Cuba. It is one of the few places where there was an immediate cessation of gambling--at midnight on December 31st, 1958. The Revolution and antigaming sentiment is interwoven."

While a handful of enthusiasts around the world collect Cuban chips, it is the modern-day gaming chip, primarily from the post-Second World War era in Las Vegas, that is most prized by the majority of collectors. That period is bracketed by the first hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip, the El Rancho Vegas, which opened in 1941 and closed in 1960, and the strip's latest gaming establishment, New York-New York, which opened in early 1997.

Ten years ago, casino chip collectors in the United States numbered fewer than 25. Many of them were gamblers who slipped a chip into their pocket as a memento of the action. Today, there are approximately 2,000 active members in the nonprofit Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club (CC>CC), making it the largest specialty club within the American Numismatic Association. At the club's 1997 convention at the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas, collectors bid a total of $47,000 at auction for a variety of casino chips.

The growth of the hobby has been nothing less than unbelievable to longtime collectors, many of whom thought they were the only ones quirky enough to care for little, round pieces of clay and plastic stamped with the names of long-forgotten casinos. Two recent developments have fueled collector interest in casino chips. The first is the steady spread of gambling across the United States. "Every time a new gaming jurisdiction opens up, the people from that area become instant chip collectors," says CC>CC founder and president Archie Black. The second reason may be evident to anyone who's visited a casino in the past few years. New computer-aided design capabilities, laser-etching technologies and manufacturing techniques now allow manufacturers to produce chips with beautiful full-color designs and photographs. Today's chips rarely have only the denomination and casino name stamped on either side.

Most casinos now regularly issue limited editions of chips to commemorate casino events: a George Foreman fight chip from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a George Burns 100th birthday chip from Caesars Palace Las Vegas, a Luciano Pavarotti chip from Foxwoods in Connecticut and Resorts International in Atlantic City, and a Kentucky Derby chip from the Tropicana in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City. These commemorative chips are "live" and can be used at the gaming tables, though they're usually snapped up by collectors within days of their issue.

The beauty of collecting casino chips lies in their value from the onset. Most other collectibles lose value after being bought at retail and then may slowly appreciate. Baseball cards, for example, become valuable only after certain star players have noteworthy careers. The majority of all other cards remain worthless. That's not the case with casino chips. "If you buy a chip off the table at face value, you can always cash it back in for exactly what you paid for it," says Black. "If the casino goes bankrupt or changes name, the chip is worth even more."

While collectors enjoy watching the value of their collections grow, most acquire chips today because they are drawn to the history of towns such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Havana. "When I was growing up here, I remember certain clubs that are no longer downtown or on the Strip," says Ron Lurie, who was mayor of Las Vegas from 1987 to 1991 and is now the director of marketing for Arizona Charlie's hotel and casino. "There was the Lucky Club, Diamond Jim's, the Boulder Club and one special club--the Pussycat a'GoGo. They had one little craps table and one 21 table. It was just a place to go to dance and hang out for people of our age. That's where I met my wife." When Lurie started collecting casino chips two years ago, he went about acquiring the usual commemorative chips as well as those from the old Las Vegas casinos. Lurie now has about 700 chips in his collection, but it's a single chip from the Pussycat a'GoGo, now worth about $75, that is one of his prized possessions.

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