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
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These days, almost everyone who collects casino chips, also called checks or sometimes cheques, has a subspecialty. With an estimated 12,000 legal and illegal casinos known to have operated worldwide between 1900 and 1997, according to longtime chip collector and gaming historian Howard Herz, too many variations and denominations exist for all of them to be collected. Chip collectors typically collect by region, with the most popular being casinos from Las Vegas, followed by other gaming towns in Nevada such as Lake Tahoe, Reno and Laughlin. Atlantic City is the next most popular specialty, followed by--in no particular order--riverboats, Colorado (which legalized gambling in 1991), Indian reservations, cruise ships and non-U.S. casinos.
By far, the most popular niche within the hobby is collecting obsolete chips from casinos in the Silver State, preferably those from Las Vegas. Typically, chips become obsolete in one of three ways: (1) the casino that issued them goes out of business--the Playboy casino in Atlantic City or the Dunes in Las Vegas, for example; (2) the casino changes its name or ownership and issues chips under the new name; or (3) the casino changes chip design or manufacturer. "Everyday chips become valuable once they're obsolete," explains Black. "You take people for granted until they're gone; it's the same way with chips."
High-denomination chips are particularly valuable to the collector of obsolete chips. A $100 chip from Benny "Bugsy" Siegel's two-year, 1946-1947 reign at the original Flamingo in Las Vegas sold for $3,500 at CC>CC's 1997 auction. A 1950s-era $100 chip from the Dunes sells for about $2,500. A $100 chip from The Brighton in Atlantic City, now the Sands Hotel and Casino, sells in the low four figures.
"Most gamblers may have taken a $1 chip home with them, but how many would leave the casino with a $100 chip in their pocket," says Bill Akeman Jr., who publishes Gaming Times magazine, a glossy publication devoted to the history and collectibility of chips, dice and other gaming memorabilia. He also operates a retail store in Las Vegas under the same name and his personal collection runs to 10,000 chips.
An obsolete chip doesn't have to be old to be valuable, however. For example, one of the rarest is a $5 chip from the Golden Goose casino in Las Vegas, which operated from 1975 to 1980. The Fremont Street casino was slots only, except for two weeks when it had several gaming tables. Only one chip is known to have survived from the Golden Goose, and it sold for $3,000 at a CC>CC auction in 1996. Another recent rarity comes from the Club Royale cruise ship, which once sailed out of Florida. The Club Royale sank in 1995 after failing to outrun Hurricane Erin, making chips from the ship some of the most valuable Florida chips available today, according to Florida chip collector Mark Lighterman. One-dollar chips from the 1940s and 1950s are also surprisingly valuable. That is because they were not created in great numbers. Most casinos at the time used silver dollar coins instead of $1 chips. It's not unusual for older $1 chips to sell for upwards of $50.
Many collectors shave their area of interest even finer. Some collect chips only from California's card rooms, which have been legal since the 1880s. Others collect chips only from illegal gambling clubs in places like the formerly wide open towns of Newport, Kentucky, and Beaumont, Texas. Most of the illegal gaming in those towns ended in the early 1950s in the wake of hearings brought by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver.
Others get a kick out of owning chips from casinos associated with gangsters and celebrities such as Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo; Al Capone's Floridian Casino in Miami, in which Capone had a partial stake from 1929 to 1930; and Frank Sinatra's Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, which the singer owned from 1955 to 1968 but sold after voluntarily surrendering his gaming license because the casino was frequented by known mobsters.
Still other collectors specialize in roulette chips. Nondenominational chips of various color and design that can be played at only roulette wheels, they are often produced in significantly smaller quantities than other table chips (a house may have only 300 or so in each color and design) and are used to help identify which player has placed which bet on the felt table. Casinos frown on chip collectors taking roulette chips, because wheel chips are worth whatever a player buys in for. Therefore, a chip bought for $5 one day could be surreptitiously placed into a game the next day when the same chip is worth $25. The croupiers' watchful eyes cannot detect every roulette chip that is taken. When Resorts in Atlantic City introduced colorful roulette chips manufactured by a company called Chipco several years ago, so many chips were taken, or "walked" in the parlance of casino executives, that the casino was forced to remove them from play. Today, the two rarest roulette chips from that set, the ones with purple star and brown camera designs, sell for $750 each. Monaco's Société des Bains de Mer casino recently issued 14 different Chipco roulette chips, which are now worth $50 apiece to collectors.
For many collectors, it's the hunt for obsolete chips that excites them. One collector says he found dozens of chips from the Little Club, which operated on Fremont Street in Las Vegas in the 1940s and early 1950s, in the recreation room at an old-age home. The residents were using them for their evening card games.
When chip collectors talk history, the conversation often turns to the most wide-open gambling town of the 1950s-- Havana, Cuba. With Senator Kefauver shutting down illegal gaming across the United States, casino owners were left with only two nearby areas in which to relocate legally, Nevada and Cuba. Meyer Lansky, the Jewish godfather who bankrolled Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo, set up operations in both Havana and Las Vegas.
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