It’s been said that whoever invented gambling was smart. But the guy who invented chips was a genius. But gamblers who choose not to cash in their casino chips may be the smartest of all. A 1960s $5 Caesars Palace chip, showing a smiling Caesar, now goes for $400. Flying home from Vegas, with chip in pocket, might have been as lucky as the gambler got on that trip.
He’s not alone. More people than ever are collecting casino chips (eBay has thousands for sale), coveting memories of Las Vegas in its glory days—and making bank. A $1 chip from the nearby Dunes, depicting a sun rising over its golf-course green, now fetches $40. A $5 offering from the Frontier Casino snags $675. “We had a chip sell for $5,500; it was from the Vegas Club [now the site of the Circa] and just one of seven in existence,” says Oscar Lappalainen, head of production at Spinettis Gaming Supplies, a Las Vegas purveyor of casino collectibles. “A lot of people like chips from the Stardust because it was famously mob run. Right now, I am looking at a $5 chip from the original MGM Grand”—where much of the chip inventory was consumed by fire in 1980—“and it’s selling for $95.”
Their history in gambling is rooted in the gold rush of the mid 1800s, when casinos accepted precious metals as currency. Eventually, gambling houses began manufacturing their own coin-shaped chips from sand and clay. When casino gambling was legalized in the 1930s, it became the norm for casinos to eschew cash for chips. The 21 Club, in Vegas, for example, opened and closed in the 1930s, but not before its owners could produce pink disks worth the then princely sum of $25 on one side and a primitive logo on the other. Find it under Great Grandpa’s sofa cushion and it will fetch you $145 today.
Lappalainen explains that those unredeemed chips become valuable when casinos call in the old ones, destroy them and issue new editions. “Forget to cash a $1 chip,” he says, “and you can really luck out.