Las Vegas legend “Big Julie” Weintraub famously once said: “the guy who invented poker was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius.”
Weintraub is one of the unsung heroes of Las Vegas. In the glory days of The Dunes, Weintraub was the man behind the junket business; organising VIP trips to Sin City for the rich and famous. In the early 1960s, the celebrity influx helped to put Las Vegas on the map.
Weintraub was right: the casino chip is a 39mm wide, 8 – 16 gm, circular disc of genius. Traditionally made of clay, they are now constructed with a cocktail of ingredients, including sand, chalk, and the type of clay often found in cat litter.
The exact process of chip production is a trade secret. The chips are numismatic tokens and have a real value. If it was easy to clone them, counterfeiters would have a field day at the casino.
So… where and when did the first casino chip appear? Let’s wind back the roulette wheel, shuffle the deck of time, and work our way back to the very beginning…
The First Chip
The precise origin of the casino chip remains a mystery. Gambling has been a human activity since records began. The oldest board games ever discovered date back to the Neolithic era and about 6,000 BC; the end of the Stone Age.
By the time they were planning where to build the Pyramids of Giza, betting was definitely part of every day life. In Ancient Egypt, dice and many other board games have been discovered, as well as papyri, dating back as far as 4,000BC, with laws banning gambling in the region.
As for the first betting chip. Again: hard to pin down. In ancient Rome, five hundred years before the birth of Christ, betting was illegal and popular. The use of tokens, enabling players to deny they were gambling, is documented. Chips had arrived.
For the next two millennia, chips would evolve into the form we see today. Highlights on the way include the highly sought after, and intricately carved, mother-of-pearl tokens of the Chinese Quin dynasty, dating back to the mid-18th century; to the first modern tokens – born of the Gold Rush.
The Classic Chip
In the mid-1800s Wild West, the explosion of unregulated gambling, combined with gold prospectors laden with gold, led to the evolution of the modern chip. Casinos had to weigh and assay gold. This process was time consuming and difficult. Not something to attempt in the middle of a frenetic craps or blackjack game.
The gold was evaluated away from the table and chips were used; the early examples were made of bone, ivory, and clay. To prevent counterfeits, casinos would brand and uniquely design their own chips.
Most chip manufacturers keep the process a secret, producing chips to order in either ceramic or clay. Opinions vary as to what is best. Plastic is definitely a non starter for the serious player.
Collectible and Disposable
Today, there is a huge market for collectors of old casino chips. Beautiful old chips from the Cuban casinos, £100 chips from the Bugsy Siegel era, and commemorative chips (Muhammad Ali fights) are all highly desirable.
The most valuable chip to date is believed to be a £5 chip from the Golden Goose casino made in 1976. Five thousand were made but only one is believed to exist. It sold in 2015 for $75,000. Who needs to gamble? Just hold onto that chip.
Rarity is definitely an issue because casinos must legally destroy all their old chips when a new line is introduced. The process is overseen by the Las Vegas Gaming Control Board. Before this, the unwanted chips were either thrown into the concrete foundations of Las Vegas or simply dumped in Lake Mead.
The Future of Chips
Chips are tactile and a great way to stay in control of your betting. Get £100 worth of chips. When they are gone, give up. Some casinos are introducing digital systems and many modern chips are embedded with tiny RFID chips which have their own unique identification code.
You can also perform tricks with chips, including the riffle, chip twirl, knuckle roll, chip roll, spin and bounce, fanning, and the vanishing chip. When the chips are down, the chips are here to stay.
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