Before the poker boom there wasn't much of a market for high-quality chips for consumer use. But after the poker boom got underway, many poker aficionados wanted a higher-class chip to play with in their games so the poker chip consumer market boomed. The internet aided this trend since it lowered prices and made it easier for customers to place their orders and create custom chips. Before the poker boom, the now-cheap 11.5 gram chips were the standard for home games, and sold for much higher prices. I remember a 300-set would go for $60 and a 500-set would go for $100 or so.
In the following years, there were many niches in the chip market that opened up and grew. Some of the cheaper plastic chips were created without metal slugs. Higher quality plastic chips were created. Ceramics grew to compete with clay chips. Cheaper clay chips came to market. Today, there are so many different sub-types and brands of chips that a considerable amount of research has to go into buying a good set of chips.
In the past, the popular move has been to start off with a cheap set of plastic chips ("Dice chips") and trade up to expensive clay chips after a few years. But these days, there are so many high-quality mid-range chips at an affordable price that you will probably want to jump straight into the mid-range chips. This way, you won't be sitting around for years plying with slippery plastic chips wishing you had something better. The mid-range chips will satisfy your appetite for a quality chip for a few years until your tastes and chip knowledge mature to the point at which you will trade up.
The good thing about poker chips is that they have a high resale value. So if you buy them at a good price and end up selling them a few years down the road when you switch up, your net cost after the sale will be pretty low.
You will probably want to buy at least 300 chips, no matter how small your game is. If you are playing with more than 8-10 people, then you may want to upgrade to a 500-chip set. If you are running large games or tournaments, then you may want to buy 1,000 or more.
When buying chips, you need to decide how many denominations you want to buy - and how many of each denomination to buy. Most people will want to buy either 3 or 4 denominations. Only people who run large tournaments will generally need to buy 5 denominations. It is popular to use a 4-1 or 5-1 ratio between low and high denominations. Here are some recommendations for different combinations, from the lowest denomination to the highest.
Custom poker chips are a popular option among chip buyers, especially since they will be spending a good amount on high-quality chips anyway.
If you are running a game with an expensive buy-in, custom chips add a lot of security to your game. If you use generic chips, you should be aware that someone could go to the store and buy a set of chips for $0.10 cents each and cash them out in your game for $5 each.
Instead of buying custom chips, you can buy custom labels or blank labels and put the labels on chips. This is a good option for people looking to keep their costs low. Stickers have an advantage in that they are cheaper. The disadvantages are that they wear out, they change the feel of the chip (since you feel the sticker instead of the face of the chip), and that they are not impressive. Here are some links to buy poker chip labels:
Buying on Craigslist can sometimes be very fruitful because people generally sell stuff for a lot less than it's worth on CL. And there are TONS of people selling poker chips on CL all the time, which are probably left over from the poker boom. If you are buying ABS plastic chips (the "Dice/Suited" chips), then Craigslist may be the best option for you, since these chips are the least susceptible to wear.
You can buy used Paulson chips on eBay. The cheapest you can get them will probably be $0.50 per chip. Typically, used Paulsons won't sell for a crazy discount on EBay since Paulson owners understand the value of the chips and are not just going to dump them without knowing what they are worth. If you do buy Paulsons on EBay, make sure the listing doesn't say "paulson style", as this may indicate they are lower quality.
Poker chip sets typically come in a few popular sizes - mainly 300, 500, or 1,000 chips, but they also come in other sizes if you look around. When you order custom chips (or high end chips) you will be able to state your own quantity. The good thing about ordering one of the standard poker chip sets is that the set almost always comes with a poker chip case so you get to save a little money by bundling the case with the chips.
On the internet, you can find groups of people who buy some of the more expensive poker chips in large quantities in order to get a discount on the total amount of the chips. If you do a group buy, just make sure you do it with people you trust. If you are doing it with people on a forum, make sure all of the other people have a positive reputation (either positive feedback or a long posting history on the forum). Also, makes sure everyone agrees on the design. If you are buying an expensive set, you could always make everyone go through escrow since the escrow fees are usually only about 1%.
It is definitely advisable that you order chip samples before you spend a lot of money on chips. Most chip companies allow you to do this. The cheapest I have seen is $1 for a single chip (including shipping). Most samples will be about $5 for 3 chips, or $15 for 5. It is also advisable to order more than one chip just to see how the chips slide against each other and shuffle.
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