People who collect casino chips (called "chippers") do so for a few different reasons. Some people like the artwork on the chips. Although most people don't look at poker chips as works of art, they have a heavy focus on aesthetics, specifically color combinations and proprietary artwork designs. Other collectors appreciate casino chips as historical artifacts since gambling has a long history that goes back quite far in almost every culture. Other collectors specialize in collecting gambling-specific paraphernalia. Casinos, especially the older ones, have always had interesting stories behind them, given the mob money that was attached to some of them, and the regulatory and moral environments they had to operate under.
Many of the chips may have been "collected" accidently by people who forgot to cash them in, or kept held onto them privately by slipping them into their pocket as a personal memento, without thinking that they would later be contributing to preserving history.
Casino chips are a particularly interesting item to collect because, like other currencies, casino chips have intrinsic value in addition to collector value. Ironically, even though the intrinsic value of those old chips disappeared after they were cancelled, their non-intrinsic value (i.e. their value as a collectable) ended up surpassing their intrinsic value.
Like all collectables, the condition of the chip is a major factor in determining its worth. A chip that is cracked, nicked, faded, warped, stained or damaged in any way is worth much less than a chip in mint condition. Although new chips are ideal, most chips will have some damage, like worn edges, due to being used.
There have always been a small group of people who have collected casino chips, but until the Casino Chips & Gaming Tokens Collectors Club was formed in 1988, collectors didn't have many central resources to seek out information about their chips or fund, or have many ways to communicate with each other. The CC>CC is a nonprofit educational organization with the mission of preserving gaming history. Their annual convention is in Las Vegas. These organizations have been very helpful with preserving information about casino chips and providing structure to a previously fragmented community.
The hobby of collecting chips, as well as the chip-collecting community, grew a lot in the 1990s when the internet allowed collectors to connect with each other and find information about their chips. Before the internet, there was not a lot of easily-attainable information about older casino chips. There were price guides and catalogs available, but they had to be ordered and paid for, and most people simply didn't know they existed.
The most popular chips understandably come from the most popular gambling areas around the U.S., which are also the longest-running gambling towns. Hence, the most popular source for collector chips is Las Vegas and the surrounding Nevada gambling areas (Lake Tahoe, Reno and Laughlin). Atlantic City is the next most popular. Other popular sources are riverboats, cruise ships, and Indian reservations.
Chips from specific casinos will always be appealing to particularly collectors, especially if the chips are from casinos that have shut down, such as: the old Desert Inn, Dunes, Hacienda and the Sands.
Chips from foreign casinos are particularly rare. They lend an exotic element to one's collection. The rarity is increased by the fact that some non-US casinos don't use chips.
Higher-denomination chips are particularly valuable to collectors. These chips are understandably more rare because of there are always fewer high-denomination chips, but also because people are less likely to hold onto them and keep from cashing them in when they are cancelled because the chips have an intrinsic value that is much higher than their collector value (at least initially).
Illegals are chips that are, or were, used by casinos that operated illegally in their jurisdiction.
Sometimes chips with manufacturer's errors (such as double strikes or incorrect inlays or graphics) bypass the manufacturer's quality controls and work their way into casino circulation. These chips can be particularly valuable since they are so rare.
Because of the increased interest in chip by chip collectors, several casinos now release limited-editions ("LE") of chips with special designs in order to commemorate special events. These special chips are usually manufactured in small volumes ranging from 500 to 5,000, which encourages chip collectors to hold onto them.
But some of the chip collectors who appreciate the history behind casino chips don't buy limited-edition chips because they believe that casinos are issuing too many chips that have little connection to gaming events, such as chips related to sports figures or holidays. They claim these chips don't have any meaning because they have no historical connection and are issued specifically for the purpose of collecting, and are not used for gambling.
Initially, commemorative chips were only issued by the more "fun" casinos, such the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But limited-edition chips have become popular enough over the past few years that even the more serious casinos, such as Steve Wynn's Mirage have gotten into the game. In December 1997, they released Paul-Son chips commemorating illusionists Siegfried & Roy and circus performers Cirque Du Soleil.
One of the funny things about chip collecting is that it is not the chip manufacturers that profit the most from chip collectors' desire to hold onto chips. It's the casinos. If you consider that it costs the casino $1 to purchase a $5 poker chip form the manufacturer, the casino makes a $4 profit on every $5 chip that a gambler keeps in his possession.
Casino profits from chip collectors are particularly high when it comes to commemorative chips. Typically, about 90-95% of commemorative chips are kept by gamblers. When Caesars released one of the highest-denomination commemorative chips - a 50,000 run of $25 chips - there were only 900 left when Caesers removed them from circulation about a year later. Since the chips only cost Caesers 65 cents per chip from the manufacturer, Caesers made a $1.2 million profit.
Because of the recent rise in interesting in collecting casino chips, there is now a glut of new commemorative chips on the market, and the market may be at a temporary peak. It will be interesting to see where the market will be ten years from now.
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