If you've ever played poker, you know that there's no better feeling than stacking a giant fortress of poker chips and showing your competition that you're a force to be reckoned with on the felt.
But did you ever stop to think that casino chips in general are a relatively new phenomenon? It's true. The history of poker chips didn't start with actual poker chips. The home poker game and even casino poker games today are vastly different than the game our poker-loving ancestors used to play.
Back in the nineteenth century, poker chips didn't even exist. Instead, the Phil Hellmuths and Gus Hansens of the world brought strange objects to the table to gamble with. Things like tiny nuggets of gold - and even gold dust.
Needless to say, some sort of standardization was desperately needed. So the saloons and gaming houses that offered poker games created their own standardized substitutes - pieces of ivory, bones, and clay. Unfortunately, these "standards" were easy to forge, so the gambling houses began to brand those pieces of ivory, bones, and clay with unique symbols and attributes.
Forging remained a problem, so by the 1880s, companies started creating clay composition poker chips, giving birth to an entire industry and ultimately changing the way the world played poker.
If you've got friends who are into holding home poker games with authentic poker chips, you've probably heard them boast about how they only want clay casino chips because they're the most authentic. They'll talk about how they feel realistic - and they'll brag about how their casino tokens are identical to what the real deal uses.
After all, casinos only use clay poker chips, right? Actually, you'd be wrong. Poker tokens aren't 100% clay - even the ones you find in the big casinos. They're actually made from a composite that includes clay, but is much more durable than clay alone.
In addition to clay composite chips, you'll also find ceramic chips at some Las Vegas casinos. Ceramic casino tokens are also popular for home poker games.
The history of poker chips involves a lot of counterfeiting. So if you've never wondered whether modern-day casino chips can be forged, you're probably lying. It's a fair question - and a common one. On the surface, poker chips and casino tokens look pretty simple. It's a circular disc with a nice design on it. Figure out what the design is, replicate the disc, and you're good to go, right?
Wrong. Casino chips are actually harder to forge than American currency. Casino owners know the history of poker chips and all the forgery that goes along with that history. The casino industry knows that there's a huge market for their in-house currency, so they've taken all sorts of security measures to make sure that the chips can't be forged. And if they can be forged, it's easy for a cashier to spot a fake.
Each casino chip is designed to have a certain weight, texture, and feel. If you can replicate that, you still need to deal with things like microchips (many casinos embed their chips with them), serial numbers (yup, some casinos imprint their chips with individual numbers), and tons of other stuff that you have probably never thought of.
When you buy into a poker game at a casino, you're exchanging your money for poker chips. But the way the poker tokens work depend on what type of game you're playing. When you buy into a poker tournament, you might receive $1,500 in poker chips, but the buy-in for the game is only $60. The $1,500 in chips actually holds no cash value, so you couldn't go exchange the chips for cash.
In poker tournaments, you're playing for a piece of the prize pool. The $60 buy-in goes into the pot and the total prize pool is distributed to the top finishers. The number of people who share in the prize pool and the percentage they earn depends on the tournament.
However, if you're playing in a cash game, the poker tokens you purchase actually hold a cash value. So if you buy $1,000 in chips, it will cost you $1,000. The poker chip value will match the cash value. And you can head to the cashier and swap your casino chips for cash at any time.
Casinos use different poker chips for cash games and tournaments, so there's no risk of the casino losing money by handing over cash for tournament tokens that aren't actually worth anything.
Within a casino, poker chips (the ones with cash value) work just like cash. You can use your poker chips to pay for virtually anything on the property - a buffet dinner, something from the gift shop, tips for the waitress. Of course, the rules vary from property to property, but this is the standard.
Imagine you've won a lot of casino tokens playing Blackjack. You're on a roll, but your buddies want to head down to a different casino a few blocks down the strip. Should you cash in your casino chips? Or bring them with you? Well, that depends entirely on where you're headed.
If the casino is owned by the same company, the chips might work at multiple properties. In Las Vegas, it's common to see casino chips with the name of two different casinos printed on them - one on either side is the standard. Obviously, you'll want to check with the pit boss or poker chip cashier first, just to make sure.
Las Vegas casinos are notorious for having seriously big casino chips. After all, no serious Vegas high roller wants to play poker or table games with $5 casino tokens. Paris Las Vegas has a $100,000 casino token, and according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, many casinos have casino plaques in the $1 million and $5 million marks. With the approval of the Nevada Gaming Commission, casinos can create denominations of virtually any value they want, as long as they have the funds to back it up.
But it's not just Vegas casinos that can create poker chips with jaw-droppingly huge value. Just a few years back, a luxury casino chip maker designed a poker token set worth $7.5 million. It came housed in an alligator skin case. And each chip featured various gems and jewels (there were over 22,000 of them in all) totaling over 1,000 carats. Now that's one hell of a high stakes poker game.
Do you collect poker chips? If you've followed the history of poker chips, you'll want to listen to this story. A few years ago, a woman posted a $1 casino chip to eBay, with a reserve of $10. The $1 poker chips was from the Showboat casino in Vegas. She was contacted by an honest collector who let her know that the $1 chip could be worth as much as $15k. And soon enough, it sold for $30,000. So if you've been collecting casino tokens on your trips to Vegas, check your junk drawer to see what you've got.
The poker boom of the mid-2000s was a huge boon for makers of clay composite poker chips. Those who loved to play online poker found an equal fondness for live game poker. So poker players young and old started holding more home poker games. And those plastic chips that come with a deck of cards just didn't cut it.
Those holding home poker games wanted real poker chips, just like the casinos used. So chip set manufacturers began creating them in record numbers. When the poker craze began, a small set was going for as much as a few hundred on eBay. But as more and more manufacturers started to create them, the prices dropped. Today, you can get a decent set of 300 casino tokens for less than the price of a night out at the movies.
And if you're serious about holding authentic home poker games, you can actually pick up your own customized poker chips. Several companies will let you create customizable casino tokens. They cost a lot more than regular casino tokens, but if you're serious about poker, there's no better way to show it.
Of course, there is one item that we haven't mentioned yet - shuffling poker chips. Watch any poker game on TV and you'll see players clinking their chips and twirling them around their fingers in all sorts of strange ways. They are not (usually) trying to show off their chip shuffle moves. Instead, they normally begin shuffling chips when they are thinking.
If you've ever played at a casino, or in a home game in which poker chips are being used, this is definitely something you are going to see. So why not get in on the poker chip shuffling act and learn to do it for yourself.
Start with two piles of poker chips, with four chips in each pile. Place the piles side by side and put your pinky and ring finger on the right pile, while your thumb and index finger catch hold of the left pile. Keep your middle finger lifted out of the way for the minute - that will come into play soon.
By applying gentle pressure on both piles, bring them together. Too much pressure and they'll mash up and make a mess. Keep the pressure steady and gentle and the piles will buckle.
As the chips buckle up, use your middle finger as a guide to get them to interlock. Keep the pressure steady and the chips stacks will now interlock. Congratulations, you have completed the poker chip shuffle.
Do bear in mind that chip shuffling takes a little practice. But if your persevere, you should get to grips with it in no time.
There's a lot of debate among people who have studied the history of poker chips. Many casino experts wonder whether poker chips will be replaced by electronic devices. While that might be the case online where everything is virtual, casinos tend to be a bit more conservative.
Poker players, no matter how modern they might seem, like to physically see what's in front of them and what others are holding. Many professional poker players also like to play with their casino tokens while they contemplate their decisions. By going digital and replacing poker tokens with electronic devices, that element of the game is totally gone.
For those reasons alone, we can expect to see poker chips as we know them in casinos for a very long time. Perhaps the anti-fraud technology will become more and more advanced, but to the naked eye, casino chips will remain virtually the same. And that's a good thing.