You see them everywhere you find gaming tables, shuffled between fingers with ease or stacked with a nervous twitch. Colorful and light, poker chips have become a mainstay of every poker game; showing at a glance how much money a player has invested in a particular game. But where did this idea of using poker chips come from?
The concept of representing something of value with a replacement object goes back hundreds of years to the 1700s with bones and small pieces of ivory being used as surrogates. After all, it’s one thing to bet a handful of gold coins another to stack them all on the table beside someone’s equal stack of silver and copper coins. Such a disorderly table could lead to possible distractions and theft, not to mention confusion as to which stack belonged to whom. Paper was a popular substitute for cold hard cash as well as small pieces of ivory, bone and clay. And at the end of every game the winner would then return the proxy to his owner for the cold hard cash.
But this led to more problems than just having stacks of cash on the table. Unscrupulous players would duplicate these makeshift chips and add or subtract from their stack at will, stealing from the other players. As well, these rather delicate items didn’t stand up well to continued use, leading to chips breaking off of the main body of bone and ivory – confusing the players even more as to what was being represented here. Is that small chip of bone a new bet, or just an accident of that larger piece hitting the table too hard? And how much is that hunk of clay worth, anyway?
The casinos began to worry as well with the eventual organization of poker into a standard parlor game. In the early 20th century counterfeiting chips became a major concern with more and more money exchanging hands and the industry growing by leaps and bounds. The casino owners knew that something had to be done to assure the quality and the quantity of each chip that was played at their tables – not to mention keeping track of each casino’s chips!
Each casino began to personalize their chips; adding a special mark or insignia in the center to make sure that their customers knew where they were playing and, more importantly, where to cash their chips in. Before this it was too simple to take your chips from one casino to the other, making it a major concern for the winners and the losers.
But the chips didn’t look like the ones you see in Las Vegas today – in some cases the different denominations often were of different sizes, much like regular currency. Your ten-dollar chip was significantly bigger than your five and so forth. Expermentation went on for years with each casino trying to find out what worked best for their customers.
Eventually the poker chip evolved into a single standard size and was generally made either from plastic or a clay mixture with the insignia of the casino issuing the clip embossed or inscribed in the center. But counterfeiting is still a major concern and technology is even now being used to fight fake chips being passed in casinos. Small computer chips and holographic symbols embedded on or in the poker chip itself are helping casinos make sure that every player is getting his or her dollar’s worth.
From a simple hunk of animal bone through to a small disc of ivory to the light and versatile plastic circles we use today, poker chips have undergone an evolution like no other. Maybe those plastic chips you have at home may become a collector’s item in the future as you show them off to your grandchildren!