Hunters have their ammunition, carpenters wield their hammers, and casino gamblers handle chips. These are the tools of the trade and without them, the blackjack, roulette, craps, and poker tables that define Sin City would be eerily empty. Gamblers handle hundreds or even thousands of different chips on any given trip to the casino, and countless millions can be found scattered throughout Las Vegas and its surrounding suburbs.
You might even have a few from your favorite gambling hall sitting on your desk. But despite their essential nature within the industry, chips are often taken for granted by the gambling masses. To change that, here are five facts about the casino’s replacement for cash that every gambler should know.
Gamblers Used Everything From Gold Nuggets to Guns as Chips
The first documented use of what modern gamblers know as the casino chip occurred in France back in the mid-18th century. At that time, French gamblers enjoyed a complex trick-based card game using a modified 40-card deck known as quadrille.
The game itself has long since passed into obscurity, but it made a meaningful contribution to casino gambling history that lasts to this day in the form of a three-piece chip set. To play quadrille, players ponied up their stake to purchase a basket containing an assortment of three unique chips.
In his 1752 book “Quadrille Elucidated,” author and quadrille expert Q. Quanti described the game’s chip basket in detail. According to Quanti, quadrille players handled a basket holding 10 jettons (French for “tokens”), 19 fiches (French for “files”), and 5 contrats (French for “contracts”).
One fiche was worth 10 jettons, while one contrat was worth 10 fiches to create an escalating scale of chip denominations.
The various chips were exchanged amongst four players as each maneuvered through their randomly dealt hands during a series of 40 tricks. Quadrille chips didn’t hold any monetary value themselves, but they acted as a scoring system through which the players assessed their financial gains and losses at the end of the game.
And in long running games where hard currency wasn’t readily available, players were even known to wager with bullets, guns, knives, and other items carried on their person.
Eventually, to avoid disputes over stolen goods and counterfeit coins, enterprising gambling hall operators began using standardized chip sets. Players paid the house to receive a commensurate amount of chips, then cashed them in when the winning was done.
You’ll Find Many Different Colors and Denominations
The typical casino cashier’s cage doles out $1 chips that are usually white or blue, $5 chips known as “redbirds” for their crimson color, green $25 chips, and black $100s.
Using these four color / denomination combos, gamblers who play low- or mid-stakes can navigate the table game pit perfectly fine.
But along with the primary four colors and values, casinos use a laundry list of lesser known chips to keep the money train chugging along.
You’ll find special pink $2.50 chips reserved for the blackjack table, so dealers can quickly pay out a $7.50 winner on a $5 blackjack bet at 3-to-2 odds. Poker rooms utilize brown $10 chips to ensure efficient betting at stakes like $5/$10 and $10/$20.
And the casino high-rollers splash around using $500 chips that are almost always purple, $5,000 red, white, and blue striped chips known as “flags,” and even violet $25,000 chips lovingly referred to as “cranberries.”
Those Little Lines, Squares, and Other Insignia on the Edge
Colors may catch the eye, but for casino security systems that largely rely on black-and-white screens, chips need to be distinguishable in another way.
And that’s where Regulation 12.030(d) of the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) comes into play…
According to that rule governing casino chips in the Silver State, operators must design their various chip denominations with a special touch:
“Each chip must be designed so that when stacked with chips and tokens of other denominations and viewed on closed-circuit, black-and-white television, the denomination of the chip can be distinguished from that of the other chips and tokens in the stack.”
Pull up a Google search for “casino chip stacks” and ignore the usual suspects like the logo and the dollar amount. Instead, check the outer edges of the chips and look for small “splotches” in the form of lines, squares, triangles, and other shapes. These insignia are added to all casino chips to comply with Regulation 12.030(d).
Essentially, even without the ability to see colors, security staff watching on the closed-circuit TVs can quickly scan a chip stack and determine its total value. In addition, when a player mixes various chip values together in one stack (known as a “dirty” stack in poker parlance), security can sort through the different stripes to tell which ones are which.
Most players never even notice these small design enhancements, but once you do, you’ll can’t forget how they work.
Pocketing a Chip From the Ground Is Actually a Criminal Offense
I’ll never understand this one, but in most jurisdictions where casino gambling is legal, finding a stray chip on the ground and putting it in your pocket is considered a crime.
Fortunately for fans of the “finder’s keepers” rule, the NGCB sees things differently, so gamblers in Sin City aren’t considered sinful when they score a free chip – from the floor that is.
Try to take a chip from another player or dealer at the table, and you can bet your bottom dollar that security will be having a stern word with you sometime soon.
The Average Casino Chip Carries More Bacteria Than a Toilet Seat
Anybody who handles casino chips on a regular basis has likely noticed the little brown “stains” that never seem to go away.
This layer of dirt and grime accumulates day after day, year after year as chips are passed back and forth from hand to hand. For the most part, well-run modern casinos tend to this problem by regularly removing and replacing chips caked with crud. On the other hand, smaller, more rundown casinos don’t have the same dedication to cleansing their inventory.
In any event, casino chips are obviously not the cleanest surface on the casino floor.
But you’d be surprised to learn just how filthy these little guys really are…
In a 2007 study conducted by the University of Las Vegas-Nevada (UNLV), a research team collected and analyzed several chips from prominent casinos on The Strip. Using the “swab and incubate” method, Professor Brian Hedlund sought to see exactly which microorganisms could be found growing on casino chips.
Some chips were even found to hold methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as the antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection MRSA.
In an age when sanitization and dodging germs has never been so important, take heed of the warning UNLV pandemic expert Dennis Pirages offered to the Las Vegas Sun in a recent interview:
“It only takes 24 hours for a disease to spread from Southern Europe to Las Vegas.
I hate to think of a poker chip as a wonderful way to pass a virus, but…”
Fortunately for you, Hedlund and Pirages want to make one thing clear about the unseen world of microbes and other germs. Just one of your hands, right now at this very moment, is home to over 100 billion bacterial, fungal, and viral microbes. The human body is positively covered from head to toe with these microbes 24/7, simply because they’ve evolved to use us as hosts.
Evolution is a powerful thing though, which means your body’s immune system has millennia worth of fine tuning programmed directly into your DNA. The microbes are there, they’re just almost entirely benign unless you have an immunocompromised system leaving you especially vulnerable.
Nonetheless, when in doubt, it’s always better to be safe than sorry while handling chips. Wash your hands before and after, don’t eat finger foods or smoke cigarettes while you play, and avoid touching the grossest chips that cross your path.
When you spend as much time gambling as I have over the years, the chips that casinos use instead of money, and the way they connect players to the game in a tangible fashion inevitably become a source of fascination. From their construction and coloration, the various denominations and values, and sorry to say, the microscopic environments they cultivate, are all interesting in their own right.
Perhaps you view chips as merely a means to an end, or maybe you’re a collector who covets a memento from every casino you can find. In any case, I hope this primer on what makes the humble casino chip so special opens your eyes on your next gambling adventure.