Why “Silver Mining” in Las Vegas Is a Lost Art

Mining Pick With Quarters and Slot Machines

When I talk about “silver mining” in Las Vegas, you’d be forgiven for visualizing an old miner with a mule, a pick, and a shovel. But that’s not the kind of silver miner I’m talking about at all.

At one time, it used to relatively common for people to look for forgotten coins in the trays of gambling machines in Las Vegas and other gambling destinations.

This doesn’t happen anymore, and in this post, I explain why.

The First Time I Heard About Silver Mining

I have a friend who lived in Reno in the 1970s. He was a compulsive gambler who was playing poker for a living and staying with his girlfriend. Eventually, he lost all his money at the poker tables. When he did, his girlfriend dumped him. So, he wound up living in his car and looking for a job he couldn’t find.

My “silver mining” friend explained to me that sometimes, gamblers would leave a little change in the trays of the slot machines in the casinos. He’d wander through the casinos looking for change and scooping it up whenever he found it.

According to him, he could find enough change doing that to buy himself a sandwich every day.

He eventually got a job cleaning up at a neighborhood bar, and finally went on to become a successful salesman. But before I met him, I’d never heard of such a thing as a “silver miner” in a casino.

You Didn’t Have to Be Broke to Be a Silver Miner

I read a book by Bob Dancer called Million Dollar Video Poker. He explains that during his first few years living in Las Vegas, he was constantly on the lookout for coins in slot machine trays and coins that had been dropped on the floor of the casino. He claims that he found a total of about $200 over that period of time.

That’s not a good hourly wage at all, but he was getting started as a professional gambler with a small bankroll. Every penny counted in those days.

He goes on in his book to explain that silver mining is an “art form” because casinos don’t allow the practice. In fact, if they identify you as a silver miner, they’ll send a security guard to escort you out of the facility.

Slot Machine Coin Tray

This makes sense if you think about it from the casinos’ perspective. After all, they spend marketing dollars to attract gamblers who want to lose money in their casinos. The types of people scavenging for lost coins are bad for business.

The trick is to find a game with a dollar or so left in the tray and sit down and pretend to actually play the slot machine for a couple of minutes. You could even put your players club card in the machine and insert a $10 bill.

You might make a single spin, you might not, but when you cash out, your coins are mixed with the coins that were left in the hopper.

TITO Technology Has Eliminated Silver Mining

TITO stands for “ticket in, ticket out.” If you go to a casino nowadays, you don’t put coins in the machines, and the machines don’t pay out in coins either. Instead, you insert bills into the gambling machines. When you cash out, the machine prints a paper ticket with how many credits you have. You can use this paper ticket at a different machine or turn it into cash elsewhere in the casino.

MGM bought and further developed TITO technology from Five Star Solutions. The barcode printing technology was also developed further by Jon Yarbrough, who went on to launch VGT. IGT, the largest slot machine manufacturer in the world, later bought TITO technology from MGM.

With the exception of the El Cortez Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, I don’t know of any other gambling spots where the slot machines still use coins. Although when I first started visiting casinos regularly in the late 1990s, many casinos still paid out in coins. In those days, you’d have stacks of plastic buckets throughout the casinos that you could use to carry your coins around in.

Has Silver Mining Been Replaced With Something Else?

It probably doesn’t take long to realize that if gamblers would leave coins lying in hoppers, they might also leave slot machine tickets lying around, too. In fact, gamblers leave between $5 and $10 million in forgotten or abandoned tickets in Nevada casinos every year.

These tickets expire on the date set by the casino or 180 days, whichever comes first.

Some people might pick up those tickets, but the casino staff also collects some of those tickets. What happens to the money on the tickets that the casinos pick up?

Slot Machine Cashout Voucher

As it turns out, some of that money goes to the state of Nevada. For at least a decade in Las Vegas, the law requires that casinos turn 75% of the revenue from these lost vouchers over to the state. The casinos get to keep the other 25%.

That’s how we know how much money gets abandoned on these vouchers. It’s all collected and accounted for via The Nevada Gaming Control Board. Presumably, these estimates don’t include tickets that players find, pick up, and cash in for themselves.

These organizations don’t keep up with how much an average ticket is worth—at least, they don’t report it to the public.

Finding the Players Who Have Lost Their Tickets

Since most of the time these lost tickets are for small amounts, most gamblers don’t worry about trying to redeem these tickets. Even if the amount is significant, many gamblers will probably just assume that their tickets and the money is gone. After all, these vouchers are anonymous.

All major Las Vegas casinos have players clubs that could be used to put lost tickets back into the hands of their rightful owners.

The public relations teams at casinos claim that they try to do this when a ticket is big enough to warrant. They don’t all say what the cutoff amount is, but I’ve seen at least one PR person say that they’ll try to find the owner of a ticket worth $10 or more.

And it’s possible that they’re more interested in encouraging players to join their loyalty club than anything else.

Should You Scavenge Winning Tickets From Machines?

There are easier ways to make money than scavenging lost tickets from gambling machines. You won’t make much of a living at it if you try to do it full time.

But yes, you could theoretically cash in a lost ticket that you’ve found. It’s not like the tickets are much different from casino chips or money. If you find a $20 bill or a $5 casino chip, are you going to search for the owner or just cash it in?

Strictly speaking, though, a casino ticket belongs to the gambler who won it. “Finders keepers” apparently doesn’t have much legal standing in Nevada.

Two Cent Slot Machine

The correct thing to do from a legal perspective is to turn a lost ticket—or cash or chips, for that matter—is to turn them into the security department at the casino. Different casinos have different policies, but it wouldn’t be unusual for a casino to have a policy where you could claim the lost property if the person who lost it doesn’t claim it.

Basically, in Nevada, keeping a lost slot machine voucher would be considered theft. The value of the ticket determines whether it’s felony theft of misdemeanor theft.

What About Credits Left on a Slot Machine?

You might also find slot machines where the gambler didn’t play all his credits on that machine. This means you could sit down at the machine and get free spins. Or you could just hit the cash out button and take the ticket.

The same rules apply to credits left on a machine as those that apply to lost tickets, chips, and cash. The credits on the machine belong to the gambler who left them there.

Sure, it’s irresponsible of a gambler to leave credits on a slot machine. I wouldn’t blame you or call you a sinner if you decided to cash in such a ticket or play those credits.

It’s your own conscience that you need to deal with.

Final Thoughts on “Mining for Silver”

You can’t go mining for silver when visiting Las Vegas anymore, but even though technology has eliminated the coins, it hasn’t eliminated the opportunity.

Legally and morally, scavenging this kind of money is a gray area. The amount determines how big the penalty is legally. I know a lot of people who gamble who aren’t so interested in the legality of the situation as much as they are the risk factors involved.

I think it’s unlikely to get in trouble for cashing in someone else’s lost casino ticket unless it were for a large amount of money, in which case, I suspect most gamblers keep a close eye on their ticket.

But you need to make your own decisions related to risks and rewards legally and morally.

Even if you’re not worried about the potential legal consequences, you might be worried about your immortal soul.

That last part’s unlikely, though. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a gambler already anyway, and you’re probably not too worried about sinning.