Gaming chips or “cheques” have been part of gambling for centuries,
but collecting them and related items like tokens has enjoyed a
significant following only since the 1970s.
The catapulting event was a 1965 change in Nevada law that allowed
casinos to make their own gaming tokens. Silver prices were so high
the casinos could not keep enough silver dollars on hand. Land-based,
floating and cruise line casinos around the world soon followed suit
in creating their own tokens in reaction to the silver coin shortage,
and an entire field of exonumia was born anew.
Gambling tokens, cheques, chips and jetons have been available to
collect for centuries, but casino numismatics didn’t take off until
Nevada casinos began making their own tokens and strikes in the late
1960s. These new pieces were coin-like and often coin-sized in their
design and were made out of typical coin metals like silver and
copper-nickel. Because they resembled coins so much, and because many
designs were flirtatious if not naughty, many casino customers took
them home. Overnight, a once sleepy field of exonumia was reborn and
began to grow in size, created to serve gambler and tourist alike.
These diverse items are made from materials ranging from gilded
silver to clay. Early chips made of mother-of-pearl and ivory gave way
in the 1880s to shellac and clay composites with anti-counterfeiting
embossed surfaces. Manufacturing picked up after 1931 when Nevada
became the first state to legalize gambling.
Clay poker chips remain in use in many casinos worldwide,
including the Kickapoo Casino in McLoud, Okla. An undated
38-millimeter example of one of its $1 clay chips shows the same eagle
feather design on both sides. It was acquired the same year the casino
opened, in 2002.
Gambling token denominations are numerous, including odd
denominations as well as those found in legal tender. One fractional
example is a 25-cent, quarter-sized brass token from the Palm Beach
Casino Cruise Line, issued circa 1998. Cruise line casinos offer games
of chance similar to those offered by casinos found on land and
rivers. However, the Cruise Line casinos use different denominations,
such as $12 strikes instead of $10 strikes found at land-based casinos.
Fifty-cent gaming tokens are typically the size of a United States
A 50-cent token from the Silver Slipper Club in Las Vegas was
brought home by my father after he visited the casino in 1967. He
liked the “pretty showgirl” design. Casinos took notice of the fact
that many visitors were like my dad. Since it costs much less than 50
cents to make a half dollar token, the casinos make money on every
By 1978, enough collector interest was shown industry-wide in the
$1 and larger denomination silver tokens to encourage creation of an
international series designed to appeal to hobbyists, issued by the
Franklin Mint (also one of the principal minters of the tokens for use
by the casinos). One of the 25 tokens from this private mint’s popular
“Gaming Coins of the World’s Great Casinos” series is the Proof silver
100-peso token made for the Manila Bay Casino in the Philippines.
Every denomination in the series was the equivalent of $25 U.S. at the
time of manufacture.
American Indian casinos have contributed to the wealth of
collectibles, too, ever since the passage of the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act in 1988. The Oneida Casino in Wisconsin opened in 1990
and issued a 1.5-ounce .999 fine silver $5 gaming token 44 millimeters
in diameter in 1994. Among silver casino tokens, this is one of the
more unusual sizes and denominations.
The $7 face value silver gaming tokens are much more common.
Harrah’s Casino was the first to issue a $1 token in 1965 and
continues to issue strikes to this day such as the illustrated
0.65-ounce .999 fine silver $7 token with coyote design (36 millimeters).
The ringed-bimetallic $10 token with a 0.60-ounce silver core and
a brass ring is definitely the most popular format with casino token
collectors. They were developed in 1992 by casinos in Reno and Tahoe
as premiums to be won in slot machines.
Casinos have cashed in on collector interest with limited
editions, commemorative themes and different colored capsules or
holders. Some casinos have flirted with the hobby by issuing designs
that feature collecting clubs. For instance, in 2003, the El Cortez
Casino in Las Vegas issued a $10 token for the 11th Annual Convention
of the Silver Strikers Chapter of the Casino Chip & Gaming Token
Some large silver pieces look like ringed-bimetallic tokens
because they have selective gold plating.
One such example is an undated $20 chip from the Westward Ho
Casino along the Las Vegas Strip. It is 47 millimeters in diameter,
contains 1.28 troy ounces of pure silver with gilded areas and was
made in 1995.
Rising silver prices continue to have a huge impact on this hobby.
Since 2009, for example, some casinos have issued silver-plated clad
tokens to appeal to budget-conscious customers. They are easy to spot
because they lack the legend “.999 silver.”
Popular with bullion collectors as well as exonumia enthusiasts,
massive $200 tokens contain 12 ounces or one troy pound of pure
silver, and are almost always selectively gilded. Since 2011, these
have morphed into $300 issues but now have only half as much silver,
or 6 ounces. ■