History of Poker Chips

Poker Chips were first used in the 18th century to make sense out of the wide range of currency and barter pieces then in circulation. The problem was not that there was so many as there also was no consistency of value. Gold and silver were stable elements but even there, people were always trying to take advantage. For example the silver 8 Reale piece was also known as a dollar or peso but is more commonly known as a “piece of eight”. This is because it is easily divided into eight “bits” each worth 1 Reale or about 12.5c. Hence “two bits” is a quarter.

However it was common to “clip” or “shave” the more valuable gold pieces like the $20 “Double Eagle” and make 11 coins from 10. Instant profit until they came across someone who could tell the difference, usually with scales. Even more common were “bank notes” literally issued by local banks for different values. One of the first uses of the telegraph was to verify that a large quantity of banknotes came from a bank that was still solvent.

Even currencies issued by governments often “weren’t worth a Continental” as the early US Government issued many particularly for goods seized to provision the army. Later the “Confederate Dollar” suffered the same fate. So gambling halls both in the US and other countries had a problem: while very lucrative, literally anything of value was likely to be wagered. At the same time the tables and wheels were valuable, and time spent figuring out worth was not. The result was the poker chip aka casino chip and related to the plaques used for large denominations (usually over $5000).

This enabled a specialist/cashier at the entrance to the casino to be able to quickly gauge the value of whatever the patron offered (and is some cases just on their word) and issue specie in the appropriate amount that was then used for the wagers. This freed the croupiers and dealers and wheelmen from having to pause in the separation of the sheep from their fleeces. On departure, the patron would exchange whatever was left (if anything) for currency. A very efficient operation.

(I have often been amused by the “98% slots” billboards in Vegas that tell you up front that there is no expectation of leaving with what you brought).

Later and often aligned with temperance movements, various locales outlawed gambling. Constables would stage raids and money on the table was considered prima facie evidence that the law was being broken and subject to confiscation. This gave rise to the private use of chips and the hiding of any currency until settling up at the end of the game and is still used to this day.

Poker chips are usually color coded for value. At one time “nickel, dime, and quarter referred to different chip values and “penny-ante” was a really “cheap deal”.

In general the color coding is as follows

White                  1

Yellow                2

Red                     5

Blue                  10

With more complex sets including

Grey                  20

Green                25

Orange              50

Black              100

Pink                250

Purple             500

Burgundy      1000

Light Blue     2000

Brown           5000

All and all, nothing beats playing Monopoly ® with real money. Next to that, chips for what ever value can be a real hoot.