Gambling chips are used in games to represent money being wagered by players. Here the word is used generically and also includes references to gambling checks, tokens, jetons, and plaques.
Chips are used to make play more convenient, as well as more routine and more secure.
From the earliest times, it has been felt necessary to have objects that represented wealth wagered, rather than having the actual wealth put forth in the games. Native Americans had very good control over excessive gambling, in that the players in a game would have to physically place the thing being wagered into an area near the game. If they were betting a horse and a saddle, the horse and saddle would be brought to the game. With these rules of engagement, the players would never wager more than they possessed, nor would they incur a debt because of their gambling. The development of money currencies simplified gambling activity considerably.
One of the latent functions of the use of chips in games has been to help the player “pretend” that the game is just a game and not about the risking of real wealth. This self-delusion has led many players into wagering amounts way beyond their means. The introduction of markers and the use of personal checks in exchange for chips has led many players into serious debt as a result of gambling.
One casino executive applauded the value that chips have given to casinos and game operators, saying that the “guy who invented the chip was a genius” (Sifakis, 65). No one knows who that guy was. The earliest use of chips in games may have been in ancient Egypt. In the western world, chips have been used for many centuries. European (French-style) chips were found in 18th-century casinos such as Bad Ems and Wiesbaden.
They were engraved in mother-of-pearl and later made of bone or ivory. In 19thcentury games in the United States, chips were made from other materials. Ivory was used until it became too scarce and too expensive. In the 1880s, clay chips with a shellac finish were developed. A great advance in chip technology came in the 1950s when plastic became a major component of the chips.
Mixed materials were sometimes used, with clay and plastic compositions surrounding metal centers for the chips. The 1980s saw the development of multicolored chips of very distinctive appearance that could not only be picked out by the trained eyes of dealers and pit bosses but could also be electronically read to assure their genuine character.
The first gambling chips in the United States did not have indications of value marked upon them. They could be used interchangeably for low-stakes and highstakes games, merely by designating their value at the start of a game. These “plain” chips were especially popular in early illegal casinos because they could not be used as evidence if there was a police raid. Legitimate casinos soon found a need to control the flow of chips, however, and they did so by distinctively marking the chips with values and also with casino logos. Today, the only unmarked chips are those of different colors that are used by different players at U.S. roulette games in order to indicate which bet belongs to which player.
European (French-style) chips are different from basic U.S. casino chips in two ways. The European chip (called a jeton) is usually of a plastic composition that has a rounded surface and an oval or round shape. The chips cannot be placed on top of one another but must be spread out to determine their value and to count them. Europeans also use squared plaques for higher denominations—as do some U.S. casinos with substantial play from high rollers. The U.S. chip is invariably circular but has a flat surface.
Although European chips of different values vary in size, all U.S. chips are the same size, with the exception of plaques and some very high-value chips that are larger circles. The U.S. chip can be easily stacked and moved about. Side color markings allow casino personnel and cameras to see their values and check for authenticity. Most of the U.S. chips are the same size as an old silver dollar. Games in the United States move faster than those in Europe, and the stacking chips facilitate game speed. The value chips in U.S. casinos today are referred to by their colors. A $1 chip is white, a $5 chip is red, a $25 chip is green, a $100 chip is black, and a pink chip is worth $500. The notion that a high roller is a “blue chipper” or that a solid value stock on Wall Street is a “blue-chip stock” is apparently a term left over from another day.
U.S. slot machines began using tokens instead of actual coins when the silver dollar started to go out of circulation in the 1960s. The earliest machines used tokens as a way of hiding the fact that they were gambling machines, but law enforcement authorities did not fall for the ruse for long. Federal laws regarding the use of tokens other than official coinage for value transactions were modified so that casinos could have machines accept the tokens.
Today, many casinos outside of Nevada accept only tokens for slot play—in machines with coin acceptors. The tokenaccepting devices have sophisticated mechanisms with comparators that can assess the token shape, size, weight, and metal composition to assure its honesty, for the most part. Slugs or counterfeit tokens and coins are still a problem. The problem is lessened somewhat by the fact that most of the machines have dollar bill acceptors that are gradually replacing coin-in usage for slots and video slots. The players should now have that ultimate reality check each time they put a 20 or 50 dollar bill into a machine. They should know they are playing “real money.” Once the bill is in, however, the player starts hitting a button and playing not money but “credits”—the newest gimmick to separate the player from reality.

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