The Lure of Casino Chips

What is it exactly that makes people collect casino chips? Is it the round shape? After all, who hasn’t taken a coin of some type and flipped it – heads, tails, heads, tails…………that’s got to be a universal urge. But chips, I’m not sure.

The fact that you can hold a chip in your hand helps, and it represents money, or better yet, it represents the quest for more money, easy money. That one little chip can be transformed into a lot more. Hell, “Tree Top” Jack Straus turned the phrase “a chip and a chair” into reality when he won the 1982 World Series of Poker Championship after being nearly busted early in the tournament.

Straus was down to just one $500 chip before doubling up several times and eventually winning the largest paying single sporting event in history (at the time), some $520,000. That chip must have been magical! And that’s how I feel about all the chips I collect.

Every chip I have is special for some reason. Some, only because I like the look of the chip, or because I traded it with somebody special (I have a few ugly chips I like because Bruce Landau or Doug Saito and I haggled over them at some point). Others are from casinos where I played a little poker or blackjack, even winning sometimes.

However, the main reason I love casino chips is that they represent the casino itself: the history of the casino and the people who built gaming. When I hold a chip from the Calneva at North Shore Lake Tahoe circa 1930, I know who was in the club and running things at the time.

I know Bill Graham or Jim McKay probably authorized that chip, and I know their own history. I know movie stars like Clara Bow played in the club at the time – and could have even touched that very chip. How could that connection be any more intoxicating?

Don’t collect chips? Well, there is still time for you to turn your life around. Maybe you already collect old dice, postcards, ashtrays or some other casino memorabilia – and you probably get the same excitement as I do with the chips. Or maybe you don’t. Perhaps you should give it a try.

Go ahead, I dare you.

Nevada Gaming History

I’ve been a gambler my whole life, ever since I started pitching pennies and shooting marbles. I hate to lose, so most of my education came on the cheap, and I’ve stayed with games I could beat, and steered away from people and games I couldn’t.

Near the beginning, I was a nine-year-old kid playing a Superior Jackpot Bell slot machine in the basement of my great grandparent’s house in Oakland, California.

We’d made the trip in from the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel, my parents and I, and my older sister, but I could only visit so long before my little brain got bored.

When that happened, I’d go through the kitchen to the little porch in back and head down the stairs. Then, I’d pull the latch on the basement door and flip the switch to the dirt-floored, musty old room and check things out. It was creepy in there, but it was always exciting.

Once, I found old magazines from the 1950s like TV Guide and Time. I moved on. Only the Playboy magazine kept me interested for more than a few minutes. But what really got my attention was a big metal thing with a handle.

I saw it hiding under a bunch of old boxes filled with papers and Christmas ornaments that I shoved aside. Once exposed I realized this wasn’t a candy machine. It was an old slot machine. I’d seen newer ones at the casinos in Lake Tahoe, the place where my Aunt Val once hit a 10-cent Keno ticket for $500.

My heart was thumping as I pushed some rolled-up rugs further away so I could turn the machine around. It was no easy task since it weighed about as much as I did. It scraped noisily against the coarse wood and slowly swiveled as I huffed and puffed. The back revealed a door that came off once I turned the key. Inside there were big spools with colored-fruit symbols, springs, gears, and a small square box with a hole in the top.

I pulled the box out and opened it. Talk about a jackpot! It was filled with dimes. Old ones, made of silver. I played with them while my mind traveled with me to the local Seven Eleven I rode my banana seat bike to that sold packs of baseball cards and Slurpees.

Sometime later I managed to get my hand out of the cold hard cash and turn the darned monstrosity around again. Then, I started putting the dimes I had taken from the box, back into the machine, one at a time. Mostly I hit cherries on the first reel, which paid back a few coins. I must have played for an hour before I heard my mother calling me to “Get up here!”

I felt an enormous temptation to take a handful of dimes with me to buy candy or (sound of harps in the background) baseball cards. I was a San Francisco Giants fan, and Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry – holy cow, they were all there, just a few minutes away at Candlestick Park – and a dime bought two packs of cards that offered a chance (slim, mind you) of getting one of their gum cards. So much temptation for such a simple mind. But no, no, I wouldn’t do it; not even for baseball cards.

Over the years I may have taken a few dimes, but not many because that slot machine was the best thing in the world. It was sacred, even if nobody in the family remembered it was down there in the basement. And for a long time, all I wanted was a slot machine of my own.

My First Casino

The best I could manage was a tiny 35-cent machine from a strange little store in town with lots of trinkets from Japan and around the Orient. My math skills were still developing, but my curiosity pushed me to count each stop on the wheels (10 total) and the Bar-Bar-Bar jackpot symbols that only appeared once on each reel.

In addition, a cherry and two cherries only came up once each, and there my friends, was the beginning of my understanding of the magical properties of gambling.

I let my friends play my little slot machine, for a penny a pull, and I paid them a penny for a cherry, two-cents for two cherries, and 5-cents for a jackpot. They were happily playing an 80% payback machine, and the next week I bought two more machines (all in pennies, to the cashier’s dismay) and had my own casino.

My gaming joint, located in our extra bedroom, also offered a small roulette wheel and a pachinko machine. A few days later my mother came into my little casino and busted me. I was shut down; out of business, but richer for the experience. I learned to figure some percentages with those little slot machines.

I also learned to calculate baseball player batting averages (divide their hits by at-bats) and a pitcher’s ERA (earned run average) from the back of those old baseball cards. So, those early cards and slot machines taught me math, and sent me on a path that included playing baseball and lots of poker with buddies through high school and college, and finally spending my adulthood in casinos – on both sides of the tables.

The casinos have been a good gig for me, and the history of Nevada and how the early casinos were legalized and grew from their original spots in basements (like that old 1928 Caille slot I played a Grandma’s) and second floors to become the lifeblood of Nevada’s 20th Century economic base has been a lifelong learning for me.

In confession, I’ve also taught math to some of my daughters with coins paid by slot machines, since they grew up with slots and crane machines in the house. I even have a photo or two of them playing the slot machines in their jammies, occasionally with a bottle of milk in the other hand.

The photo above is one of those slot machines, a cool double reel or “piggyback” that I bought from the old Overland Casino in Reno, but that’s another story.

Totally Nevada Since the 1970s

I’ve been Totally Nevada since I was a kid in the 1970s. there were so many things to do (skiing, horseback riding, swimming at Lake Mead and Lake Tahoe, sneaking into the Sahara pool on the Strip, and wandering the casinos looking for loose quarters in the coin trays of slot machines, to name a few) I was always busy.

I played Keno with my dad overlooking downtown Reno from the Horseshoe restaurant, did the same from the coffee shop at Barney’s at Lake Tahoe, and waited until he had put a few nickles in the slot machines at the Commercial hotel-casino in Elko before wandering out of that coffee shop to pull the handles when I was just 10 or 11 years old.

I don’t blame my dad for getting me started with gambling, I thank him. And after all, I was obviously getting fed, just like the slots were. And, he did teach me to play poker, but it was my Grandma Marge who taught me blackjack. Her dad was a riverboat gambler who failed to return to the family farm from a trip to New Orleans when she was my age.

On the other side of the family, my great-great-uncle managed to lose the family’s fortune in Monte Carlo, causing the Baron and his daughters to move to the US. That’s pedigree, not despair. Live and learn.

When I’m not writing about Nevada and casinos, I’m in the casino, and the only thing I see wrong with that is the smoke! Got a question? I’m smarter than I look.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Beautiful Heber, Arizona and the Buckskin Lodge






So here we are, halfway between Casino Arizona’s Talking Stick Resort in 60 degrees Scottsdale and Buffalo Thunder, outside Santa Fe in New Mexico.

All right, halfway may not be accurate. I can’t remember. Talking Stick has 497 rooms, Buffalo Thunder has 395. Heber, Arizona along highway 260, 40 miles from Holbrook and 50 miles from Payson has no casino.

However, that’s where we end up in the middle of 20-degree weather and a snowstorm to beat all snowstorms. It’s just after Christmas and there are no rooms available at the inn! We are in the mountains; the highways are closed in all directions. I thought Arizona was hot.

Turns out this time of year the town of Heber has plenty of snow. What it doesn’t have is plenty of hotel rooms. I can’t see across the road with snow gusting at 45-MPH in my eyes. They are watering as I look desperately for a room for my wife and our two little girls.

I struggle back to the car and do what I always do when I’m in a spot like this, I ask my wife for help. She takes to the snow at our last possible chance for a room and she comes up empty. But wait, the Buckskin Lodge isn’t just a motel, it’s a home away from home.

I know this because Tim and Cheryl Carlin at the Buckskin are so amazing, they actually took us into their home – and here we are, waiting out the storm. So, no report from Buffalo Thunder or Talking Stick casinos.

On the other hand, we are all having a great time eating popcorn and watching TV, scanning our emails using the wireless internet access that is available for all guests, so I finished some work on poker and we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves. When the roads open, we’ll move on, but we won’t meet any owners nicer than the Carlin’s – Thank You so much for the hospitality.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

2010 Chip Convention on the way to Las Vegas

The 2010 edition of the CC&GTCC convention hits Las Vegas in just a few weeks. This year’s event is being held at the South Point Casino. Conventioneers will begin arriving as early as the 18th, but the main event, the show in the Grand Ballroom, opens to the public on June 24th at 10:00 AM

In the early 1980s, Bill Borland started a small newsletter to feature the casino chips he was selling. I followed suit in 1984 with the National Registry and then continued with Casino and Gaming Chips Magazine in 1986. Archie Black added articles to my offerings and in 1987, he started the Casino Chips and Gaming Token Collectors Club.

Early collectors like Phil Jensen, Bruce Landau, myself, and Dale Seymour, we hitting flea markets, antique store and casinos alike to find old and interesting chips. Seymour followed his collecting bug and published the book Antique Gambling Chips.

Seymour’s book was followed by Howard and Kregg Herz’s work, A Collectors Guide to Nevada Gaming Checks and Chips. As the curator for Harvey’s Wagon Wheel at Lake Tahoe, Herz established the largest collection of individual casino chips in the world and found a niche for his efforts in the book penned by he and his wife.

About the same time, Allan Myers, Ernest Wheelden, and Michael Knapp put out a price guide to the casino chips and checks of Nevada. Their work was titled The Chip Rack and included hundreds of pages of chip varieties, casino starting dates, and a value code for known chips. The book is routinely updated to keep up with an ever-expanding line of casino chips and new finds.

Individual chips are made by a variety of chip manufacturers, but some of the older varieties from out of business suppliers are in great demand. Inlaid gambling chips (Crest and Seal-type) manufactured by the U.S. Playing Card Company are a favorite of collectors.

Robert Eisenstadt has devoted a lifetime to collecting and cataloging old chips, and his web site features photos of his collection. Inlaid chips sell from just a few dollars to thousands for rare chips from favorite old Las Vegas casinos clubs like the Dunes, the Flamingo, and the Great Provider.

Because the hobby has blossomed and new price guides like The Official US Casino Chip Price Guide (By James Campiglia and Steve Wells) have hit the market, collecting continues to be popular – and prices have risen to amazing levels.

According to Anthony Curtis, the man behind the Las Vegas Advisor, a record price for a $1 denomination chip was realized after retiree Sandy Marbs listed a single chip on eBay that she found at the bottom of her jewelry box.

The chip, a souvenir from a trip to Las Vegas in 1960, was a rare Showboat Las Vegas issue; one of only three known to exist. Marbs started the listing at $2.25 and watched in amazement as the bidding took off. When the dust settled and the emails to stop the auction early and make a deal ended, the auction ended with a final price of $28,988.88

I guess that $1 investment paid off pretty well.

I hope I see many of you at this year’s convention and don’t forget, I’ll be doing a little PowerPoint presentation with lots of pictures from my book: The Roots of Reno. The lecture starts at 9:00 AM on Friday, June 25. See you there!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Harrah’s 30-years Ago

Next door to Barney’s at Lake Tahoe was Harrah’s Sports Casino. I walked in and was surprised by how small it was. There were about a dozen chairs for a keno game, several TV’s by the bar, a craps game, and half-a-dozen blackjack tables. They had little yellow signs with $1 to $100 on them. Who the hell would bet $100 at blackjack? Come on, this place didn’t even have a poker room.

What it did have, in plenty, was cocktail waitresses, each in little black and white striped shorts. They didn’t look like any ref’s I had ever seen before! Not that I noticed, I was looking for a poker game. When I looked some more, there still wasn’t a poker game, but the waitresses were still there. These apparently were a different species than at the Park Tahoe. These ladies all seemed to be about 5’2 with very short hair. They were in tennis shoes. I wasn’t interested in drinking and they weren’t interested in me, so I left.

Across the driveway towards the state line, underneath a statue of a Pony Express rider, I found a set of carpeted stairs leading through a double set of glass doors into Harrah’s. The real casino, the big one. Really! Over 1000 slot machines, sixty table games, a high-rise hotel with rooms too expensive for me, and a poker room.
Well, not so much a room as a roped-off area at the end of a pit with six tables. Excellent. I was experienced now, things would go better for me. Plus, I got a stack of chips from the podium guy and they were really cool. Better than the Park Tahoe. These were hard plastic with little brass inserts and Harrah’s name in the middle. The $5 chips were red, with just four inserts, but the same middle part, a little brass nameplate.
I played two hands before I realized it wasn’t 7-stud, it was 6-card stud. Well, no problem, I thought. I’m a smart guy, I can play with one less card. Apparently, however, I may have been playing with one less brain cell than my opponents who were more than happy to rake my chips into their stacks.
At least I didn’t smash my leg into the stupid drop-box this time, but I felt just as much pain as I limped away from the table. I headed towards the back of the casino, past the hotel elevators and the front desk, toward the light. Head for the light, I thought.
This time I left with just one chip, and no, it wasn’t the $5. I hit the parking lot and looked around. There were a lot of cars. I could see way far away into the Park Tahoe’s parking lot, and somewhere in that lot was my car. A 1970 Mustang with a Boss 302 engine. I had just made my last $105 monthly payment on it. Now I had money for poker. 
Well, no, not really, but I was hooked. I walked back to my car and started it up. The double glass-pack mufflers thumped away, but my gold Mustang wouldn’t go toward Highway 50. It really wanted me to go back and play, so I spun a donut and drove the 200-yards back over to Harrah’s and went back along my previous route to the poker room.
They were just putting up a poster that announced a low ball tournament: $11 buy-in. I could afford that. I found a snack bar with $1.95 sandwiches and 50-cent sodas and became refreshed, just like the sign said I would. Then I wandered around until the tournament started, spending a total of $1 in nickles that drained through the polished-silver Pace slot machines with the Bar-Bar-Bar jackpots and bouncing yellow Genie’s.
I was assigned a seat and they handed out some old, obsolete Harrah’s chips. Most had been drilled, but the one-dollar chips were still nice. When we hit the first break in the tournament I was still alive, and they said we were going to “race for the one dollar chips,” but it was too late for mine. I had already pocketed the three I had left.
At the final table they colored-up our chips again and broke out some white $100 chips – no drill holes, but I never got a chance to get one to my pocket because we had to let everybody know how many we had and besides, I was afraid I might not win if I took a whole $100.

I didn’t win anyway, but I did get paid, and they also gave me a couple tickets to see the Captain and Tennille show in the South Shore Room. I didn’t have anybody to go with, so I gave them to the guy who came in third. I’m a nice guy. Who knew just one of those obsolete $100 chips would someday be worth more than the prize money I did win?

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

The Park Tahoe Casino in 1978

Park Tahoe 1978 Post Card above is copyright RTSI

The Park Tahoe, 1978, what an awesome location for a casino. The Park was around for a couple years before becoming Caesar’s Tahoe when management found they had no ability to run the property profitably. When I arrive, I didn’t care about the casino names or what they stood for. I was 19 and ready to play some poker.

I had arrived after a 200-mile drive, eventually passing Harrah’s on Highway 50 at the state line. When I drove on past Barney’s I saw that the Park Tahoe was the last casino in the area, so I pulled back behind the casino and parked my car.

I had been playing poker on a regular basis with my high school buddies and at the Pacheco Inn down the street from where I was supposed to be spending my first year of college at DVC, but not today. Today I was at the lake. I was free, poker was not.

I came in the back of the casino and had to walk a long way past several shops before I got to the casino. It was huge. There were dozens of huge chandeliers and it was brighter inside than out. The carpeting was red and brown, but the slot machines sported belly-glass with a brown and yellow logo of the Park Tahoe. Lots of bronze and chrome.

There was a long line of tellers that I learned was the main cage, and in front of that were several groups of tables with plush ropes around them. The Pit. Not for me. I saw a sign that said POKER and walked across the casino floor. There were several cocktail servers in mini-mini skirts. I may have stared. They all seemed to look the same: 25 years old with long hair and big, ah, smiles.

I looked at the bar and the servers and made a left where there was a small polished-brass railing and headed up a ramp. When I got to a restaurant I figured I went the wrong way.

I headed back down the ramp and stopped by the bar. The cocktail servers were all still there. In fact, they had multiplied. They were everywhere, a whole gaggle of them. There may have been some slot machines around too.

It took me several minutes but I found the poker room.  It was ten feet away from where I had started. I milled-around, trying to figure out what was going on. At the Pacheco Inn, the tables were small oblongs and everybody sat on stools, up high. These tables were huge, with plush, deep-green felt. I didn’t recognize the games at first, nobody was playing low ball.

When I got up the courage I walked into the room and approached a guy behind a little podium. He said they had Hold’em and 7-stud. I didn’t know what the hell Hold’em was, so I said I wanted to play stud. He said, “Take the seat next to the dealer on table three, over there,” so off I went.

The first thing I did was sit in one of the very nice, high-backed chairs. They were on rollers, and I pulled myself under the table and smashed my knee into a very sharp metal box. What the hell was that doing under the table? I was in pain!

In Pacheco, the dealer took the “rake” out of each pot and put it in her tray. Sometimes dealers took a lot, sometimes they didn’t. I’m sure it was all fair and legal. At the Park Tahoe, they took up to $2 from any pot. Holy crap that seemed like a lot of money.

It was just a $1-3 stud game with a 10-cent ante, but that $2 going into the sharp, knee-mangling box under the table really bugged me. I thought of the poker games my buddies and I played for nickel-dime-quarter stakes with no rake and rarely anybody losing more than $5, but those days were fading away.

Now I was playing with the big boys, or at least I thought I was. And the big-boys knocked me down, beat me, and took all my candy. Fast. Damn Bullies. I was going to keep one of the cool $5 chips because I had never seen a chip with a coin in the middle, but now I didn’t have any left. I just had two of the gray $1 chips with a gold hot-stamp in the middle and a rim with cards and dice mashed into it. So I left.

At the table I had been staring over the gold railing that circled the room and looking down a set of stairs to a little lobby and the street below – so I headed out that way and hit the street. Well, actually I hit an alley and then Barney’s casino. But I already knew from a conversation at the poker table that I should be going to Harrah’s where the poker games were “really good.” So off I went.

Did things improve? A little. I started playing blackjack like a fool but survived. Poker got better for me over the next few days and life was good again. So were the lake views, the cocktail servers, and all the chips I collected.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Lake Tahoe’s Beautiful – Fewer Gamblers

So, what exactly is the scoop here, you might ask? I would have to say that I have sold out. I’ve been busy, working a regular job and ignoring my blog, and my articles, and my books, and blah, blah, blah.

Now if you want to know about Lake Tahoe, well, I’ve got nothing for you but this photo of me jumping out of the 62-degree water and back into the boat near Emerald Bay.

Apparently, this is also the reaction many gamblers have had, as more and more (or fewer and fewer) casinos around the lake are getting by on less income. Table games are dwindling, and some properties like the Cal-Neva are all done! Makes me so sad.

I’ll be at North Shore this summer – email if you want, perhaps we can run into each other somewhere. In the meantime, new posts will be coming your way quite often now that I have my life arranged a bit better and everything is awesome!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


1985s Bill Borland Newsletter

A few of you may vaguely remember this item – a 1985 issue of Bill Borland’s World Wide Casino Exchange Newsletter that featured a story on Harold’s Club. Bill started a company he called Star Time, Inc. from his offices in Las Vegas and began purchasing casino dice, chips, and other memorabilia in the late 1970s.

He and his best girl, Starr Warrick, put out a semi-regular flyer with new chips they had come across, and they weren’t dealing in a handful of chips, no, they bought tens of thousands of chips, often getting all denominations from closed casinos at just a nickel each.

As their business grew, Bill took to selling racks of chips (such as a rack of $5 coin-inlay’s from the Rendezvous Casino in Vegas for $79). At the time, I was dealing in small lots, purchasing most of my chips from ads I ran in local newspapers around Reno and Sparks.

When I was offered a box of 2500 chips from Zimba’s in Reno, I figured I would have enough traders to last a lifetime. So, I called Bill and asked about making a deal to trade for some of his least popular chips, figuring I would off about a thousand and be set.

However, Bill’s way of doing business was to drive the kind of bargain where he was getting three or even four chips for every chip he was trading. Eventually, I sold about 2000 of the chips to a friend in Florida for his home poker games. To my knowledge, in over 20 years they haven’t surfaced as a “new” find of collectibles. Someday, they will.

As for Bill’s “Newsletter,” he periodically sent out others, but I don’t recall a real timetable, although it was listed as a “bimonthly.” Phil Jensen was the Contributing Editor, and may have provided the stories, such as the one about Harolds Club in the edition above.

What say you, Phil, was there any time table? Earlier issues had photos of Harrah’s in Reno, and from Las Vegas were covers with the Gold Strike Inn, Diamond Jim’s Nevada Club, and the Flamingo.

Whether Bill Borland was timely or not, he provided a fun little newsletter that featured his gaming items and stimulated growth in the chip collecting hobby, and like other chip collectors and writers such as Jim Gillette, really helped promote the fun of casino history.

I suppose a simple “Thanks” is due.


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