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Plastic Chips Instead of Money, or the Brief History of Poker Chips

If you have ever been to a poker club (or a land based casino for that matter) you have surely noticed that people don’t usually play with real money, but they use plastic or metallic chips instead. This is good for their business – the chips are much easier to handle than real money, there is no risk of tearing them, and they have a much longer life. But did you know that chips are a relatively new phenomenon? They have been around for barely more than a century, whereas the games they are used at are usually much older. Let’s take a look at how these pieces of plastic replaced money at the game table.

Poker chips were introduced in the 19th century – supposedly during the infamous Gold Rush – when players insisted to play not just for money, but for raw nuggets of gold and gold dust. This led to many problems when it came to paying out winnings, so saloons and gambling houses have decided to substitute money and gold with something else, easier to calculate with. Initially they used pieces of bone or ivory (whichever they could afford), and later pieces of clay with unique symbols of them, representing their monetary value.

By using chips made of materials easy to come by, there was a new problem to handle – forgery. Some kind of standardization was desperately needed, and one that would prevent crooks from using counterfeit chips to take their opponents’ (or the house’s) money. This is why companies have started to create clay composition poker chips in the late 19th century, giving birth to a whole new industry and changing the way poker and casino games are played.

Poker chips were made using a mix of materials – that included clay – between the 1880s and the 1930s. There were over one thousand designs to choose from, and different value poker chips had different colors (like they have today). Their usual shape was round, but it was also customary for the use of rectangular plaques with high values at high stakes tables. The chips currently used by casinos and poker clubs have several different materials in their composition, but a certain percentage of them is earthen material like sand, clay or chalk. The exact manufacturing process of the poker chips is a trade secret the manufacturers don’t feel comfortable divulging due to the possibility of fraud.

Chips are still used in all land-based poker rooms and casinos, but they found their way to online outlets as well – although only virtually. Today’s online casinos like to use the poker chip or casino chip as an universally recognized symbol, that looks much better than just showing a few numbers on a green background.

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