You may not believe it but as early as the 1800s, people had already begun using poker chips. During those times however, the word “chip” was used literally as poker players made use of any small valuable object available as their chips.
Jagged gold nuggets, old coins, and other trinkets such as wood and clay chunks were used as the monetary substitute in early poker games. Several years later, around the 20th century, the now identifiable poker chips that are round with engraved slits replaced the archaic coins and gold articles. But before we had the chips now made of clay and clay composite, there were chips made of ivory, animal bones, paper, wood and shells. This was when people used to play pokers in bars, saloons, and on boats in the Wild West of old America.
Why Poker Chips Were Created
Perhaps to shade the reality of gambling, people created a sort of currency or token in exchange of money when playing a betting game such as poker. Another reason why poker chips were used is that they are more convenient to handle than cash and prevent theft and counterfeiting in a gamble that involves large sums of money.
Because they are used to keep track of winnings and represent the total money involved in the game, it was necessary to have similar or easily distinguishable chips. The problem before with the varied and irregular chips was that it wasn’t difficult to sneak personal “chips” into the game. It is for this reason that arguments and conflicts arose in old poker games when players found out at the end that they have more chips than when they began.
To solve this problem, a universal model of a chip was created and manufacturers started incorporating designs to make chips uniquely distinct from others. These designs were composed of numerals, flowers, animals, initials, or other simple designs and they could be engraved, embossed, inlaid, or pasted on the face of a chip.
Clay poker chips first reached popularity in the late 1930s when several companies manufactured them in a wide variety of designs and colors. The more recognized colors were red, blue and white yet there are also chips available in a broad spectrum of other colors.
The most expensive chips were the “Crest and Seal” chips manufactured between 1907 and 1985. They were first produced by the US Playing Card Co. in Cincinnati from 1907 to 1939 and were later continued by Burt Co. in Portland from 1940 to 1985. These chips were comprised of a circular lithograph and seal embedded into the clay and over the entire surface of the chip.
Plastic-type poker chips came in later, around 1940’s, as clay and clay composite chips became more costly. They continue to be popular today since they cost significantly less and are ideal for home games. Although they do not have the sophistication and quality of clay and clay composite chips, plastic chips are long lasting and easily obtained.
Like any other object shaped by history, the poker chip we have now came to be because of necessity and utility. The round shape is to have a semblance of a coin whereas the slit on the edges is for the purpose of stacking.
Imagine if coins and paper bills were used in casinos instead of poker chips. Players would have a tough time counting their winnings and a simple game would probably bring back the scuffles and fights of the old days.