In 2008, a construction worker in Hernando, Mississippi, was digging a path on public land when he was stymied by a concrete slab.
Inside the slab was a massive trove of casino chips from the short-lived Playboy Casino in Atlantic City. Green Duck Manufacturing, the company tasked with disposing of the excess chips after the casino’s closure, had apparently failed to do so properly.
Upon hearing about the construction worker’s discovery, people flocked from nearby locales with five-gallon buckets, filled them with the Playboy chips, and started selling them on eBay. This, in turn, deflated the value of the chips in collector markets.
“Before, a $5 Playboy chip would be worth $50 to $100,” Ricky Pushkin, an avid chip collector, told US Bets. “Now it’s $10 all day.”
But Pushkin’s interest in the dig ran deeper.
“They had backup chips,” he said. “If there was ever a counterfeiting scare, they would pull the original chips and use the backup chips. They were just a different color. During this dig, all those were in there, too, so not only did you get the regular rack, you got the secondary rack, too. And there were only about eight known sets of those before the dig.”
A Baltimore native, Pushkin claims to have the world’s largest collection of Atlantic City casino chips, many of which are on display at his website, all-chips.com.
“My generation, we collected things,” explained Pushkin, who began collecting casino chips before he was old enough to gamble — not that he’s gambled much since.
“I just liked the way they felt, how they stacked up,” said Pushkin.
He wasn’t alone.
‘Next thing I knew, I was collecting’
Brad Smith was playing low-stakes blackjack at the Riviera in Las Vegas in the early ‘80s when “this young man came in with a gorgeous girl on his arm” and started “putting big money at this table where I’m spending a dollar.”
“He wound up losing $1,000 and I just sat their aghast,” Smith said. “I saved a 50-cent chip from that table, and that was the start of my collection.”
Jim Follis started his collection in a similarly haphazard way, also while playing blackjack.
“My stake was $20 and I’d lose it no matter what because I kept playing too long,” he recalled of an experience at the Colorado Belle Casino in Laughlin, Nevada. “So I said, ‘They’re not going to get my last $1. I’m keeping their chip.’ Technically, they already had my dollar in cash.”
Subsequently, Follis recalled that he and his wife “were heading out of town to go on a cruise, and that meant flying to Florida. There were a couple Indian casinos, I got a couple chips; we went on the cruise ship, I got a couple chips. And the next thing I knew, I was collecting.”
Smith is the public relations director for the Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club (or Casino Collectibles Association for short), and Follis is its vice president. Before he got involved with the nonprofit organization, Smith thought of himself as a “nutcase” for collecting casino memorabilia, but then he realized “there were a lot of people just like me.”
As with Pushkin’s collection, Smith’s doubles as a walk back through gaming history. Of 333 Vegas casinos that have either changed their name or are no longer in existence, Smith said he has “probably got chips from 250 of them.”
The CCA holds an annual convention at the South Point in Vegas that’s attended by some 1,000 people every June. There, a Texan named Doug Smith (no relation to Brad) runs something called the Splashy Awards, which recognize the efforts of CCA members “who do something interesting each year,” said Doug, who was the first recipient.
And what did he do to earn that distinction?
“I drank the Riviera out of Glenlivet one night,” referring to the convention’s original host property.
The gambling paradox
Chip collectors tend to be older individuals. Unlike with coin or stamp collecting, said Follis, there aren’t any youth programs for chip collecting “because casino chips are akin to gambling, even though a large percentage of our collectors don’t even gamble.”
Nevertheless, there are several websites that appeal to collectors of casino memorabilia, among them All-Chips, Chip Guide, The Chip Board, and The Chip Rack. Befitting of the hobby itself, these are not high-tech platforms. Rather, they are charmingly reminiscent of early-internet message boards.
For years, the CCA has endeavored to open a museum in Las Vegas capable of housing prized pieces of memorabilia. But fundraising and siting challenges have hamstrung the effort, so the group has instead focused on hosting pop-up exhibits around town and showcasing its collection online.
Now 71, Follis lives with his wife in Las Vegas, having bought a small home there in 2001 after the couple grew tired of paying for hotel rooms. They reside about 15 minutes from the Orleans, which is where Follis made quite a find a while back.
“If you want to talk about a chip that’s my favorite, it’s an error chip out of the Orleans Casino,” he said. “It has the body color — red — of a $5 chip, and it says $5 on one side, but it has $1 on the other side. That was given to me by one of the owners of the Orleans at that time, about 10 or 15 years ago.”
Photo: Eduardo Leal/AFP via Getty Images