SV: Have you seen a rise in the home market of chips with the poker boom of the last five years?
JB: We have seen an increase in the home market. To be honest, the increase happened about two years ago. It has leveled off. Part of it is, I believe, the economy. The economy is not as strong as it was two years ago. There is a way to monitor website, as to traffic. We've monitored our website, along with our competitors, and what we've seen is a 20-40% decrease to all the websites over the last couple of years. There is a definite downturn in the amount of interest, and I believe it's an economy issue. There's been so much uncertainty in the economy. We have the housing crash with all these reposed houses. The dollar has sunk to new lows against the Euro. There are a lot of things that are making people uneasy. We've been around long enough now, so it's not that we're not going to get business. It's that the wild, happy, and carefree days a few years ago are over, and it's probably a good thing. So many of the people who went into business with the idea that they can make a killing have already gotten out of the business. These guys who are selling the Chinese chips and importing that stuff...most of these guys, probably 90% of them are gone now. As soon as business started to tail off, they got out. They were not in it for the long run. We're in it for the long run. We don't rely on the excitement of the WSOP for our business, we never did. We were in business long before there was a WSOP on TV. With any luck, we'll be around a lot longer than that (laugh). A lot of these guys that were in the business just to make a quick buck, as soon as things slowed up...they bailed out.
SV: Being in it for the long haul... any plans for the 100th anniversary?
JB: That is a thought. I haven't thought about that seriously. I have thought about it, but we can, and we do, trace our history back to when the Burt family moved to Portland, Maine and set up a company called the Portland Billiard Ball Company. Which in about 1935-1936 became the Burt Company. In 1988 when I purchased it, personally, became Atlantic Standard Molding, which is the name we manufacture under. In the late 90's I acquired that web address, pokerchips.com. That's sort of a capsulated history.
SV: With the company starting almost 100 years ago as a billiard and gaming supply company, any vision toward expanding out and making other gaming supplies?
JB: Not really. What happened, and I'll give you a quick history of the company, The Burts used to work for a company called Albany Billiard Ball in Albany, NY before 1913. There probably was a great grandfather, let's say there were a couple generations that worked for Albany Billiard Ball. Albany Billiard Ball was the premier American billiard ball maker, by far. They were the Chevrolet of ball making company. The Burts were inventors and owned patents on the billiard ball production that the Albany company used. At some point in time, they decided to branch out on their own, and they moved from Albany to Portland Maine. They set up the Portland Billiard Ball Company which was a competitor to Albany. Albany was still using some of their patents for their manufacturing. When they moved up here there were actually two generations of Burst. There was Alonzo Burt and his two sons. The primary one was also Alonzo, but he was called A. L. Burt and he took over from his father in 1945. What happened was they were primarily billiard ball manufactures, but they were also making poker chips as early as 1930, that we can document...and possibly earlier. But I can document at least 1930. In the 1930's and before, the major power for making the high end chip for the casino or the club was US Playing Card. They manufactured poker chips starting around 1900, and they bought out a couple companies before that. Certainly by the 1920's they were producing poker chips along with their cards. They produced chips, and Burt produced chips in the same time period. Burt produced chips at a high volume, certainly not a complicated chip. Not a very secure chip, no printed center. The chips were mass produced and he sold them in stores. If you're familiar with early chips, there's a chip called "The smoothie." It's a smooth chip with rounded edges, those were probably made by the Burt company in the hundreds of thousands. The Burts also produces a unique line of chips that used a metal die cut center. Very unique, no one else did that, very difficult to produce. They produced a form of plastic chip in the time period. When the second world war broke out, chip production stopped, because you could get the ingredients to make the chips. The ingredients were tied up with the war, and were in production for that. The Burst company produced products for the government for the war. After the second world war US Playing Card made a decision that their chip manufacturing process was not significant enough, and decided to get out of the chip business. The sold all their equipment to the Burt company around '46 or '47. Just about the time that Las Vegas took off. They literally sold out after the war, after making no chips during the war. They sold out during '46 or '47 and they Burt company started to produce chips. As luck would have it, just about the time that Las Vegas was to take off. The first major casino in Las Vegas, Bugsy's Flamingo, the chips were produced at the Burt company. That really started Las Vegas. When that was successful, the Burt company produced virtually all the chips used in the casinos from about 1947 to 1975. It was a major part of timing. The company that would be their major competitor decided that their card business was more profitable, since they made cards during the war. That's just the thing that soldiers would carry with them, are decks of cards. Where the Burt company was providing ammunition cans, and no chips during the war. That really is what got the Burts from producing Billiard balls from the their mainstay, and having a sideline of chips to, guess what, there's a lot of chip business with a lot of casinos being built. The ball business literally started to peter out in the early 50's, and the increase of interested in the chips started at the same time. The only other company of consequence at the time was TR King who started in '33 or '36. They never did produce much of the casino market. They were even too small, or for whatever reason they never produced much. They did produce a few small issues, but they were never a major player in Las Vegas like the Burt company was.
Benny "Bugsy" Siegel used the Burt Co.'s chips when he opened the famous Flamingo Casino in 1946.
SV: There are brand x companies who are casino oriented who are now making chip sets for the home market. On pokerchips.com there are the eagles and the cleopatra chips, any plans for producing "sets" for the home market?
JB: We actually did have plans; the problem is we never seem to be able to accomplish them. We always seem too busy doing something else to actually produce that. The Cleopatra chips were chips that have been at the factory for a couple of years. They were produced for an actual casino in Trinidad that couldn't get licensing after they ordered the chips. So we ultimately ended up with the chips. We tried to introduce other sets but, we just can't seem to find the time to produce them.
SV: Any plans on expanding the company to meet the demand?
JB: If the economy were stronger, I think we would certainly produce more chips. Our workforce is like any other workforce. It's like an accordion. We go up and down based on the orders we have. If a casino came and ordered 100,000 chips, we would have to put more worker on. We're truly not looking for that market. We're satisfied with the niche that we have and we don't think that anybody else is interested in that niche. Therefore we're pretty comfortable where we are now.
SV: What are the largest private orders? Has anyone come across and said that I need 15,000 chips?
JB: 15-20K chips is a ma and pop casino. That's a lot of chips. We produced around 20K chips for the Cleopatra chips, and that was a minor casino in Trinidad. I think the MGM Grand opened with 350K chips. A big casino order would be a 250K and up.
SV: Any message that you would like to send out to the home market?
JB: What I do see is a tendency for people to think that what's being imported now from China is, while it's a great value today price wise, it's, in my estimation, history will judge it to be not of any significance. Today there is great value placed on early chips produced by real craftsman. There hasn't been anything that has any long-lasting value coming out of china since the Ming dynasty. (laughs) They're great at copying the innovations of what other people have done. The reality is that the value of a mass produced, send it to the US by the container load chip, in 20-50 years from now, everyone will have them. But few will say, by God I was lucky to get a set of chips from TR King while they were still in business. Now, there was a craftsman! The chips we produced for the early casinos in the 1950, 60's are the most valuable chips to collectors that were ever produced, or ever will be produces. The stuff that was made by our company, if you had some of those early chips...you could trade one of those chips for a brand new corvette. That's the value and the collectability of those early chips. You will never, ever, ever see that on a Chinese set of chips. People will look back, even chips produced 10 years ago, by companies no longer in business like TR King, they will say, Man I was lucky to get a set of chips from that company, because there is so much quality, and there is so much pride in that manufacturing that went into those chips, that's not in these Chinese chips. Sometimes I get frustrated, and I try not to comment on it, because I don't want to be like sour grapes, when I hear guys talk about these Chinese chips, like the Chinese invented poker, and like these are ultimate chips. When the first Chinese chips came in and there was a big washer molded, they were molded around a big washer so they were heavy and 11.5 grams they were advertising them as clay chips, it was only after someone told them, "Hey these are not real clay" just because someone says they're clay doesn't mean they're clay. It's frustrating when you see a Chinese copy of one of our solid wooden cases, advertised as mahogany, when it's not mahogany and in reality it's not a solid piece of wood, and it's a piece of junk, compared to what we manufacture which is solid wood, American made, using the finest hardware. Sometimes I want to scream when I see somebody say, I just saw a nice case on eBay for 9.99 compared to a case I sell for 100. I wonder if people understand there is a difference. There is such a thing as pride of manufacturing. I don't think that level of quality is coming out of china. I think people assume that if it's half the price, it might be the same quality. It's like when the Yugo came out. It was a hell of a good price, but after a few years people realized they were a piece of crap. However, if you bought a 1960 corvette for $6000 you could probably get $50K for it today. Which one was the better investment? The Yugo, or something with better quality? The reality, people will be better over time with the more quality item. There is a difference with these imports and a real quality item.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope it helps the community understand what the "ASM World" is about.