Origins of Earliest Casino Poker Chips?

Thinkobot

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Hi all,

I'm writing a piece about the origins of poker chips, and I keep coming across the factoid that wild west and Gold Rush saloons originally accepted bets made directly with money as well as items with monetary value, like gold nuggets or gold dust or even firearms, but eventually switched to making people buy ivory poker chips, then cheaper clay ones, and then custom chips with inlays, and so on, slowly finding ways to make counterfeiting chips harder and harder, eventually leading to the ceramic and stamped clay composite chips we are all familiar with today.

But I'm finding it difficult to find any source material that expands on where and how the changeover from accepting bets of money and valuables to using the earliest chips actually took place. It's not like all the saloon and riverboat managers were going to conventions and reading trade journals and coordinating their game-running strategies. Someone somewhere had to have made that decision first, whereupon it spread and became more popular as a solution to the problem of standardization of betting . Any chance any collectors here can point me to any literature or other sources that might expand on that initial transition?

I can find literature from the 1850s that talks about people betting gold, and literature from the 1880s that talk about people betting with chips, but nothing that clears up the transition. Was it related to the existence of privately owned poker chip sets in any way? Any guidance or leads anyone could provide would be very much appreciated. Thanks a lot, and I apologize if this question is too off-topic!
 

CrazyEddie

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When doing your research, be sure not to focus strictly on poker or the American gambling history, even though poker chips certainly emerged from American poker playing. The concept of using worthless tokens as substitutes for money and valuables at the gaming table goes back a long way, as @hex notes.

For example, Whist was a very popular game in the 1700s and 1800s, and was played both socially and for money. Score was often kept using gaming tokens made and sold specifically for that purpose. Many other examples can be found.

I haven't seen any sources specifically addressing the transition from money to counters in mid-1800s America, but certainly the idea of using counters for gambling was well-established. The greater anomaly to consider would probably be why poker and American gambling developed using money at first instead!

Here's some rampant speculation on my part, maybe it'll be a lead you could chase down: perhaps the use of money vs counters has historically been tied to the social classes that a game was popular among? Perhaps the upper classes used counters to keep score when playing socially, with or without wagering on the outcome, while lower classes gambled and used money directly, lacking the resources to keep a set of counters on hand?

Don't overlook the fact that poker uses money/chips as an element of gameplay rather than simply keeping score. Poker, nearly uniquely, requires you to put money or a money proxy right on the table while you're playing; most other games that would be gambled over can simply keep score in whatever manner is convenient, and then settle up wagers once the game is over. The term for games like that is "vying games", where players wager increasingly larger amounts of money until someone folds or agrees to a showdown. Poker is the best known such game, but there are a few similar games, both modern and historical: see https://www.pagat.com/vying/ for a list. So it could be that other games developed the idea of scoring tokens optionally serving as a proxy for money when playing for stakes, whereas poker used money directly, and so accordingly originated with money on the table and then later adopted the types of scoring tokens that were used in other games.

Again, sheer speculation on my part. Good luck on your research, and I hope you'll come back and share what you learn.
 

Taghkanic

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Agreeing with both points above: Poker was not the only gambling game requiring tokens, checks, chips, or other stand-one for cash in the 19th Century. And European casinos and clubs were operating long before poker was established as a popular game. We call them poker chips now, but they surely started out as something else.

I’d add a question/observation I sent to the OP directly: It’s true that many sites copy and paste the claim that Wild West gamblers would shove gold nuggets, sixguns, pocket watches and other valuables into poker pots. But I suspect this is more a Hollywood script idea than a regular thing.

Who determined the value of the gun, or nugget, or watch splashed into a pot? It is hard enough to get an ordinary poker table of drunks and cranks to agree on a simple question, let alone appraising valuables mid-hand. (And how do you open for 2.5x if your stack consists of objects worth multiple buy-ins?)

I’m sure there was occasional bravado of this kind, or at least some people leaving valuables with the host as collateral against money/tokens for the game... But I’m dubious of the whole “I see your jade pinky ring and raise you a silver belt buckle” movie conceit.
 

CrazyEddie

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But I’m dubious of the whole “I see your jade pinky ring and raise you a silver belt buckle” movie conceit.
When my home game starts up I'm totally going to make this happen, somehow. Let people buy some costume pieces or something when they walk in the door, and have it count as a second bankroll, something that doesn't count as part of their stack unless/until they choose to bet it into a live pot. A limited form of open stakes, one which wouldn't disrupt the basic principle behind table stakes because everyone would know about it up-front.
 

Taghkanic

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When my home game starts up I'm totally going to make this happen, somehow. Let people buy some costume pieces or something when they walk in the door, and have it count as a second bankroll, something that doesn't count as part of their stack unless/until they choose to bet it into a live pot. A limited form of open stakes, one which wouldn't disrupt the basic principle behind table stakes because everyone would know about it up-front.

I suggest also investing in a little silver or tin cup with a tiny handle
 

Silver_Fiend

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All speculative, but I think a lot of the realities have been considered. Keep in mind that gambling was illegal in most "civilized" places, and thats why it exploded in the wild west. Most towns and camps were hastily built and although hoped to survive "boom" into a long term growth, many died off after a few years. Poker was also not the game of the land back then, it was Faro, which is played against the house. So considering the impurities of gold, the exact values, the "worth" of commodities, I can see the gambling tables wanted something to keep them from getting screwed. Chips also made easier and cleaner betting on the faro board than piles of bills or silver dollars, etc.

I would expect the gold rush also brought chips into favor as Europeans travelled to America in the hopes of free, instant wealth. Possibly carrying their own chips and the gambling establishments seeing them and deciding that they made a lot of sense to use.

As for cowboy poker games, it was probably whatever you had of value to bet with. Most didnt have large amounts of money, so watches, rings, guns, saddles, horses, hides, etc would all have been used as wagers
 

gmunny

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im pretty sure this is the oldest...


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More on the OPs topic. as most folks said already, the Europeans has more of the earliest history of chips and tokens. Made with various materials like bone, wood and ivory. If you are interested in old poker chips of the Wild West, it may be good to start looking at some old Western Americana auction catalogs. There will be a lot of examples of cards and chips. I am no expert, but back then chips were a luxury item in the wild west. I can imagine people gambling with gold and other property because trading was normal course back then. I would assume that chips were used more in the bigger eastern cities first and trailed westward migration as land owners and cities became established. Good luck on your search and would love to hear if you find out more information.
 

CrazyEddie

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Poker was also not the game of the land back then, it was Faro, which is played against the house.
Faro is hysterical! A perfectly fair game, one where the house has zero edge. So to make a profit, operators had to cheat! But of course, the players are going to cheat as well, to make up for the edge the house gets by cheating. So the real game isn't about dealing out cards, it's about operators and customers doing their best to cheat each other without getting caught. A game of chance transformed into a battle of wits!

Of course, the cheats on both sides can actually put up with each other's cheating, because both of them can profit from the losses of the fish too dumb to realize the game is rigged against them! It's better for everyone else to let the rigged game go on rather than call anyone out for cheating because that way the fish keep playing.

It's a thing of beauty.
 

Taghkanic

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One can find examples of mother of pearl, horn and scrimshaw chipsets/plaques said to be from the 1870s, in various shapes including ones close to today’s 39mm poker chips. I’ve also seen thin rectangular strips of bone (maybe a half-inch wide by 2" long) supposedly used in gambling.
 
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Thinkobot

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Thanks, everyone, for your replies. Lots to think about. I found something very interesting, which is an account from Chambers Journal from 1875. It's not in a form I could copy as text, so I've attached a screencap. Several things stand out in this account that might clear up the ambiguities I've seen:

1. As some have already mentioned, poker was not the game of note at the time -- instead, games like faro and monte were popular.
2. Gamblers with money set up their own games within the saloons, rather than the games being run and funded by the saloon owner -- so a gambler (who could have been a riverboat gambler abandoning the dying riverboat scene and bringing their chips with them to a new opportunity) could choose to accept gold and coin as well as let people buy chips, as they preferred.
3. The account points out that a gambling setup could include a scale with which gold offered by a gambler could be roughly assayed (although, as the journal points out, you only needed to assay the gold if the bettor won, since otherwise, whatever it was worth, it belonged to the house now!).

It occurs to me that the transition from chips and coin and gold to just chips could have occurred for as simple a reason as that the Gold Rush was drawing to a close, and the people who were frequenting the gambling venues were less likely to be carrying gold dust and more likely to be people with money, which they'd have no issue converting into chips.
 

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CrazyEddie

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Now that the Eisenstadt Estate auction has come and gone, I've realized that one source for historical information about our hobby is catalogs from past auctions!

Potter and Potter Auctions specializes in "paper Americana, vintage advertising, rare books, coin-op, playing cards, gambling memorabilia, vintage posters, prints and magicana - antiques and collectibles focused on magic and magicians". It looks like they run about one auction a year that focuses on gambling, and they have about ten years' worth of auction catalogs archived online here: https://www.potterauctions.com/auctions/past

Perusing the catalogs from the auctions specifically listed as "gambling" will let you see some of the chips, tokens, and other equipment used in "the olden days" although certainly not everything from those auctions is going to reach as far back as the 1850s. Nevertheless, you might be able to get some inspiration or leads on other sources to help you in your research.
 

philhut

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Gambling has been around since at least the Ancient Greeks..... you may find records of Roman Gambling, Gambling in Asia long ago with exchangable tokens of some type.
 

MyLastChip

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Don’t want to hijack thread but does anyone have info on the actual “oriental” in tombstone. From this thread, I would conclude chips were used. Are there any out there, were they just generic? Thoughts? Idea about a simple hotstamp set has been floating in my mind.
 
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