All poker chips expire.
But unlike with sour milk in a fridge, casino bosses choose when chips go bad. It can be months, years or decades after they are issued.
“It’s a personal choice,” said Mark Lipparelli, a gaming consultant and former chairman of the Gaming Control Board.
Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International recently ran newspaper ads warning people that the chips used in several of their casinos will be discontinued in six months. After that, anyone holding onto them will be out of luck.
Expired chips lose their face value. Gaming regulators made the law in the late ’80s to try to cut down on fraud and counterfeiting.
Before 1987, the state didn’t care much about what casinos did with their chips. Today, the process is very different.
Mike Spinetti has the largest collection of poker chips in Las Vegas and maybe the world.
The poker player and poker chip expert keeps more than $15 million of rare chips in a secret warehouse vault. His favorite is a Flamingo chip from 1947 – Bugsy Siegel’s era. Spinetti snagged it at an estate sale.
He’s constantly on the hunt for chips with an interesting story.
At Spinettis Gaming Supplies on South Commerce Street, Spinetti has chips damaged by fire, never-before-seen chips found in forgotten vaults and chips discarded at the bottom of lakes. Casino companies used to toss discontinued chips into bodies of water to get rid of them.
Close to 20 years ago, Spinetti received a call from a skin diver who found white poker chips buried at the bottom of Lake Mead.
Spinetti snatched them up and learned they came from the Las Vegas Club. The casino used them for play in 1957, but it’s unclear when executives threw them overboard. The casino rolled out new chips in 1963 and 1971.
The chips weren’t originally white. They were gray, but the lake’s water sucked the color from their rims.
Spinetti also has several chunks of concrete believed to have come from the foundation of the New Frontier, which was demolished in 2007. The chunks are riddled with poker chips from the Sands and metal tokens from resorts as far away as Laughlin.
“When chips became not current, casinos didn’t know what to do with them,” Spinetti said. “I have no idea who started it, but they’d go into the concrete.”
When construction crews demolished the Dunes in 1993, workers found hundreds of $100 chips preserved in the crumbled concrete of the resort’s foundation.
MGM spokesman Alan Feldman remembers the day a worker discovered the chips while cleaning up the site, where Steve Wynn later built the Bellagio. The worker presented executives with a 5-gallon bucket of chip-laden slabs. Feldman displays one on his desk today.
The motives behind the chip burying are unclear. Some say casino executives poured the chips in concrete for good luck. Others say their motives were pragmatic. They needed to toss the old chips somewhere.
Everything changed in 1987.
That’s when the state rolled out Regulation 12, a law that made poker chips the property of casinos, prohibited gamblers from using chips as currency and required executives to destroy discontinued chips in a specific regulated manner.
The law stemmed from regulators’ fears about theft and fraud. Regulation 12 aims to prevent counterfeit chips from entering casinos.
The casinos were happy to play ball because it saved them money. Resorts can’t be taxed on unreturned chips.
Some players scoffed, however, because the law prevented them from paying back debts with chips. Regulation 12 specifies that chips can be used only as a substitute for cash while gambling, not as currency away from the tables.
When players cash in chips today, cashiers are supposed to ask them for their player’s card to prove the chips were earned gambling. If a person can’t prove where he got them, the cage can refuse to cash them. State law allows a casino to refuse to cash chips if it “knows or reasonably should know” a person didn’t get the chips while gambling.
Tom Peterman, senior vice president of MGM Resorts International, said that happens a couple of times a month.
When they decide to roll out a new chip, casino companies must submit plans to the Gaming Control Board, detailing the chip’s design and security features, as well as the casino’s plan for disposing of the old chips.
Chips typically include covert security features, such as ultraviolet markings and radio frequency identification tags, that cashiers can check for to make sure the chips are valid.
To destroy chips, casinos must consult with a board-approved disposal company. Sometimes it’s the same company that made the chips. Gaming Partners International, which supplies most casinos with chips, for instance, often destroys them, too.
Outdated chips typically are loaded into a truck equipped with a tumbler that crushes them into dust.
Gaming regulators have to be present to run an audit and witness the destruction.