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Gaming Guru

Richard N. Velotta

Casino Memorabilia Showcased

5 August 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Like irregular coins that somehow escape from the U.S. Mint, production mistakes garner a lot of the attention at a show like the Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club.

Just ask Kingman, Ariz., resident Bob Hayden. His collection is full of casino chip "errors," with at least one set that he considers to be priceless.

Hayden and hundreds of casino memorabilia aficionados are in Las Vegas this week for the organization's 13th annual international convention and show at the Riviera.

The club's show is one of the rare convention events in Las Vegas that welcomes nonmembers, and admission is $5 to see and swap casino chips, ash trays, dice, playing cards -- anything with the name of a casino on it. Saturday is the last day of the four-day event.

"We'll have about 3,000 members from practically every state and 11 foreign countries," said convention chairman Jim Steffner. "But probably about 4,000 people will come through and look at the displays and do some trading."

The club got started with six members in 1988 and has grown steadily as gaming has proliferated nationwide.

Van Nuys, Calif., collector Ernie Wheelden believes the explosive growth of interest in poker has generated a new generation of hobbyists interested in casino memorabilia.

"If you're a resident of Las Vegas," Wheelden said, "I don't see how you can resist it."

But it isn't just Las Vegas residents who latch onto matchbooks, swizzle sticks and silverware. Collectors nationwide have developed interests in collecting casino paraphernalia with commercial and tribal casinos opening all over the United States.

Among them is Hayden, who trades as "Oldmanchipper" and collects a variety of casino chips and tokens. Although he lives less than an hour away from the gaming capital of the world, the prize of his casino chip collection comes from a defunct Colorado casino -- and it took a considerable amount of luck to acquire it.

Hayden explained that the Gregory Street Casino in Black Hawk, Colo., produced a series of $5 chips with a goldpanner shown from the rear. The chips had slices of the same goldpanner's image produced on the edge of the chip; stack five of the chips in the proper alignment and the image appears on the side.

Among the 200 chip sets produced were seven errors -- the same image was stamped on both sides of one chip. Hayden got the opportunity to acquire half of the 200 chip sets. What were the chances that he could get errors that, when stacked, would produce the image of the goldpanner?

"I went through them all and couldn't believe that I had a set," he said of the discovery. "It's the only set there is in the whole wide world."

Asked how much the set is worth, Hayden said he couldn't begin to estimate. Like other gaming icons that have passed into history, the Gregory Street Casino is gone; the casino only produced 200 sets of the special chip; only seven chips had errors; and five of those produced the side image.

"How do you put a value on something that's one of a kind?" he asked.

A mistake in the minting process created a frenzy among coin collectors earlier this year when the Wisconsin edition of the U.S. Mint's ongoing "50 State Quarters" series was produced.

The Wisconsin quarter, minted in 2004, bears the image of a cow, a wheel of cheese and a half-husked ear of corn. But coin collectors say two versions of the quarter were produced with a variation on the ear of corn. The rare variation resulted in collectors paying up to $1,500 for the coin.

Hayden pulled out another error chip, this one with a local connection. The chip, from the Palms, has one side showing the denomination of $25 and the other side showing the value as $10.

"I like them all," Hayden said, "but I like chips more than I like coins."

Chips have their own unique characteristics, he said, "but there are billions of quarters out there."