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Benjamin Spillman

Collectors of Las Vegas past gather for convention

9 August 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It's tough to put a price on memories.

It gets easier when memories come in the form of clay chips stamped in $5, $25 and $100 denominations.

The history of Nevada -- and casino culture in general -- is tumbling through the fingers of collectors for whom colorfully dated gambling chips are currency to recover memories of everything from family vacations in Reno to mobster sightings in old Las Vegas.

The chips are also lucrative collectibles that can fetch thousands of dollars for the person lucky enough to have bought one directly from a casino or undervalued at a garage sale.

They're piled high, along with matchbooks, ash trays and other casino swag, at the Riviera this week for the 15th International Show and Convention of the Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club.

"You pick up a Bugsy from the old Flamingo, it has history behind it," said Allan Anderson, 60, of Reno, using the term for chips the casino used during mobster Bugsy Siegel's brief tenure there in the late 1940s. "You never know who has touched a chip."

The best way to identify value beyond the number stamped or inlaid on a chip is to know the history of casino gambling.

Old chips from early Strip casinos are almost always valuable. A man thumbing through Barry Weintraub's collection rattled off a list: Sands, Dunes, Riviera, Flamingo, El Rancho, Frontier, Sliver Slipper. Two years ago during the convention a $25 chip used at the Sahara during the early 1950s sold for about $70,000, organizers said.

Weintraub displayed chips from the Landmark (1969-1995) he said were worth $600 to $700.

He showed off others more prized for their rarity. One chip from the Big Bonanza, which operated only in 1967 at a spot that is now Jerry's Nugget, is worth more than $3,000.

Chips from the long-dead Bird Cage are valued because the casino couldn't back them. The Bird Cage opened on Fremont Street in 1958 and closed in 1959 after bettors hit two unusually high keno tickets in succession.

"They didn't have the money to pay," Weintraub said.

Chips from new casinos such as the Palms and Hard Rock Hotel are also popular. That's because the casinos offer a variety of limited-edition chips that are popular to collect. The Hard Rock Hotel, for example, is known for producing chips with images of rock stars.

Anderson said a limited edition $25 chip from the Hard Rock with the image of rocker Sammy Hagar is worth about $2,000. The casino only commissioned about 250 of them.

"And a lot of those were given away to him and his band," Anderson said. "You couldn't get it unless you got really lucky and found it on the table."

Although the question of value hangs over almost everything at the convention, collectors are quick to talk about the sentimental meaning of the items.

Cameron Kessinger of Burbank, Calif., showed off a collection that included bar napkins, coasters, postcards, chips and drink stirrers.

Kessinger said he became interested in casinos during childhood trips to Reno.

Later, he made the trip unsupervised.

"We used to go up there and gamble when we were 16 and weren't allowed to," Kessinger said, recalling the folksy charm of the Northern Nevada casinos. "They paid off jackpots in a paper bag."

Kessinger's wife, Sandra, traced her earliest casino memories to childhood trips from Southern California to Las Vegas.

"We could go pool hopping," she said, describing Las Vegas' appeal to kids.

Chips from today's casinos don't carry the same cachet as those from historic properties, at least with the baby boomer dominated crowd at the convention.

That's because chips from old casinos conjure colorful stories about the days when Las Vegas tourists might rub elbows with colorful casino owners like Siegel or Benny Binion.

"How many people will tell stories about the MGM Mirage corporation?" Mike Skelton, president of the chip collectors club, said of the corporate giant that owns 10 resorts on the Strip.

Management at MGM, Harrah's Entertainment and other casino companies is as likely to bury tales from the golden days of casino culture as it is to revel in it, Skelton said.

"In most instances they try everything they can to distance themselves from their colored past," Skelton said.

The result is that fewer casinos concentrate on the swag that collectors at the convention love, like intricately designed liquor decanters, elaborate branded bar decor and drink stir sticks molded with resort signs and logos.

"Nowadays you are lucky to get a straw," Skelton said

The convention is expected to attract more than 3,000 people to buy, sell and trade casino memorabilia. It opens to the public today with an admission charge of $5.