Unlike gamblers, collectors can watch their chips appreciate

All my life I've heard wild rags-to-riches tales from the casinos. There's the one about the bum who takes panhandled change and parlays it into a six-figure bankroll and a high-roller suite, only to lose it all within a day. At least he got to keep the fancy bathrobe.

And there's the one about the hard-drinking NFL team owner who partied his way to the poor house. He didn't even get a bathrobe.

There are little players and big players, those too young to collect their million-dollar jackpots and those too old to spend all the money they've piled up throughout their lives - despite the casino moguls' best efforts.

But in all the years I've listened to the Boulevard tell its tales, I've never met people who were guaranteed to leave town with many thousands in casino chips in their pockets.

A guarantee?

It's true.

Who are these green-felt gurus?

They're not the latest card-counting team from MIT or Doyle Brunson's Poker Pirates.

Nothing so exotic.

In fact, after speaking with them Saturday night at the Riviera, I believed they were among the most wholesome citizens to assemble on the Strip.

They were the enterprising souls associated with The Casino Chip & Gaming Token Collectors Club, and they've created a way to beat the House. They don't gamble their chips; they buy and sell them.

If you think it's an activity reserved for blue-haired grannies, think again.

During the club's recently concluded convention, a $25 Sahara chip was purchased by an anonymous buyer for $70,000.

Why, it's almost enough to make Del Webb phone in from the Great Beyond. "Hey, I owned the Sahara, and I know I've got a few tokens around here somewhere. What did you say that $25 chip was worth again?"

Seventy Gs, Big Guy.

Think of the ramifications of the chip club's activity.

If word gets out that you can make more money saving casino chips than pushing them across the green felt, gambling as we know it could change overnight. Well, couldn't it?

Not exactly, says Mike Skelton, the club's president. The Coppell, Texas, resident notes that the chips and tokens that turn heads and cost dozens of times their face value are rare and coveted by the club's 3,000 members from across the country.

Skelton and wife, Ann, are clearly fascinated with Las Vegas. It's a trait they share not only with club members but with millions of other visitors who come to gawk and party and fantasize and usually leave with memories and pocket lint.

The collectors can always say they took their chips with them.

The group has come to Las Vegas for 13 years to flash their stacks and trade tokens. This year, approximately 200 dealers assembled at the Riviera, and hundreds of collectors came to admire and occasionally purchase tokens that completed their collection or that they simply couldn't resist.

But just think of the possible impact on Las Vegas history associated with collecting gaming chips.

Had Benny Siegel only known that just a single $100 Flamingo chip might one day be worth $50,000, he surely would have gone into therapy and worked out his bug-eyed personality quirks and lived to a ripe age.

All right, that's probably giving the collectors too much credit.

But if you listen closely, you can hear the faint rustling of thousands of Las Vegans pulling open their junk drawers and rifling through their boxes of Old Vegas stuff for a few of the chips they tossed after some long-forgotten night of gambling.

If you're like me, and you never clean out that catch-all drawer in the kitchen that contains everything from a deck of playing cards to screwdrivers, there's a reasonable chance you'll also find an old casino chip. It's worth a look.

Over the years, I've collected a handful of chips, most of them worth about 1 percent of what I actually paid the casinos for the privilege of bringing them home after a few hours at the tables. Does anyone need a $1 chip from the Silver Slipper or a $5 beauty from Binion's?

Never mind. I'd better leave the collecting to the experts.

But talk about a way to beat the House at its own game.

n John L. Smith's column appears Thursdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.


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