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Lakes, concrete: Where old poker chips find rest

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Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 1:00 am

LAS VEGAS — 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,” Mark Lipparelli, a gaming consultant and former chairman of the Gaming Control Board, told the Las Vegas Sun.

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 in Las Vegas, 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.”

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.

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.

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