September 05, 1999
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
In the Chips
Collectors gathering colorful
symbols of Las Vegas gambling scene
a long night parking cars at The Mirage, Pete Rizzo looked into the valets'
tip box and noticed seven or eight colorful gaming chips from different Las
"We get tipped in chips a lot," he said.
Rizzo examined the chips closely and realized they were an attractive collectible
that epitomized his chosen city of Las Vegas. He quickly got hooked on collecting.
"I just collect Las Vegas," Rizzo said. "There is something about chips from
Vegas. They are pieces of art and little time capsules of Las Vegas. Everything
about them is cool."
Mounted in holders in black felt carpet on the wall in his Summerlin home are
about 600 gaming chips.
His is not the best or largest collection. He just wants to collect every Las
Vegas chip with "a cool graphic."
There are some doozies on the walls. Rizzo's most valuable chip is a Desert
Inn variety from the 1950s that is worth about $1,000. He also has a commemorative
chip that features Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. He owns unusual chips such as those
distributed to celebrate the Tropicana's Miss Hawaiian Tropics contest showing
bathing beauties, along with chips depicting race car drivers and even one of
baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson distributed by the Las Vegas Club.
Chips have benefited Rizzo personally. From the sale of his first chip collection,
he made the down payment on his home. Since re-entering collecting last year,
he has replaced every chip he sold. One of his El Rancho Vegas chips is singed
from the fire in 1960 that destroyed the then-prominent casino on the southwest
corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue.
"Security guards pulled out boxes of chips during the fire," said Rizzo, admitting
he once scaled the fence to look closely at the El Rancho Vegas site. He also
has an old Dunes chip he thinks was among the batch extricated when the hotel
was blown up. According to legend, thousands of chips had been embedded for
years in the cement floor of the Dunes' Oasis gaming area. Some somehow got
into the hands of collectors after the hotel was imploded. There also are chips
from the old Thunderbird hotel from the 1950s that served as business cards
for casino executives. The hotel is pictured on one side and the executive's
name on the reverse side.
Chips tell the gaming history of Las Vegas. They were played on tables at the
El Rancho Vegas, at Vegas Vic's Pioneer Club, and at forgotten West Las Vegas
clubs such as the Moulin Rouge, El Rio and Carver House.
Rizzo won't sell any of the chips in his collection, but he does trade duplicates.
When The Venetian opened, he headed for the cage and purchased 40, $5 grand-opening
chips. Within 16 hours, he had traded them to fellow collectors. "I could have
gotten rid of them in eight hours," he said. "Everybody wanted them." But the
growing popularity of chips on the Internet, particularly those sold on the
eBay Web site, has its pitfalls. Rizzo said too many people deal nearly worthless
chips to unsuspecting buyers. "There are some greedy people out there," Rizzo
said. "Like in any hobby, you have to be careful. Not everyone is honest."
Like any collector, Rizzo dreams of finding the mother lode of forgotten chips.
Somewhere out in Las Vegas is an old man or woman who went to the Flamingo opening
and stuffed a couple of chips in a drawer. "I know they are out there," he said.
"I'd just like to see them."