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Sunday, September 05, 1999
Copyright � Las Vegas Review-Journal


In the Chips
Collectors gathering colorful symbols of Las Vegas gambling scene

After 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 Vegas casinos.
"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. Pete Rizzo, Casino Chip Collector
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."