Over the years, as poker developed, clay poker chips developed right alongside it. They first appeared in the late 1870s or 1880s, as a response to the need for a more consistent way of keeping track of players’ winnings, other than the random coins, gold flakes or other valuable items that had been used before. Eventually, the practice of using such odds and ends was replaced by the creation of custom poker chips made of clay. The appearance of these chips began a history of development and refinement that has continued to this day.
Some of the early chips were made of bone, wood or even ivory, but clay chips soon began to dominate the game. They were created with metal molds in which the clay was placed and put under high pressure, to take on the desired shape. However, users discovered early on that chips made entirely of clay tended to be brittle and could break easily. So eventually the manufacturers added ceramic materials to the clay, to make the mixture stronger and more durable. Since that time, all poker chip sets have really been made of this clay-ceramic composite.
The development of clay poker chips didn’t stop once their basic formula had been established. Since they’d been introduced in the first place to reduce inconsistency and possible cheating, casinos went a step further and individualized these chips to correspond to whatever casino they came from. Proprietary clay formulas were created and patented by casinos, and they added special indicators on the chips themselves, so that any particular type could only be used and cashed at the establishment for which it was created.
This tendency to individualization continued, but clay poker chips now have some significant rivals. They are gradually being superseded by more technologically advanced types of chips. This newer type of custom poker chip now has a metal core, with a hard, injection-molded resin overlay, and might come with ultraviolet markings or radio frequency ID tags. For games played in homes or among friends, the mass-produced plastic chip has become ubiquitous; anyone wanting a clay set will have to pay more for new molds. So it seems that both economics and technology have begun to squeeze out the original chips. It may be that clay chips have run their course, and are now in their twilight years.
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