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  1. What is meant by an "Illegal"?

  2. What is the difference between a "custom" chip and a "generic"?

  3. Why would illegal clubs use custom chips?

  4. When was the "Age of the Illegals"?

What is meant by an "Illegal"?

The term "Illegal" is commonly used in chip collecting and can refer to both a club or a chip.

Although there is no all-compassing rule for what qualifies as an "Illegal" club, it is generally regarded to be an establishment that offers a type of gambling that is not legal in its jurisdiction at the time.  For most areas, there is no interpretation needed because all gambling where the house takes a cut was illegal.  This includes games of chance like poker, craps and blackjack, but also extends into slot machines and other tabletop devices, bookmaking establishments and local lotteries.


Some jurisdictions are not as straightforward however.  The Pacific Northwest, for instance, has had periods when gambling went in and out of legal status making some long running clubs operating in both legal statuses over the years.  Other states like California have legalized some forms of gambling, such as poker, but have kept other forms of gambling as illegal.  Labeling clubs like these as legal or illegal can be frustrating.

For casino chips, the term "illegals" is used to describe the chips used by the above clubs.  

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a "custom" chip and a "generic"?

“Generic” refers to chips that can be purchased by anyone and are not customized
for any one particular operation.  They are sold in quantity at entertainment
distributors such as billiards suppliers, cigar stores, grocery, etc.  They are usually
cheap and quickly replaced but have little security against cheating.

The term “custom” refers to chips which are customized to the buyer, and cannot be purchased by anyone else.  Using a combination of characteristics, a buyer can be confident he is getting the only chips of its kind to use in its games.

Characteristics of a “customized” chip:
1)    Inlay/hotstamp – lettering chosen by the buyer to personalize their chips.  They can be hotstamped with initials, entire words or embedded with an inlay to give more information.
2)    Color – different colors usual designate different denominations.  Most “illegals” don’t have denominations so they can be changed easily.  It is also cheaper to have the same stamp on both sides.
3)    Mold – the design around the outer edge of the chip is registered to particular manufacturers.
4)    Inserts – more expensive and not common in old illegals, these are colors added for higher security.   


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FAQ - Generic 2.jpg

Why would illegal clubs use custom chips?

One of the most common questions I'm asked.  Why go through all the trouble and expense to order customized casino chips (or dice, cards, etc) if you are running a small-time illegal operation?

There have been a number of explanations, some making more sense than others.  The argument that chips without denominations were used so they could claim after a raid that they weren't playing with "real money" is hard to accept.  Prosecution of gambling cases rarely rely on evidence of chips.


The most common reason to use casino chips instead of cash is security (same as today).  Getting custom made chips that only you can order makes it difficult, if not impossible, for someone to introduce their own chips (called "ringing-in") into your game.  Reputable chip manufactures guarantee only the original buyer can reorder the same chip.  Using a combination of lettering, colors, mold design and other markings, a buyer can be confident they have the only chips of their kind. There is no threat that someone will introduce their own chips and try to cash them in.


The second key security concern that illegal casino have involves hold-ups from thieves.  Because the operation is illegal, it is up to the club owner to maintain their own security.  Like a giant bullseye, these illegal operations handling cash were prime targets for thugs looking for a quick score.  The practice of exchanging money for chips, and locking that cash up, gives a little more protection for the house's money.  That isn't to say that robberies were thwarted though.  It was very common for an illegal game to get robbed (sometimes through inside information).

When was the "Age of the Illegals"?

The term "Age of the Illegals" is one developed by Illegal researchers and refers to the period where most of the research and chips belong to.  Although illegal gambling goes back as far as records exist, the majority of the popular use of customized casino chips started in the early 1930s.  Before then, gambling establishments used either very expensive hardcarved chips (ivory, mother-of-pearl), very cheap generic checks or cash.  By the 1930s, it became more common to have customized chips made for even small gambling clubs.

It is for this reason that the beginning of the Age of the Illegals is usually given as 1930.  Was there gambling and custom chips before then?  Of course - a lot of it.  However, there are fewer identifiable chips and other artifacts from these clubs.

The ending of the "Age" is a little more subjective and varies depending on the area of research (for instance: Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1948; Galveston, Texas, in 1957).  On a macro-scale, most would say the majority of the "classic" period ends in the 1960s.  The year 1967, when Hot Springs, Arkansas was clamped down on, is a good milestone.

Of course gambling continued after 1967, and still goes on today.  However, the period of wide-open illegal gambling was never quite the same after the Age of the Illegals ended.

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