After the game of poker developed, it wasn’t long before the need for a consistent standard for placing bets and keeping track of winnings became clear. Clay poker chips were the first answer to that need. Before the advent of these chips, particularly in the games that took place on the steamboats and in mid-western bars in the latter half of the 19th century, there were no standard poker chip sets, but people placed their bets with whatever valuable items they happened to have on hand.
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.
In recent years, the development of poker chips has taken another leap that threatens to leave older clay poker chips behind. New technologies have now created chips that can be tracked more accurately than the former method of just using a casino’s characteristic designs on their own chips. Now you find some of the newer casino poker chips implanted with tracking devices like radio frequency ID tags, for example. Even the materials have started changing, the mixture of clay and ceramics replaced by metal with a hard resin overlay. With the introduction of these new technologies and materials, it’s possible that the long, fascinating history of the clay chip is coming to an end.