Poker wouldn't be poker without wagering, and wagering is just so much better with real poker chips. But there are so many varieties out there, and it can be confusing when working out which ones to buy.
Any home game requires a couple of supplies to play poker: playing cards, and chips. Everything else is optional!
Here's some information to help you navigate the fascinating world of poker chips.
History of Poker Chips
Gambling is one of mankind's oldest pastimes, and casinos have been around since 1638. Yet, casino chips are a relatively new invention. An early precursor was the tokens (known as jettons) used in card games like Ombre and Quadrille. These used shapes to represent value, and colors for ownership.
Modern poker emerged in the Mississippi region in the early 1800s and soon spread around the US. In the rough mining camps out on the frontier, players would gamble with gold nuggets and pinches of gold dust - a recipe for arguments that would often turn violent. To prevent this, saloon-keepers started providing standardized tokens to their customers.
At first these were simple and easy to forge, so security details were added. Commercial production of hard-to-forge chips soon emerged to supply the growing demand. These early poker chips were made of clay, and were fragile.
It wasn't until after the Second World War that new manufacturing techniques were developed to produce the more durable clay composite chips. The tougher-still ceramic poker chip was introduced in the 80s.
How Poker Chips Are Made
How poker chips are made depends on the material used - there are three main techniques. Casinos keep their exact process a trade secret to discourage forgery, but they are usually compression-molded clay chips.
The vast majority of poker chips on the retail market are made mainly from plastic and made using injection-molding.
However, some clay composite chips are produced using a combination of compression and injection-molding - sometimes called the "injecto-pression" technique.
Sizes & Dimensions
The most common dimension for a casino poker chip is 39mm in diameter, although higher value chips can be a little larger. Generally they are between 39-48mm. The usual thickness is 3.5mm with a weight of around 10g.
Commercially available chips are often slightly heavier, up to 14g - this is because the weight of an item is associated with quality, even though in this case the highest quality chips are actually lighter!
Most non-casino-grade poker chips are made by injection-molding. The material (ABS plastic or ceramic) is injected into a mold and allowed to set. This can leave a mark on the chip at the injection site, but otherwise they are usually imperfection free.
Casino-grade clay chips are usually produced via compression techniques. Here a clay mix is molded by a combination of extreme pressure and heat. This process takes longer and is more expensive than injection-molding, and that's reflected in the cost of the chips.
Clay composite chips (aka China clays) are made using a process that combines injection-molding and compression. They have no injection dimple like completely injection-molded chips. This process gives the chips a very clay-like feel even though they are mainly plastic.
Where To Buy Poker Chips
You can buy basic and mid-range poker chips from Amazon, but if you want to get a better deal or higher quality chips, consider checking out these specialist suppliers. Here are a few to get you started.
Apache Poker Chips - a great option for quality chips, at every price point. They sell casino-grade true clay chips, including Paulsons - but you can also get quality plastic composite chips for very reasonable prices.
Classic Poker Chips - for the true aficionado - custom-made clay chips made using casino-standard manufacturing techniques. CPC also sells ceramic chips.
BR Pro Poker - Specialists in ceramic chips. Plenty of chip sets/bundles, where you can buy in bulk and choose which denominations you want.
Discount Poker Shop - Great for the budget-conscious with some great offers. But be warned, their chips are plastic or plastic composites, even where they are called clay. This is very common in the poker chip world.
American Gaming Supply - These guys have a really big selection, including plastic composites (eg Desert Heat), Clay composites (eg Milano), and Ceramics (Nevada jacks). And they also have a wide range of other poker and gaming supplies too.
Key West Resort and Casino - this one is a little different - a "fantasy" casino that sells clay chips to the public! However, they use Classic Poker Chips to manufacture their chips, so you may want to go direct to the source.
Outside of the US, your choice is far more limited - especially if you want casino-style clays. The UK has Premier Poker Chips where you can get customized chips, but they are limited to plastic, plastic composite, and ceramic. Otherwise, you are stuck using Amazon, eBay or paying import fees from one of the American suppliers above. Most occasional home players will opt for a case of poker chips.
Main Types of Poker Chips
There are really three main categories of chip: lower-quality plastic chips for people who just want to play cards; premium chips for the more discerning player; and casino-grade for the serious collector.
Lower-Quality Plastic Chips
The very cheapest poker chips are pure plastic and not much better than just betting with matchsticks or dried beans. They are widely available and very low cost, but should be avoided by any serious poker player.
ABS "dice" chips are a much better option if you are on a budget. They are made from thicker plastic and fine for a casual home game, especially if you don't play often.
Premium Clay Poker Chips
You will find a lot of chips are described as "clay" by the vendor, but this is often a marketing gimmick as the chip will contain a tiny amount of clay - really the term should be reserved for the absolute top end casino "true" clay chips, such as Paulson or Classic Poker Chips.
That said, the plastic composite chips marketed as "clay" or "clay composite" are good chips for people who don't want to spend the earth but want a more premium chip than the humble dice chip.
If you must have clay but can't afford Paulson chips, then there are other clay composites on the market that come very close to the feel and look without being quite so expensive. These are mass produced by a combination of compression molding and injection. These are sometimes referred to as China clays.
Finally, ceramic chips are another good alternative for the serious home poker player. Non-casino-grade ceramic chips are available if you are budget conscious. However, their slippery texture is not to everyone's liking.
Casino-Grade Poker Chips
Casinos tend to use "true" clay chips and ceramic chips. You may find smaller casinos and casinos outside of the US who use plastic composites, however.
It's difficult for a retail consumer to get hold of casino-grade chips, and for good reason. Chips are the currency of casinos, and they keep their manufacturing processes a secret. The manufacturers tend to focus on the casino market and not the home market - but there are exceptions.
Mostly though, casino-grade poker chips are mainly for chip collectors who buy and sell on secondary markets. They can go for several dollars per chip - not really economical for most people's home games.
Poker Chip Materials
Poker chips come in a variety of materials - but apart from the very top-end chips, they will be made mainly from some sort of plastic.
It can be confusing to know which material a particular brand is actually made from, as many manufacturers will describe their chips as "clay" for marketing reasons. You'll also find that ceramic chips aren't made from traditional ceramics, China clay chips aren't pure China clay - and even the "true" clay chips that casinos use aren't pure clay.
Not all plastic chips are the same. There's a big variety in quality and price. There are a wide range of plastics used in poker chips, from the cheap slippery supermarket chips to the softer higher-end plastics. Because most plastics are light, the chips will often have a metal insert to give them more weight.
Lower Quality Plastic Chips
At the bottom of the spectrum are the cheap plastic discs that you can buy in supermarkets and gas stations for about a penny each. They look, sound and feel cheap and should be avoided.
The next level up are dice chips, which are made out of ABS plastic. Usually there will be a metal insert inside to give them the correct weight. They don't cost a whole lot more than the previous category, but they are so much better on every level. Dice chips are a great choice for your first set of chips, but you will eventually want to upgrade. They don't look, sound or feel like the real thing though.
Higher Quality Plastic Chips
Mid-range plastic chips are higher quality than basic dice chips, with a better look and feel. They'll often have metal inserts. These chips will sometimes describe themselves as "Clay" or "Clay composite" but they are mostly plastic with a small amount of clay added rather than the other way around. The sound and feel is nothing like a casino-grade chip, although they look pretty similar from a distance.
Casino Royale and Desert Heat are well-known brands using this material.
Finally there are high-end plastic chips available. They are still plastic though so many people do not like the way they feel. Bud Jones and Matsui are two companies produce casino-grade quality plastic chips - but these are not available to the consumer. It is fairly hard to get hold of these.
Faux clay chips are a specific kind of poker chip that are no longer produced and are very difficult to find. But they provide a cheap facsimile of the much more expensive clay chips. The brand to look out for is "Deluxe Dice".
The real deal. True mineral clay chips are the very highest-grade casino chips. They aren't actually pure clay - no poker chips are any more - but clay mixed with other materials to make them more durable. Pure clay is very brittle. Casino grade "true" clay chips do have a very high percentage of clay though. Even if the chip you are thinking of buying is described as clay, it is probably a plastic composite - so be careful.
Look out for Paulson and Classic Poker Chips.
These chips are also known as China clays, because they use kaolin (aka China clay) mixed with additives to make it more durable. The chips have a dusty feel, and can be very difficult to tell apart from "true" clay chips. They are much cheaper though!
Majestic and Milano are well-known brands.
Confusingly, ceramic chips are not ceramic at all, but a type of plastic resin that mimics the look and feel of porcelain.
They are much more durable than clay chips - practically indestructible in fact. You will find them in many casinos - but not all ceramic chips are casino-grade quality. Nevada Jacks and Tiki Kings are good brands to look out for.
Most ceramic chips have a slippery feel to them, which not everyone likes. So it's worth getting a sample set of ceramics before splashing out on a full set!
Poker Chip Colors, Values & Denominations
There is no central authority in poker to set the values for poker chip colors. That said, most casinos (outside of California at least) use the following standard poker chip denominations:
Plaques vs Chips
Casinos don't tend to use chips for really big denominations - at least not in poker. For amounts over $25,000, they'll usually use plaques instead. These are large square tokens that have individual serial numbers and other anti-fraud measures. Ceramic is the most common material used for poker plaques.
If you want to give your home games a certain prestige and luxury, chip retailers also sell casino plaques to the public. You'll probably only be able to use them in tournaments - unless your home cash games are really juicy!
Poker Chip Designs
Poker chips come in a great variety of designs, and there are plenty of poker chip collectors out there. There are number of aspects of poker chip design to consider:
- the mold
- the edge spots
- the body
- the inlay
The mold determines what symbols are embossed into the chip surface. You only really find this in clay chips, due to the production process.
Edge spots are the different patterns of color around the edges. In casino chips these are formed from different clay being pushed together, but in plastic-based chips they will be printed on to replicate the casino clay chip.
The body is the color of the main chip, and the inlay in the design in the middle of the chip. Depending on the quality and material of the chip, the inlay might be compression molded onto the chip, or hot-stamped on. Stickers are common too.
Custom Poker Chips
Many poker chip suppliers offer the option of customized/personalized poker chips. Usually this is just the option to choose what is printed on the chip inlay - perfect for novelty chips for weddings or company casino nights, or just advertising. They are also good for the more serious home game too, and prevent players cheating by "introducing" chips into the game.
Naturally, these will be more expensive than just buying off the shelf, and there will be a minimum order.
If you do want a truly custom poker chip, suppliers like Classic Poker Chips will let you pick all aspects of the design including the mold design and edge spots. But be warned - these can set you back $3 or more per chip, and you'll have to order at least 300. They are truly casino-quality though.
Poker Chips - FAQ
Answers to the most common questions about poker chips and plaques.
What are poker chips made of?
Poker chips are made from a variety of materials - but mainly plastic and plastic composites.
The traditional poker chip material is clay, but this is not durable by itself and even the highest-end "true" clay chips will have other substances in there to improve their toughness.
Many poker chips are marketed as "clay" or "clay composite" but are often just plastic with a little bit of clay added. Ceramic chips are also popular - but this too is actually a type of plastic.
Are poker chips magnetic?
Poker chips can be magnetic if they contain a metal insert. This is quite common in mid-range chips made from plastic composite, in order to make up for the lightness of the material. But clay and ceramic poker chips are not magnetic, and neither are pure plastic ones.
Do poker chips have RFID?
Casinos put RFID broadcasters in their chips. These are used to confirm values when cashing out, speeding up counting and preventing counterfeiting. They also have an anti-theft function too as they are unique identifiers that can be switched off - meaning the chips can't be cashed.
Can you make poker chips yourself?
You can try to make your own poker chips, but unless you have a 3-d printer or access to some sort of plastic injection-molding equipment, it will be very difficult. But if you need chips then you can always use a substitute like matchsticks or dried beans.
What are the most prestigious poker chip brands?
Paulson are generally accepted to be the most prestigious poker chip brand. The manufacturer no longer sells them directly to the public so they can only be bought on secondary markets. As a result, they are very expensive and hard to get hold of. Classic Poker Chips are also known for their high quality.
Can you duplicate casino poker chips?
Casinos spend a lot of time and money making sure nobody can forge or duplicate their chips. The exact manufacturing process of any casino's chips is a trade secret - and numerous anti-forging features are used. If you really like the look of a casino's chips, you can pay a chip supplier to produce you a custom chip based on their design - but you won't be able to use it in the real casino!
What are poker plaques?
Poker plaques (also called casino plaques) are large square tokens that are used to represent high denominations.
Do casinos use ceramic or clay chips?
You'll find both ceramic and clay chips in casinos. Ceramic are much more durable but have a slippery texture some players dislike. Clay chips have a reputation for excellence - and have a certain sound and feeling that can't be imitated.
Do clay poker chips break easily?
Poker chips made from pure clay break very easily, but they are not produced any more, and instead additives are used in even "true" clay chips in order to make them harder. These casino-grade clay chips are still not as tough as ceramic chips though.
How much do poker chips cost?
The cost of a poker chip ranges from a cent per chip for cheap plastic chips to as much as $3 per chip for Paulson clay chips. Then there are collectible chips that go for thousands on the secondary market. But you can get very good quality chips for between 15-50c per chip.
How many chips do you get in poker?
How many chips you get in poker depends on what game you are playing - in cash games, you will get chips to the value of your buy-in, so different people will have different starting stacks. In tournaments, the organizer decides how many chips everyone gets. But usually you want to have at least forty chips of 3 or 4 denominations - with more of the smaller denomination chips than the larger.
How to play poker without chips?
If you don't have real poker chips you can either use cash, you can use a tally system or you can use other objects as a substitute. Match sticks are the classic! Dried beans also make good chips - especially if you have different types you can use for different denominations. You can also make chips from scraps of paper.
What do poker chip colors mean?
Poker chip colors indicate their value. There is no standard color-scheme but generally you'll find that white is for the lowest value, usually $1. Red is $5 and green $20 or $25.
Nothing beats playing poker with good quality poker chips. They are a solid investment for your home game. There's a whole world of poker chips out there - but watch out, collecting poker chips is pretty addictive!