As he made the 2,500-mile drive from Delaware to the show in Las Vegas, Jerry Birl realized he could not take a route through the Colorado mountains.
Birl had filled his Chrysler Town and Country nearly to the roof with boxes of chips, posters and other “oddball” casino collectibles. He could barely make it over speed bumps, much less hills, he said.
The 72-year-old is one of about 70 hard-core casino memorabilia collectors hoping to sell some of their items at the annual Casino Collectibles Association Convention, which is open to the public and runs through Saturday at the South Point.
The convention, now it its 26th year, offers a wide range of memorabilia — from chips, dice and posters to more obscure items like door handles, napkins and room keys.
“If a casino had their name on an ice machine, someone would probably want to take it home,” joked Archie Black, a retired telephone lineman who launched the association in 1988.
Birl and Black are representative of the collectors at the show: mainly white, retired men with a passion for gaming and willing to go to lengths to acquire items.
Among the collectors are former lawyers, bankers and professionals from the real estate, aerospace and education industries. Each collector usually has a niche, such as chips from a certain state or with a certain dollar denomination.
Some focus on chips from a particular game, some on dice and others on nongaming items.
“You either have the collecting bug or you don’t,” said Birl, who has the largest collection on display at this year’s show.
An avid roulette player, he found out about the association when he passed a display of chips at a casino during a trip to Atlantic City in May 1992.
The son of a coin and stamp collector, Birl immediately began to buy up anything related to roulette, turning the Delaware home he has lived in since birth into a mini-museum.
His collection now includes 130,000 chips, including about 25,000 relating to roulette. He also owns posters, ceramics and other casino items.
Collectors seek to be among the first to visit a new casino or acquire the latest chip. Some try to visit all the casinos in a particular state or all the casinos of a particular operator.
Birl was the first to place a sports bet at the Harrington Raceway & Casino in Delaware on June 5, the day single-event sports betting became legal in the state.
Many of the collectors who drive in for the show will stop at casinos along the way to “harvest chips” — collector lingo for walking out with chips that one paid for.
Peter Nathan, a retired lawyer who specializes in collecting chips with a $2.50 denomination, recalled being chased out of a California casino by an armed security guard in the late 1990s for harvesting.
“The guard thought I was going to try and counterfeit the chips, but who is going to waste their time trying to counterfeit a $2.50 chip?,” he said.
Nathan began collecting chips in the 1990s and visited as many casinos as he could. In 2007 he made an eight-day road trip with a friend to all 95 casinos in Oklahoma to harvest chips, he said.
Birl said he stopped at 200 casinos several years ago during a trip to the Las Vegas show and back to Delaware.
The passion keeps many collectors going strong late in their retirement.
Sheldon Smith, who collects $1 Nevada chips with his wife, Christine, said they look forward to getting up each morning to pursue their hobby.
“I don’t want to give it up for all the tea in China,” Smith said.
A guide to chips
The Chip Guide is an online library of chips and other casino collectibles in existence.
The guide was initially set up by a collector and today is maintained by the educational arm of the Casino Collectibles Association.