Collectors target poker chips, tokens and other gambling items - Friday 12th of August 2005

Members of the Deep South Chip Collectors acquire poker chips, tokens and other gambling items for the memories and the thrill of owning something rare.

Thumbing through their collections is like spinning back the years to when casinos operated like speak-easies, or fast-forwarding to the age of corporate gaming.

The club, which was organized in January 2002, has about 47 members from throughout the Southeast. Its swap events, quarterly meetings and annual luncheon are held at the Copa Casino in Gulfport.

Bob Reed of Gretna, the clubs president, said he became interested in the hobby when a chip collector spoke to his coin club.

"Everybody got the fever after that," he said.

His collection spans from a late-1800s chip made from ivory to one from 1996 bearing the image of George Burns when Caesars Palace celebrated his 100th birthday.

Some of the most collectible chips come from illegal clubs that once operated up and down the Coast: the 406, Broadwater Beach, Carters, Crescent Club, D.Js Club, Eastside Club, Edgewater Club, Fiesta Club, Fishermans Hangout, Grove Club, Key Club, and Magnolia Club, just to name a few.

Kevin Galle, one of the club members who attended a swap meet Saturday, is the son of the man who owned the Crescent Club. The gambling joint was located in downtown Biloxi.

"It was like an apartment or something," Galle said. "These were all illegal clubs."

Other casinos, like the Beverly Club in Metairie, La., were less low-key. Its owners included mobsters Meyer Lansky and Carlos Marcello, who reportedly paid off politicians.

"It was top-of-the-line," said Clinton Boyle of Metairie, La. "You had to wear a coat and tie to get in."

Chips from the Beverly are among the most sought-after. Chips can cost as little as 50 cents or more than $1,000. Factors that determine price include availability, condition and desirability.

"Thats one of the prettiest chips ever made," Boyle said, pointing to a depiction of a windmill on a chip for the Green Mill Inn, a casino that once operated in Arabi, La.

Many of the chips are the creation of Haskell Jones, who died in April at the age of 97.

"He owned a manufacturing company of clay chips in New Orleans for years and years," Reed said. "I have some boxes, the original boxes from his business, Jones Brothers. In later years, he moved his business to Metairie in the Elmwood area."

The box, which was for about 100 chips, was labeled "Jones super speed poker checks."

"It wasnt just casinos that would order poker chips," Reed said. "Sometimes, it would be individuals for their private use."

Reeds wife, Debbie Reed, collects player cards. Other sought-after items include matchbooks, postcards and shot glasses - just about anything that bears a casino name or logo.

Many of the enthusiasts have memories attached to a particular piece. For instance, a Southport chip brings Bob Reed back to when he hobbled into a casino for the first time. He had his leg in a cast and was worried if he could get out quickly enough if a raid occurred.

"It was around 1963 and I was only 23 years," he said. "I came in with a friend who happened to be a bag man for one of the local operators. I remember how impressed I was with it. It was so lush," Reed said. "There were gaming tables and the one-armed bandits. It closed down two weeks later because of a shotgun shooting in the parking lot."

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