Downtown Business Marks 80 Years in the Poker Chip Game - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Those familiar with the musical Guys and Dolls know a pair of loaded dice was an important tool of 1950s street thugs. It seemed one never knew when a potentially lucrative craps game (and accompanying song) could pop up.

Dennis ONeill has been working at poker chip manufacturer T.R. King and Company for 30 years. They sell everything from poker chips to blackjack tables. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Today, a dusty hobby shop in South Park is still churning out dice - albeit of the legit variety - along with reams of green table felt, piles of unopened playing cards and a daunting variety of hot-stamped and clay poker chips.

"I think were the only one left in town," said Dennis ONeill, general manager of T.R. King and Company.

ONeill and three other employees work out of a cluttered, nearly windowless storefront on an especially run-down section of Pico Boulevard east of Staples Center. Through a heavy door, the dusty interior looks like a mix between a casino equipment closet and a deleted scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Old, upended gaming tables litter the floor while stacks of dice fill an entire cupboard behind a counter. Dusty catalogues opened to no particular page cover an entire desk in one corner.

"If we dont have it, we can get it," quipped ONeill between phone calls on a hot afternoon last week. "We can find it."

ONeill has worked at the shop for 30 years. He explains that the first T.R. King outlet opened in 1922 on Olive Street, as a manufacturer of casino supplies. The store moved a few times before settling at Pico and Grand Avenue in 1977. Over the years, equipment sales shifted from casinos to private buyers.

While dice and cards were once big sellers, the house special today is poker chips. The company makes its own stock chips, but not the thin plastic variety typically associated with home games. They manufacture the heavier, more durable clay version, the type used in casinos.

In recent years, the shop has also made a name for itself by offering personalized chips. Once a show of class and high society, there are few places left to get poker chips monogrammed, said ONeill. The versions range from those emblazoned with initials ($.50 each) to casino-style chips with logo ($.80 each) to period chips like the ones used in 19th century gaming halls ($3 each). The chips come in 23 colors.

Then there are the accessories: chip carousels, chip holders and chip cases, which come in vinyl or hardwood (walnut or mahogany) and top out at $150. For gaming venues, the store hawks blackjack tables, roulette setups and keno cages. For $300, well-off gamblers can take home a deck of Bicycle cards from the 1940s.

ONeill said most customers are collectors or gaming enthusiasts who hold tournaments at home. Business is brisk, he said, but they still work order to order.

In years past, most business came through large mail orders and walk-ins, ONeill said, "but not so much anymore." Now, with the Internet, connoisseurs dial in from all over the world, he said. "We could be anywhere for that."

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