Dear Straight Dope:
It occurs to me that it would be much simpler to counterfeit casino chips than paper currency. Besides the fact that it's the mob that's after you and not the cops, why is this not done? Is there some kind of special watermark or antifraud device built into casino chips? It just seems so simple.
Casinos are well aware of this possible scam, and take great precautions to prevent it. The truth is that it’s at least as hard to create counterfeit casino chips as it is to create counterfeit money, and maybe even harder.
To begin with, the manufacture of genuine casino chips (known in the trade as “checks”) is more complicated than one might think – as you suspect, they’re not just discs of colored plastic. They are created, machined, and finished using very specialized equipment, and generally feature several antifraud measures ranging from serial numbers to embedded microchips, as well as each individual casino’s own logo and related branding. Casino chip production is handled by the security printing industry, which also makes things like checkbooks and credit cards. Every stage of manufacture, from the sourcing of raw materials to the delivery of the finished goods, is governed by strict security checks and protocols. Trying to create counterfeit chips that are a perfect match for the real thing, in terms of appearance, weight, and feel, is more or less impossible, even before you start worrying about microchips and suchlike.
But let’s say you somehow manage to produce counterfeit chips indistinguishable from those used at Cecil’s Lucky Horseshoe Casino and smuggle them into the house. This still isn’t going to do you much good. If you just walk up to the cashier’s window and try to convert your chips into currency, the casino will immediately wonder where you got them, given that you haven’t been seen playing at any of the tables. If you sit down and play a few games first, whether cards or roulette or anything else, there comes a point when you’ll have to add your fake chips to whatever stash has come your way legitimately. Think about this. You are literally surrounded by live surveillance cameras, and you’ve got trained security officers and professional croupiers watching your every move. How are you going to get the fake chips on the table? And even if your sleight-of-hand skills are such that you’re able to do it, you’re still not going to have an easy time at the cashier’s window. If you’re cashing a lot of high-value chips, the casino is going to find you interesting, and that’s not good for you. They may even invite you to step into a back room for a quiet chat about your luck and the chips you’ve just attempted to cash. Good luck with that.
Even if you get away with it once, you’re not going to get away with it twice at the same casino, because they’ll remember you from the first time and watch you even more closely than before. This means you’d have to start over, counterfeiting the chips from a completely different casino. But most casinos in any given city exchange information about big winners and suspicious characters, so even at another casino you may well find yourself either barred or at least watched uncomfortably closely. This means you’d likely have to mount your second operation in a completely different part of the country. It’s not an easy life.
By the way, your reference to the mob is a little out of date. Whatever may have once been the case, these days the vast majority of professional casinos are owned and operated by large and eminently legitimate corporations. If you’re caught trying to cheat, you’ll have the company’s own security personnel to contend with as well as police or federal agents. In most states it is a crime to attempt any form of cheating in a casino, and the penalties can be severe.
All in all, trying to counterfeit casino chips just isn’t a smart option unless you have an extraordinary fondness for jail food.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.