Idaho collector has high stakes in vintage poker chips

These vintage clay poker chips marked 'Oriental Saloon' sold at an auction in May 2007 for $1,700. Image courtesy of Engle Auction Co., Ennis, Mont., and LiveAuctioneers archive.

These vintage clay poker chips marked ‘Oriental Saloon’ sold at an auction in May 2007 for $1,700. Image courtesy of Engle Auction Co., Ennis, Mont., and LiveAuctioneers archive.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) – Richard Jimenez has a passion for poker chips.

When he isn’t working his day job selling and trading collectable coins, currency and antiques, Jimenez is trying to locate rare Idaho poker chips.

“There was gambling that went on everywhere,” said the co-owner of Trackside Mall in Idaho Falls. “Basically that’s what I’m trying to do is get all the information I can because that is hard to find.”

Jimenez started collecting 25 years ago when a friend showed him a few poker chips while they were trading other items.

So far, he’s amassed 260 different kinds of chips, a collection Jimenez estimates is valued at $30,000.

Some of his chips are the only ones known to exist, such as a yellow chip from a place called the Crescent Club in Salmon in north central Idaho, and others have yet to be identified.

In the first half of the 20th century, nearly every Idaho bar, cigar store, pool hall and private club, like the Elks or Eagles, conducted poker games using their own, custom-made chips.

When the state outlawed gambling in 1949, many places took their poker games underground, prompting law enforcement to raid and close several of the surviving card rooms.

After a confiscating the poker chips, police officers would often destroy them or haul them to a dump, Jimenez said.

“I do a lot of dump digging and I never find a chip in a dump,” he said.

Many chips survived, however, because club owners either voluntarily shut down their games and kept their chips or stashed their chips in an attic and simply forgot about them.

It’s those types of chips that Jimenez is hunting, although he said they’re not easy to get.

Jimenez travels the state each summer trying to locate former bar and club owners or their relatives to see if they might have old poker chips in their possession. He also visits Elks lodges or Eagles aeries and talks with customers who visit him at Trackside Mall.

On a recent trip to Salmon, once a gambling hotbed, Jimenez scored some rare chips after finding and speaking with the wife of a bar owner who ran $10,000 poker games in the 1930s.

“That’s where you get your information is from the older people,” he said.

While Jimenez has chips from all across the state, the ones originating in Idaho Falls are his favorites.

He has chips from the now-extinct Fletchery West Cigar Store, the El Paso pool hall and the Havana Club in downtown Idaho Falls, yet still can’t find chips he knows were once used at Ford’s Bar.

Jimenez’s quest for Idaho poker chips has been personal for the most part, but that’s about to change.

Jimenez plans on publishing a book about his collection, complete with pictures of each poker chip and its story. He says he doesn’t want people to forget about Idaho’s gambling past.

“It’s out of people’s minds,” he said. “This is Idaho history.”

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.