Ocean’s One

What’s the point of stealing casino chips?

Can you cash in your chips even if they’re stolen?

An armed gunman stole $1.5 million in chips from the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas early Tuesday. What’s the point of stealing casino chips? Do they have any value outside the casino?

No. The only way to turn casino chips into cash is to exchange them at a casino, usually the one where you got them. In some cases, big casino conglomerates such as MGM Resorts International—which owns Bellagio, the Mirage, Luxor, New York-New York, Circus Circus, and Excalibur, among other Vegas casinos—allow gamblers to cash chips from one property at another. (Every casino has its own unique chips.) But even then, when dealing with large sums of money, the casinos usually check with each other to confirm that the chips are legit. Time was, different Vegas casino companies would cash each other’s chips—some third-party companies even cashed chips from all of the casinos—but that stopped because of counterfeiting.

The Bellagio thief stole chips worth as little as $100 and as much as $25,000. He might just get away with cashing the $100 chips—as they’re less likely to attract attention—but it’s extremely unlikely that the $25,000 one will do him any good. Gamblers who win enough money to cash such high-value chips are already known by the casinos. Casinos keep track of their highest rollers via a “rating system,” which they then use to offer the gamblers complimentary rooms, meals, or other services. (The more a player spends, the higher their rating, the better the deals.) If a random person showed up with a $25,000 chip, he’d look mighty suspicious. One possible solution is to have a well-known high-roller cash the chips—but even then, casinos keep track of how many chips each heavyweight has won. It would be hard not to raise red flags.

Another hitch is that many casinos embed radio frequency, or RFID, tags into their high-value chips—$1,000 and above, possibly, though the casinos are tight-lipped on this point. These devices serve two purposes. One is to prevent counterfeiting: If a cashier scans a chip that’s supposed to have an RFID but doesn’t, it’s probably a fake. (Most counterfeiting involves lower-denomination chips: The most common way to counterfeit a chip is to repaint a $1 piece to look like, say, a $100 piece.) RFIDs also serve as individualized bar codes to keep track of every chip. With the right technology, the Bellagio can figure out exactly which chips were stolen. And if anyone tried to cash them, he’d get nabbed.

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Explainer thanks Tommy Burns of Burns & Associates Inc.; Jerry Markling of the Nevada Gaming Control Board; and Gary Thompson of Caesars Entertainment. Thanks to reader Leah Farzin for asking the question.

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