It is important to make it clear that neither this text, nor the pages included in this section, are to be regarded as encouragement to gambling, but just as a humble contribution to the history of this activity and the chips it generated during the republican period in Cuba; serving the only purpose of being useful to those interested in this branch of numismatics.
Havana became, in the late 1950s, a very popular ground to establish several of the greatest casinos of the American continent, in many of which the most famous gangsters at that time held shares and played an active role. Frequented not only by locals and tourists, but also by professional players, business men, Hollywood stars, etc., who made day trips from the United States to enjoy the great attractions of a city that never slept, Cuban gambling facilities became one of the main tourist appeals in the Caribbean.
Controversial figures, who sometimes organized and ran the business from the shadows (like Meyer Lansky or Santos Traficante), and others, hosted well-known establishments bringing them renown and prestige (like George Raft in Capri, or Wilbur Clark in the National), cloaked the turbulent city with a halo that even today seduces scholars who study a blurry and anecdotal epoch.
With an aggressive style that outdid the posh casinos in Nevada or Europe, the local competition offered in addition to serious and professional gamble, possibilities for both the millionaires visiting on their own, as well the simple worker travelling under a package vacation organized by Cubana de Aviación with such purpose ($70 included transportation from Miami, hotel, food, and drinks for a gambling night).
In less time than a decade, resulting from more flexible government policies regarding games of chance, fabulous investments, and an economic prosperity proved by the fact that the Cuban peso was equivalent to the US dollar, the casinos in Havana became first class business that, crowded everyday, produced profit by the millions.
As a logical result from the thriving gambling in Cuba, several series of chips were issued, the studying and collecting of which are very much connected to the development of the establishments that used them one way or another. Many of these pieces, surrounded by confusing stories, were commissioned to American manufacturers, and had beautiful designs, forms, and colours, which constitutes nowadays a great appeal for collectors fond of this branch of numismatic that in spite of being young is known to be addictive. In order to assist them when it comes to studying and organizing their pieces, we shall proceed to explain some interesting aspects about the development of such activity in Cuba during republican times.
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
Gambling in Cuba…
One of the biggest problems of the rising Cuban republic at the beginning of last century was the fact that several strata of the population were addicted to gambling. This was conditioned by historical factors the origins of which were to be found in colonial times, when Spanish rulers used it as an element to numb and control an oppressed population that had always been denied education and culture. As a result, Cubans gained a negative reputation in the eyes of public opinion, both domestic and foreign. Already in the early 19th Century, José Antonio Saco described it as a devouring cancer that had spread out in every city, town, and corner of the island. “Gambling houses are our lazy men’s hideout, the school of corruption, the tomb of families’ fortunes, and the sad origin of most of the crimes that infect the society we live in”, wrote this visionary man already in 1832.
Throughout the colonial period, the Cuban people created its identity under the destructive influence of different types of games of chance: the lottery that existed as early as 1812, billiards with multiple pool tables in clubs and cafes of all cities throughout the country, cards and dice games played in the open in bars and private homes, as well as on the streets and in the squares, cock fighting that dominated rural areas and was the peasants’ national hobby, and ultimately “bolita” or “Chinese charade”, as a result of a large scale Chinese immigration that brought their addiction to some sort of popular lottery based on the correlation between numbers and animals or events, with a high cabalistic content, that imprinted in the souls of Cubans to the present day.
Such was the legacy given to the republic when it was born. However, contrary to the commonly held opinion, Cuba was not a paradise for organized gambling during this first period. Such practice was officially illegal, and strict regulations were passed against it. Gambling found opponents among the cultivated layers of the population and the media, being virtually impossible to obtain a license to operate games of chance at any given establishment. Even the lottery was banned during the early years of the republic and until 1909, when President José Miguel Gómez authorized it again with the excuse of using its funds to help finance social construction.
The first casinos…
The first important casinos officially authorized in Cuba were operated by the firm “Urbanizadora del Parque y Playa de Marianao”. This company, formed by influential figures of the time like Carlos Miguel de Céspedes, José Manuel Cortina, Manuel de la Cruz, etc., in the late 1920s, and because of their connexions in the high government circles managed to obtain the concession to establish and operate for thirty years a big tourist centre within the municipality of Marianao, in the coastline west of Havana. This area of town, with great tourist perspective due to its beautiful beaches and proximity to the city centre, and inhospitable back then, soon transformed starting in 1917 by means of purchase of a series of lots and plots of land, followed by works of urbanizing and construction of big buildings and suburban areas, into the “Gran Parque de Residencias y Diversiones en la Playa de Marianao”, where one of the main objectives was exploiting games of chance with tourist purposes like it was done on European beaches.
This article published in the Chic magazine in July 1918 gives us a fuller and more exact idea of this.
The Gran Casino Nacional in winter, the Casino de la Playa or Summer Casino in the summer, and a small amusement arcade set up in the Jockey Club of the Oriental Park racecourse were the main facilities operated by this company starting from 1922. In order to allow it to operate legally, the Ley de Turismo (Tourism Act) was passed on August 8th 1919, which in general continued to regulate the activity throughout the entire republican period. Because the law (the text of which is included at the end of this work) dictated in its Seventh Article an investment of over a million and a half (this was too high a sum at the time) by a given company in order to obtain a licence permitting the exploitation of games of chance within its facilities, and contained different restrictive clauses, there weren’t other establishments of the kind for many years. However, there were many clubs where, even though a casino was never established (considering roulettes and the essential element) different games of chance were played behind closed doors. These could be regarded as “table games” and used dice and cards (poker, ombre, baccarat, 21, etc.), and were practiced with discretion almost all over the country, both by the wealthy members of regional recreation clubs (Habana Yatch Club, Unión Club, Societies, Spanish Colonies from different cities, etc.), and those of popular class in bars and slums operating without a license under arrangements with the local authorities. An interesting detail derives from the fact that this activity was officially banned, and its organizers who didn’t have the relevant license often refused to identify the chips they used by their registered or full name, using only initials, monograms, or correlative symbols in their design. This way they avoided potential evidence in case of a judicial action against them at a given moment. Such is the reason why a great deal of chips dating back to the early times that are part of the Cuban collection haven’t been identified and remain currently undetermined.
Just like before, during the 1940s, gambling remained officially illegal, widely criticized by different circles but surreptitiously present in many places.
However, despite the banning and campaigns against it, in Havana – protected by the local authorities and under the table – three non-official casinos managed to function, associated to cabaret shows in the following night clubs: Montmartre, Sans Souci, and Tropicana. Due to their importance later on, these deserve brief references.
The Montmartre, located less than a hundred meters away from the National hotel that existed since the 1930s under the name of “Molino Rojo”, introduced gambling in its facilities in the mid 1940s. It is said that it resulted from the presence in Cuba of Lucky Luciano, who in 1946, given his close relation with Indalecio “el Nene” Pertierra, and foreseeing the great possibilities this activity could offer, advised him to attach an amusement arcade to the cabaret. It is very well known that it was this Mr. Indalecio Pertierra, lawyer, president of the “Compañía Operadora del Hipódromo del Oriental Park”, congressman, highly influential in the government, who negotiated and obtained the visa that allowed Luciano in Cuba.
The Sans Souci, a discrete night club located in the outskirts of the city and within a natural environment, had a renowned restaurant and magnificent night shows that attracted a great number of tourists. Its greatest profits really came from an amusement arcade operating in a small room next door that wasn’t much advertised since there was no official license for its exploitation.
As to Tropicana, that later became internationally famous due to its amazing facilities based on the conjugation of nature and man’s work with show in mind, back then had only a discrete outdoor stage offering very good shows thanks to its experienced creator, the artist promoter Víctor de Correa. Following the classic conception of operating gambling saloons next to musical attractions, there was a small gaming club called “Beau Site Club”, located in the garage of the luxurious mansion that was part of the villa that had been rented to house this centre.
These three centres that all in all were of great importance from our viewpoint due to the great amount of chips they issued will be further and more thoroughly reviewed in this section, dedicating full pages to their history and characteristics.
The beginnings of the 1950s…
By consulting articles in relation to the this activity’s development found in the press from back then, we have been able to verify that this was a tumultuous period, when cheating was abundant and the atmosphere rather sordid in the establishments previously mentioned. The presence of the first advanced parties of gangsters (who, “unemployed” when the Kefauver Investigation put an end to organized gambling in the United States, moved to the Caribbean) gave the city a reputation of being dangerous and corrupt.
The Purple Pack from Detroit, the Chicago Mob, New York and New Jersey Union, etc. had gunman from Chicago, and Sammy Mannerino – former rake in Pittsburg were in charge of the place), or the expert Billy Bloom in Tropicana appeared at the dice tables ripping with “razzle” or “fast game” many American tourists whose complaints were constantly filed in their embassy and the National Tourism Comission, being published even in the American press to discredit the city.
All this deeply hurt the image of Havana as a tourist destination at a time when most Caribbean governments (Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico) dreamed of becoming the Caribbean Riviera after the termination of gambling in the United States.
In addition, the situation was strongly condemned by the most serious local press, and there were many articles like this, published in Survey magazine in November 1950.
The boom arrive …
The previously described situation changed as a result of the conjugation of two crucial factors:
- Fulgencio Batista seized power over Cuba for the second time by means of a coup d’état in March 1952. This time, knowing how profitable developing organized gambling in relation to tourism could be, he didn’t want to miss the chance he wasted during the Prohibition.
- Meyer Lansky’s presence in the country was constant, and he had made connexions in the power and business worlds during previous visits. He made his first move in Havana by taking interest in the Montmartre Casino, buying almost 50% of its shares, and bringing some of his closest fellows. They not only brought the prestige that was needed in the eyes of professional American gamblers, but also ensured a clean and safe game thus attracting an increasing number of costumers.
To keep up with this new policy, the government rapidly prepared for the upcoming times. And so steps were taken, even by using the armed forces, to clean up places giving the city a bad name. Minor gambling dens were shot down, casinos that had had trouble were requisitioned, getting rid of cheaters (mostly the “razzle artists” previously mentioned) many of which were deported to their country, etc.
A new Commission of Tourism was created with the specific target of putting everything in order, and it even had counselling from Fred Freed, an experienced organizer of the American gambling world. Among the statements enunciated by this commission we have found the following:
“We decree that any American who comes to Cuba with the intention of harming gambling in our casinos will be expelled from the country”
“We will have all casinos to use dice and cards supplied only by the government”
“In every centre there will be inspectors paying full attention to the games”
“Once gambling becomes legal, some of the world’s most respectable centres will open in Havana”
“Havana will be another Montecarlo. Only bigger and easier to get to”.
The next step was enacting the decree-law 2074 modifying some aspects of the tourism act that existed already, contributing to make gambling legal and concession of licenses to operate new casinos more flexible (this was possible for hotels with a total investment over a million pesos and any amusement centre assessed for over 200 000 pesos). Other steps were taken to protect the necessary equipment coming into the country and make investments on the field tax-free. In addition, 2 year visas were easily obtained by renowned American croupiers and other staff with the necessary technical knowledge. In order to ensure the essential presence of costumers, new regulations enabled American tourists to enter the country without needing a visa, weather they arrived in their own yachts and airplanes or by using the new and cheap air connexions created for that purpose. All this, with the official cooperation from the government, every member of which began to see the activity as the main source of income within a competitive and flexible tourist industry, and facilitated foreign investment (most capital came from the American mafia) in this sector.
Even though the Montmartre established a model in terms of honourable gambling within a corrupt environment, the great breakthrough of organized gambling in Havana came some time later. In 1955, Meyer Lansky who already worked together with President Batista as his main counsellor in this field boosted the construction of a big service complex in the left wing of National Hotel. The famous “Casino Parisién” soon opened its doors, also known as “Wilbur Clark’s Casino”. This well-known figure, organizer of the famous Desert Inn in Las Vegas, was specifically hired to promote this centre, attracting a great clientele with his charisma and giving the operation a sense of reliability that was crucial in the beginning. This was the first big casino that operated in Havana, and it came to be known all over North America and produced great profits thanks to its respectable operations and the fact of being located in a world famous hotel.
From then on, and fallowing this model, the capital’s room capacity doubled in less than three years, and gambling possibilities broaden by building several first class hotels with their corresponding casinos and refurbishing others in order to make room for them. The same occurred with many amusement centres that were either created for this purpose or refurbished to house amusement arcades. By that time, Havana was indisputably the main tourist destination in the region. The city had triumphed over the competence by becoming the “Caribbean Riviera”, and it was soon to become, accordingly with ambitious projects, the “Gambling Mecca” in this hemisphere.
However, an event to some extent unexpected, not clearly foreseen by the managers of the organized gambling world, was about to occur: the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.
The end of casinos in Cuba… December 1958:
In order to somehow get a clearer picture of the organized gambling situation in Cuba during the times of its full swing, by December 1958, we will list the most important establishments where such activity was carried out back then:
In big hotels operating as independent casinos:
Capri, Riviera, Habana Hilton, National, Saint John, Deauville, Sevilla, Plaza, and Comodoro.
In amusement centres related to night shows:
Sans Souci, Montmartre (temporarily closed), Tropicana, Night Club Nacional, Casino del Río, Club Sierra, Morocco Club, Night and Day, etc.
In sports and gambling centres:
Oriental Park’s Jockey Club, Fronton Habana Madrid, Fronton Jai- Alai.
Casino of the International Hotel in Varadero, Rain Bow (on the banks of Canímar River, in the outskirts of Matanzas in the direction of Varadero)
Casino de Venecia, Jagua Hotel in Cienfuegos.
Copacabana, Reno Club (in Ciego de Ávila)
Santiago de Cuba:
Casagranda Hotel, Centre of the Spanish Colony, Aponte Club, San Carlos Club, Club Trescientos, Luz de Oriente Society, Unión Club, Guillermo Badell, Casino Cubano, etc.
By then, the Summer Casino or Casino de la Playa had disappeared, and the Casino Nacional was kept only as a registered name and coordinating centre. In 1952, after 30 years of operations, the concession authorizing them had expired and their facilities were trespassed to the Marianao town council.
This scenario was completed by many private homes, bars and little note dives where unlicensed gambling occurred in the open.
In addition, as we have explained previously, there was intense gambling, although behind closed doors, in most clubs and societies on the island.
The first of January…
The drastic change of power that took place in Cuba, with the triumph by means of armed struggle of a popular revolution, propitiated on the first of January 1959, in view of President Batista’s unexpected flight, violent acts throughout the country. Many of these aimed at destroying everything connected to the groups abandoning power.
In Havana, an angry crowd went out to the streets, destroying most establishments operating games of chance that were condemned by the popular class who saw them as elitist places where costumers were cheated under the authorities’ protection. The continuous attacks by the press, and especially the slot machines’ negative reputation had contributed to create such impression.
Thus, many casinos were looted; their facilities destroyed, the gambling tables, roulettes, and other equipment, furniture and fittings ended up in the middle of the street. Logically, chips had the same fate. Most of them were burned or thrown in the garbage. The most damaged centres were those closer to the Central Park where the crowd gathered initially. The Night Club Nacional, the Morocco Club, the Habana Madrid, the Fronton Jai-Alai, and the casinos of Plaza and Deauville hotels were completely destroyed. Interesting images taken from the press at that time showing these centres destroyed will be included together with their chips in the pages corresponding to them.
Only the establishments that were better protected because they were located inside big hotels, or those located in the outskirts of the city were spared from this first onslaught.
During the early days of the revolutionary government, due to the magnitude of the change of power, the shock of the moment, the rejection of the people and the new authorities towards games of chance, all casinos in the country that had survived were shut down. Later on, as the situation became normal, the fact that these were connected to hotels and amusement centres propitiated that the powerful gastronomic union initiated a series of protests asking for them to be reopened due to the great number of workers that had been left unemployed after their closure.
All this ended with a big meting in Ciudad Deportiva, on February 13th 1959. The new leaders of the country agreed to meet these demands, placing the matter in the hands of the Instituto Nacional de Ahorro y Vivienda (National Institute of Savings and Housing) that later on agreed to allow only the most important ones to reopen, those associated to big hotels or important shows. The casinos of Habana Hilton, Capri, Riviera, Comodoro, National Hotel, St’John, Tropicana, Sans Souci, and Montmartre in Havana, the Venecia from Santa Clara, and the Internacional from Varadero were authorized to operate.
This article of the Show magazine published in March that year reads about the situation.
However, as it was only to be expected, under the country’s new conditions these centres operated very irregularly. Most of them went soon bankrupt due to many restrictions and the quick deterioration of relations with the United States that brought about a tourist drop and the fact that most owners and managers abandoned the country. In time, a law was passed dictating government’s intervention of all these business, and banning gambling of any kind for good throughout the country.
During the process of intervention, thoroughly carried out involving even the armed forces, all casinos were shut down, its stocks inventoried, and most gambling means were incinerated in order to prevent them from being used by private operators. Only few equipment, furniture and fittings, and chips were spared and bound for the recently created Section of Misappropriated Assets and stored in government owned warehouses in order to be used for future TV or cinema productions.
As it is to be expected, these peculiar events led to Cuban chips being very hard to obtain at present, because the casinos where they were used were not dismantled as it is regularly done in other countries. In some cases, there are centres the existence of which is known as well as their operations for long periods of time, but there are very few records or none of their chips.
We shall now proceed to show the different types of chips used in Cuban casinos and amusement arcades with the purpose to help collectors when it comes to studying those not clearly identified because they refer to unknown centres or exhibit only initials, monograms, or symbols.
Their relation with the epoch or the establishments where they appeared will allow us to a large extent to organize the Cuban collection.
According to their material or design, we have been able to determine the following types of chips:
1.- Ivory Chips
They were used in the 19th Century in some important societies and amusement arcades. The most interesting ones we have seen are those from the Unión Club, the most ancient among the great clubs in Havana. They were generally handcrafted, their sizes depending on their value, and they had hand-carved letters, easily differentiated from forgeries due to the quality of the materials.
2.- Mother-of-pearl chips
They proliferated in the early 20th Century, mostly ordered by private houses to European firms specialized in such industry. The most outstanding within the Cuban collection are those that belonged to President José Miguel Gómez that are entirely displayed in one of our pages. These pieces were in general very beautiful, presenting different forms and colours, and using only monograms or initials in their design. Their main disadvantage was they being so fragile. This was the reason why few professional gambling houses used them. For example, most of those of the Unión Club, that used them widely at that time, are deteriorated, being very difficult to find any in one piece at present.
3.- Old plastic chips
These were used in small gambling houses and societies in the early 20th Century. They generally had different sizes and shapes, smaller than those currently know. It wasn’t easy to place one on top of the other. Heat caused them to loose their shape, and they broke easily due to the use of a material that wasn’t suitable for such purpose. They were soon out of use. Examples: “El Paraíso” Society, Spanish Casino of Havana, Union Club, Oriente Club, etc.
4.- Bakelite chips.
These were the first important chips, professionally manufactured, used by casinos. Their shapes, sizes, and colours are different, and the material they are made of is rather transparent (characteristic of Bakelite). They presented very complex designs made by means of layers of different tones.
Like in all cases seen up to now, the chips’ size and shape were conditioned by their value. The highly valued ones were usually made bigger and rectangular or oval. The most complete series were issued by the National Casino of Cuba that was a pioneer among the great centres of the country. Other examples: Oriental Park, International in Varadero, Union Club in Santiago de Cuba, etc.
5.- Chips with printed central motif (Crest and Seal)
These came after those of Bakelite, and they were without a doubt the type of chips most commonly used during the first half of the 20th Century. They were made of a hard plastic conceived for such purpose, and they had a lithographed printing inside covered with a plastic plate. This brought a solution against forgeries, and made the production cheap. In addition, it was easy to put one on top of the other and count them. They opened the period when all chips had the same (round) shape and size, and their value depended on inscription or colour.
All made in the United States by United States Playing Card's Company (UPSC),they were used in Cuba by many different Societies and Clubs, and several important casinos during their early stage.
Examples: Societies: Habana Yatch Club, Spanish Society in Camaguey. Spanish Society in Santiago de Cuba, AP del V (Vedado Owners’ Association), A G (Artística Gallega), etc.
Casinos: Grand National Casino, Sans-Souci, Montmartre, etc.
6.- Two piece or cap plastic chips..
They were mainly used in the eastern region of the island. They are easy to identify because they all used the same kind of printed letters and numbers, and because they are made by two caps the separation of which is easy to spot. They were made of light but resistant plastic by means of which several shades of colour were obtained. Even though we haven’t been able to identify the manufacturer, we believe it was based on Santiago de Cuba. We’ve never seen a piece of its kind belonging to a western establishment.
Examples: Unión Club in Santiago de Cuba, Guillermo Badell, Club San Carlos, Dockers’ Union, Society Luz de Oriente, Society 20th Century, Circulo Liberal, El Mero, etc.
7.- Modern clayey plastic chips.
This type of chip that appeared in the late 1940s brought a solution to the remaining problems. Made of a resistant material that continues to be used nowadays, heavier, with a clayey component, and 90 degree edges, these chips were easy to pile in “stocks” of a same amount. This was the first ability croupiers had to learn. When they had printings in the middle, these were now made on a very resistant plastic that didn’t pose the problems Crest and Seal chips had due to humidity or heat (the plastic plate covering the middle came off and became distorted). All made in the United States by the “Burt Company”, that at the time took over UPSC, those used in Cuba always had a drawing or motif milling-like near the outer edge. According to this motifs shape, we are able to define the following sub-types within this group:
7a- Milling with chain.
Examples: Tropicana’s casino during the first year of operation when it was “Beau-Site Club”, and in its first series of not valuable chips. It was also used by the International Casino in Varadero in the series it issued in the early 50s.
7b- Milling with rectangles and rhombus.
Examples: Montmartre, Sans-Souci
7c- Milling with circles.
Examples: Montmartre not valuable series,Yatch Club.
7d- Milling with H.
Examples: Habana Hilton, and Wilbur Clark’s Casino.
7e- Milling with S.
Only seen in the chips of Hotel Saint-John’s casino.
7f- Milling with trapezoid.
Examples: Riviera, Habana Madrid, Capri (Little Island series), etc.
7g- Chain milling.
This design, in which inverted geometric figures are contrasted making a chain, is the most abundant among Cuban chips. It was used by most casinos that were operating in late 1958.
Examples: Capri, Wilbur Clark, Sevilla, Comodoro, Casino del Río, Plaza, Moroco, Tropicana, Venice, Casagranda, etc.
8.- Plastic chips of domestic manufacture.
This type of chips abounds in the last issues of the big centres that were functioning in the 1950s. We think they were of domestic manufacture. They were bigger than the preceding ones (1.6 inches in diameter), and they all have the same type of printed letters. In spite of being simpler, it seems they were safer against forgery, because we’ve seen this type of pieces holding a value up to a thousand pesos.
Examples: Habana Hilton (Series of Roulette-Value), Tropicana, Tropical Night Club, Copacabana in Camaguey, etc.
9.- Chips of transparent or glazed plastic.
This type groups the last chips issued by the casinos of hotels Deauville, Plaza, and International in Varadero. These are very small but striking chips due to their intense colours, always valued, of 1.4 inches in diameter, very hard and made of a transparent material. Really, we have no idea where they were manufactured.
In addition to those previously listed, there are other types of chips in the Cuban collection that aren’t included in our list because they are part of isolated series, some of them possibly made in Europe, all in different shapes and designs. Generic chips were also abundant in the country, mostly used to play poker. These were made to be sold in shops and used mainly by privates although some gambling centres used them for matters of urgency, sometimes with counter-marks or overprints (like the Unión Club in Santiago de Cuba).
Another type of piece to be found in some of our pages are metal chips, that were minted like coins by different societies and clubs. It is difficult to study them because it’s hard to tell if the centres that issued them used them in games of chance or for other purposes.
Relation between colour and value…
As an interesting fact, we shall present an image including sets of chips of 1, 5, 25, and 100 pesos belonging to the most important Cuban casinos showing that the manufactures usually associated a given colour for each value of the chips in a series.
Thus, the following rule generally applies:
$ 1.00 – Yellow
$ 5.00 – Red
$ 25.00 – Green
$ 100.00 – Black
This helped avoiding forgeries, and also allowed croupiers and players identify chips at first sight. Of course, this wasn’t a mandatory rule, and there are examples where it doesn’t apply. It was mostly used by the big casinos that ordered their chips in the United States, where this criterion was applied.
Difficulties for obtaining Cuban chips:
The irregular events previously described around the gambling world and its chips in Cuba have conditioned their obtaining to very peculiar factors. Their sources have generally been:
- small amounts kept by employees and other staff related to casinos after their being shut down or kept by croupiers due to the unusual situation that resulted from the fall of the regime and the subsequent loosening of traditionally strict controls by these centre’s managers.
- a few occasionally collected by people who were present when gambling centres were destroyed, on January 1st 1959.
- isolated pieces kept as souvenirs or forgotten, especially by occasional gamblers or women escorting wealthy tourists in casinos. In this case, these are always low value chips because in Cuba the peso had the same value of the dollar, and nobody would keep a souvenir worth more than 5 pesos.
- some lots that, as we have explained previously, were stored for television or film productions and stolen by unscrupulous people when collecting them was at its peak.
- some chips like those of Plaza hotel, Casino del Río, and Monte y Dado of Habana Madrid, etc. that are easily obtained in the United States because they were ordered in late 1958 and didn’t have time to reach Cuba due to the fall of the regime.
- lots that for different reasons ended up in the hands of private people related to or present when casinos were nationalized who kept them as souvenirs because of their colourful attractiveness or with the intension of using them in different ways, such as: making key holders, curtains, and different kinds of ornaments (reason why many have holes); using them as pass-out ticket in bicycle parking lots or to distribute drinks at parties or festivities at working places; using them as chips in private games such as checkers , dominoes, cards, etc.
The liking of collecting casino chips is undoubtedly addictive and very complex at the same time due to the veil of mystery drawn and forbidden stories behind it. It is relatively young compared to other branches of the collecting world. In Cuba, it is not older than three decades.
When it comes to chips, in no case a collection was formed at the time they were issued and used, as it happened historically with stamps or coins, maybe due to how costly it would have been (because of some chips’ high values) or the classes who used to gamble or had access to these facilities generally showed no interest in this activity. In our case, we haven’t found one single example of a collection made during the republican period on the island. That is to say, the interest for these kinds of pieces was asleep for a long time until the moment when collecting them became a general practice, less than thirty years ago. During this hobby’s early times, in Cuba, many of the people who possessed chips (most of them had no idea of how valuable they would become and had no means to find out due to the Cuban collecting market’s special characteristics) sold them for ridiculous prices to middlemen. In general, these middlemen had no great knowledge in the matter, but knowing their business, when they laid their hands on one lot, they would break them into pieces, with the purpose of selling the first chips at high prices. And so, during that first period, foreign collectors, who were ultimately the final target, received Cuban chips suspiciously. They would say about them, “They are dangerous: one comes ahead and the army follows”. However, the current situation has changed. Many people already know their value, and a lot is done in search for them every day. Many of the parking lots mentioned were already inspected and sometimes months go by before a new piece appears in the market. The very few pieces for sale recently are in EBay and most of them are the most common ones. It’s quite unusual to find an important piece in auction.
At the risk of repeating some aspects previously stated, it is important to make some factors clear:
As a result, we can’t assure that the pieces shown in any of our pages are the whole of the issue. Actually, even after years devoted to studying this matter, we still have endless questions on many of each particular casino’s issues. These will be raised in their individual pages.
Our purpose by conceiving this section is to show as many chips issued by each centre as possible, describing them by the names Cuban collectors know them by, but with no intention to explain or define in what game and how they were used, where and when they were manufactured, the total value of each series, etc. Due to the complexity of such questions in general, we will only show the pieces of our collection, like any museum in the world would do… The rest shall remain in the hands of those who visit us.
For such purpose, we will include them in eleven separate pages that we have prepared after having formed sets of pieces according to different criteria such as their belonging to a specific centre or area in the country, their association to a specific kind of activity, characteristics unique to them, etc. Our purpose is that adding up these pages will result in the first “Catalogue of Cuban Gambling and Casino Chips”, that despite not including prices or the whole of the pieces that were issued will be an initial reference for collectors of this genre.
Included bellow, a list of such pages, together with a brief synthesis on their content, in order to make their choice easier when browsing through them in our gallery.
Because it operated for such a long time and became world famous as a night club, its prosperous casino issued the most chips in Cuba, more than 12 different series.
The fact of being the biggest hotel in Cuba, the circumstance of belonging to a hotel network of such renown, the importance of its casino that remained operating the longest after the revolution’s triumph, together with the vast and beautiful series it issued, make this establishment worthy of a page on its own.
The three great casinos associated to Capri, Riviera, and National hotels where, according to a widely spread opinion, Meyer Lanky had interests.
The casinos that after the Tourism Act was modified in 1955 began to open associated to the other hotels in Havana: Comodoro, Deauville, Plaza, Saint John, and Sevilla.
Casinos that operated in Havana associated to cabarets, night clubs, and amusement centres in general. Montmartre, Sans-Souci, Night Club Nacional, Casino del Río, Morocco Club, etc.
Casinos occupying rooms next door to sport centres where the nature of the activity that entailed gambling ensured the presence of costumers: Oriental Park, Jockey Club, Habana Madrid, Casino Jai-Alai, etc.
Different series of chips issued by the pioneer of Cuban casinos, as well as its history and several images taken from postcards and other publications of that period.
Gambling chips belonging to the great clubs and societies in Havana, many of which date back to the 19th Century: the Unión Club, the Habana Yatch Club, the Asturian Centre, the Spanish Casino of Havana, etc.
- The Societies and Clubs in the eastern region.
The East of the country stood out by the presence of several societies and clubs that issued large amounts of chips: the Unión Club, Guillermo Badell, the Moncada Club, Society Luz de Oriente, Cuban Casino, Aponte Club, etc.
Important casinos settled in the provinces such as: International of Varadero, Rain Bow in Matanzas, Venecia in Santa Clara, Copacabana in Camaguey, Colony Hotel Casino in Isle of Pines, etc
Chips that only contain initials, monograms, or symbols, making it impossible for us to allocate them to a specific centre for sure. Show of different series suggesting, when possible, the centres they might have belonged to.