PITTSBURGH - It's the currency of gambling, as valuable as any Lincoln, Jackson or Franklin - and just as sophisticated.
The chips you'll get in Pennsylvania casinos when table games arrive next month aren't the kind you toss around during penny-ante poker games. To the contrary, they might rival anything you'll find in the U.S. Mint.
From ultraviolet images to micro printing, casino chips contain a host of security features designed to deter counterfeiting, just as U.S. currency has similar characteristics embedded within it for the same purpose.
"The ultimate goal of these counter measures is to defeat counterfeiters," said Michael Cruz, director of gaming laboratory operations for the state Gaming Control Board.
"If you're able to counterfeit the chips and not be detected, basically you're playing for free at that point."
The technology was in full bloom Monday at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, which received 184,500 "smart" chips that seem to be designed to do everything but play the game for you.
Each chip contains a microchip that allows a sensor to validate its authenticity and value and can even track a player's wagering, much like slot machines are able to do.
Cruz said the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology behind the chips is similar to that used in the Pennsylvania Turnpike's E-ZPass system.
At The Meadows, blackjack tables as well as those for mini-baccarat and three-card poker each will have a RFID reader to verify and keep track of chips. A disc-shaped antenna will be placed under the felt at each position on each table to "read" the chips and transmit information.
The technology, Cruz said, makes it very difficult to counterfeit chips. It also makes it next to impossible to cheat by trying to add to your bet if you think you have a winning hand at, for example, blackjack. The casino would know instantaneously that the wager had been increased, he said.
Sean Sullivan, The Meadows general manager, said counterfeiting is a "huge issue" in the industry. A counterfeit chip that slips into play can shut down a casino and force it to remove chips for a new set, a costly endeavor.
"People do counterfeit chips. It's absolutely a sophisticated crime that does happen on occasion in our industry," he said.
The Meadows invested $360,000 in chips it received Monday, plus another $275,000 in readers and other equipment. Sullivan said the casino spent $2.50 for every "smart" chip compared to the $1.25 a regular chip costs.
But he believes the investment will pay off. For one, The Meadows is hoping the technology will enable it to get a waiver of a gaming board requirement to stock a second set of chips in the case of counterfeiting.
"We don't want to scare anybody to think [counterfeiting] happens every day, but we surely want to do everything we can do to discourage it from happening here," he said. "At The Meadows, we're going the full way. We don't want to have any issues with this."
Sullivan said the other advantage to the "smart" chip technology is that it allows the casino to track a player's wagering and to award complimentary gifts like free dinners or other perks, just as it does with slot machine players. It also makes for easy accounting, since the system can count the value of a stack of chips.
At this point, the gaming board has approved the use of the "smart" chips for security and accounting purposes, but has yet to give the go ahead for The Meadows to use them to track wagering, Cruz said. Sullivan said the casino is hoping to get that approval before table games start July 8.
If you don't think casino chips are serious business, think again. At The Meadows Monday, the chips, equal to about $11.5 million in value, arrived under armed guard. Those who handled them wore jumpsuits without pockets and were subjected to wand searches to make sure they weren't hauling any away.
The Meadows will be the only casino in Western Pennsylvania and only one of two in the state to employ the "smart" chip technology when table game play begins in July.
But that doesn't mean chips at the other casinos, including the Rivers in Pittsburgh, will be easy marks for counterfeiters.
Cruz said manufacturers employ a variety of measures to thwart counterfeiting. Some chips will have images embedded in them that can be seen only by ultraviolet light. Others will contain tiny printing that requires a magnifying glass to read.
"To the naked eye, it looks like a dot. Under magnification, it is text," Cruz said.
Many chips in Pennsylvania will be uniform in terms of the denomination color. Generally speaking, for most card games, white will denote $1 and green $25, for instance, although shades may vary from casino to casino.
But at the same time, those at each casino will be different. Typically, individual casinos will add colors to the edges of the chips, both as a security feature and to mark them as their own. The chips usually will have a logo identifying the casino as well.
"No property in Pennsylvania would have the same edge spots," said Todd Moyer, Rivers general manager. "They're pretty intricate and that's what uniquely identifies them to a particular property."
The Rivers expects to receive its 212,000 chips, valued at more than $25 million, sometime next week. They won't be "smart" chips, but will contain security features Moyer declined to detail.
At The Meadows, the highest denomination will be $5,000. At the Rivers, it will be a whopping $25,000.
Sullivan said it's okay for a player to walk out the door with some of The Meadows' fancy casino chips once they've paid for them. The casino also will be selling for $25 a collector's chip it paid $2.50 to manufacture to commemorate the launch of table games.