Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Poker [Print without images]

Thursday, February 1, 2007
Dirty Vegas: How safe are your chips?

By Bluff magazine

We at Bluff like nothing more than whipping up some good, old-fashioned media hysteria. So, as if you haven't got enough to worry about, what with the terrorists and the global warming, we decided to get you all neurotic about the hygiene levels of your poker chips, too.

We've all heard those scare stories about why you shouldn't eat the pretzels at the bar, and that got us thinking. With the health and safety of the Vegas poker-playing populous in mind, we commissioned professor Brian Hedlund, a team of students from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and their laboratory to analyze the state of poker chips from five leading Strip casinos. Make sure you wash your hands before reading on.

Ever wonder if you could contract Ebola by playing with poker chips? Whether surreptitiously picking your nose after raking in a pot (as one does) could lead to you developing super-bug MRSA? If you have, then you are not alone. The cleanliness of poker chips is something that has been playing on our minds here at Bluff Towers ever since last year's WSOP. With the personal hygiene of millions of poker players on our minds (not to mention the chance to find some really gross bacteria), we immediately contacted Professor Hedlund and put him to work. With his motley crew of eager students, Hedlund made some grim findings, as well as uncovering a few surprising results.

The Procedure

Over a single day, Hedlund and his team donned their sterilized gloves and headed out to five separate casinos (here, numbered one to five so as not to name and shame the fair establishments from which they come) on The Strip, collecting chips of various denominations and taking them back to the lab for analysis. After two rounds of swabs for bacteria, everything was left to incubate for two days in order to see just what Sin City's clientele unwittingly carry into the poker room.

The Figures

Once Hedlund and the students had taken a break to allow the germs to reach their optimum level, the team was ready to analyze the findings. One particular chip, from Casino No. 3, totalled over 5,600 micro-organisms. While this may sound alarming, it is actually a relatively low number, according to our crack team of scientists. Across the whole range of casinos, Casino No. 3 averaged the greatest number of micro-organisms, with an average of 2,900 per chip, followed by Casino No. 2, averaging 2,333.

The Germs

But let's face it: Numbers aren't really of too much concern here. It's what was actually found that should cause more of a worry. The most common bacterium found was staphylococcus. It's pretty abundant on human skin. However, it does cause serious skin infections, and it is related to the infamous hospital killer MRSA, leading to around 80,000 deaths a year. So if you've got a cut on your hands and happen to be playing at Casino No. 3, you may want to think twice about shuffling your chips between hands. Aside from all those deaths, staphylococcus is a common cause of pimples and boils. So keep an eye on your potential opponents' hands before deciding to take a seat.

More Germs

Another prevalent pest was bacillus. Hedlund informed us that this derives from dirt or dust and that one particular form, bacillus anthracis, causes the not exactly humorous disease anthrax. None of this was found on the chips, although the bacillus cereus that was found is believed to be the cause of up to 5 percent of all food poisoning. So it's probably best not to lick your fingers while eating at the poker table. Hedlund and his students also found two other nasties: micrococcus and rothia. However, you can rest assured that these only cause disease in "very weak, immunocompromised people." That is reassuring to know.

The Wynn

Although we've maintained an anonymous approach, Hedlund and his team did want to point out that one casino deserved to be named. This is because of its first-rate hygiene, rather than a slack approach. Casino No. 1, the Wynn, had very low levels of bacteria on its chips. Hedlund puts this down to a number of reasons. "One possibility could be that, since the Wynn is new, there hasn't been that much time for micro-organisms to accumulate on the chips," he says. "Another possibility is that those chips are cleaned or disinfected. I am aware that Steve Wynn is very conscious about cleanliness and it could be that he's instituted cleaning regiments that result in cleaner chips."

We're willing to go with the latter, partly because the thought of Steve Wynn disinfecting his chips is oddly heart warming.

Take the Bluff reader's poll and tell the poker world what you think. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the No. 1 poker magazine in the country, Bluff magazine.