Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 2 a.m.
“Do you want to see one?” Arthur Nelson said with a raised eyebrow.
We were sitting in an office inside the glorious Guardian Angel Cathedral, that peculiarly located church immediately north of Encore Las Vegas on the Strip. I had just finished telling him how, before the arrest of the suspect accused of heisting $1.5 million from the Bellagio in December, I had wondered whether one of those hard-to-cash $25,000 chips might show up in the collection plate. With all the talk about how hard it might be to cash them because of possibly embedded tracking devices, perhaps the thief might drop one at church and watch from afar what happened.
And now Nelson wanted to know if I wanted to see one. Gulp.
I took the bait. I mean, a papal portrait loomed from the sparse wall.
“Uh, yeah. You have one?”
With that, Nelson emitted a gale of giggles. “No,” he said through his laughter, “I thought I’d lead you on.”
I could only smile, sigh and roll my eyes. What else could I expect from the man known as the “Chip Monk”? It’s been his responsibility since at least the late 1980s to cash the casino chips dropped in collection plates at Mass.
The clever nickname suits an 80-year-old who instinctively tells corny jokes for the benefit, largely, of his own easy-to-please sense of humor. Nelson was an Episcopalian from Iowa who moved to Las Vegas in 1959 to work in the Review-Journal’s classified-ad section and converted to Catholicism after being hired as Guardian Angel’s organist in the 1960s. He’s long embraced the legend of the Chip Monk, even once getting his photo snapped with a pair of Chippendales because he thought it would be a gas.
Sadly, the legend is less accurate now than it once was. The cashiers at Caesars Palace came up with the moniker when Nelson would bring in more than $2,500 in chips each month. At the time, Caesars would cash Nelson’s stash regardless of which hotel it came from. Guardian Angel even solicited them; as the plate was passed during Mass, the speaker would tell worshippers: “If you’ve got any chips, toss ’em in. They’re good here.”
In the past decade, though, the Nevada Gaming Control Board ruled that casinos can no longer cash other casinos’ currency. The church stopped asking for chips after that; slot receipts and winning sports book slips are the most common gambling currency they receive anyway.
Still, some chips do come in. Nelson stores them in long plastic bins in the back of the safe where the collection plates and communion cups are kept, but he’ll go to a casino to cash them only after he’s accumulated at least $100 from the property. Most of what the church receives are $1 chips, and those aren’t worth Nelson driving all over town to redeem.
Nelson’s status as Chip Monk has even drawn the interest of casino chip enthusiasts. A few years back, a collector from New York called asking if he had out-of-date chips he couldn’t cash. Nelson did, so he mailed them on faith to the guy. He received a check back for the chips’ face value, although there’s no way to know now if any might have been worth more.
Still, Nelson is a crafty one. When asked whether he’d be unnerved if he had, in fact, come into possession of one of those hot $25,000 Bellagio chips, he smirked. He has the sort of manipulative solution that could only be divinely inspired.
“I’d say, ‘Father, come with me,’ ” he said, referring to his Most Holy Boss, “and we’d go to the hotel together and say, ‘This came in the offering. What are you going to do for us?’ They’d give us something for it.”
That’s a pretty good bet.
This article first appeared as Steve Friess’ column in the Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.