Poker chips are sold individually, in cased sets, and as part of larger poker supply packages. There are many factors that differentiate chips (and sets) from one another, and certain factors should be considered before going out (or online) and spending money on your first poker chips.
Many poker players will tell you that poker chips should be a once in a lifetime purchase, like a diamond ring or (according to my mother) luggage. With that in mind, casino grade (or casino quality) clay chips are the sine qua non of poker chips. No longer actually made completely of clay but of a compression- or injection-molded clay composite, these chips can be purchased by the general consumer for typically no less than $1 per chip. They generally weigh between 9 and 13.5 grams and are 39 millimeters in diameter.
These are the chips you see them using on the televised broadcasts of the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. They have an unmistakable sound and feel that evoke a sense of being at an actual brick and mortar casino. You can even buy chips directly from many of your favorite casinos, with their unique, copyrighted composite blend, design, logo, etc. Or you can buy those same poker chips from a reputable dealer (and pay their commission). This however will run you far more than $1 chip; try face value of each poker chip, whether $5 or $5000. These are poker chips you would guard as fervently as you guard your cash.
Some poker chips, slightly less expensive, have a metal coin or slug in the center with a lighter weight clay, plastic, or acrylic composite around it. This is one economical way of getting a heavier feel to your chips without such a heavy price. But these chips are usually heavier than clay composite casino grade poker chips, so if you do use them don't try and fool anyone into believing they're the real deal. You might get that bluff called, and losing face before the cards are even dealt can be more than just humbling.
Plastic poker chips are the cheapest, and it shows. They break. They sound and feel cheap. But they do the job, if you don't value ambiance much at your weekly poker night. You can buy these at any all-purpose box store (you know, the big chains - please don't make me name them).
Chip Colors & Markings
Poker chips come in single color (usually with some sort of design or logo stamped or decaled onto them), or in two and three colors. Three-color is obviously the most expensive. Casinos can (and must) customize their poker chips, not just for branding but for security. Counterfeiting poker chips is a real problem (and by the way, a real felony). Each casino's poker chips are made by one of a select few bonded companies using a unique synthetic blend in their clay composite poker chips, and a copyrighted design that usually includes their house logo.
For the consumer (or let's call us home-game poker enthusiasts), customizable poker chips are also available, though certainly more for vanity than anything else. Still, if you want your monogram on your poker chips, you can have it.
The values represented by each color are for the most part universal. The basic color key is as follows:
White: $1 (or $.01, if that's more your speed)
Green: $25 (sometimes $20, but I think $25 is the wiser choice)
Unless you're buying chips individually, you'll be looking at sets. Some poker chip sets come with 5 dice and 2 packs of playing cards to get you started. Some larger all-purpose poker kits also include items like a portable poker tabletop and a dealer button. You'll have to decide how serious you want to get with your home game. Even the cases come in varying quality and price ranges. From cheapest to choicest: plastic, vinyl, aluminum, and wooden cases are the most typical.
How Many to Buy
Finally, when buying poker chips, you'll want to make sure to err on the side of too many rather than too few chips. You don't want to deny anyone (including yourself) the chance to re-buy or add-on when the chips are down (so to speak). Plan on no less than 35 chips per player, though you would do well to have more like 50 - 100 poker chips per player.
You can even start practicing those fun and useful poker chip tricks once you have your own personal set of poker chips.