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Poker has become the hot game of the year. Poker tournaments are featured on several TV networks, and ratings are high. This might be the time to collect poker memorabilia.

There are many theories about the origins of the game. Some say it is based on a Chinese game invented about 900. Others think it is a revision of an 18th-century game called poque, played by French settlers in New Orleans.

By 1843, poker was a well-known game played on Mississippi riverboats. By then, an observer had already written about the rules of the game, which he called the "cheating game." Poker tables were soon in most towns in the West.

Poker chips are collected by many. Modern casinos usually have chips with designs featuring the name of the casino or important events or people. Early chips were made from colored plastic, wood or "clay" (clay and composite material). Today, collectors pay anywhere from a few dollars to $100 for unusual old chips.

The large, round, revolving holders for chips and cards were popular by the 1930s. Holders are made of plastic or wood today, but before 1950 most were wood.

Losing value

Q: I have been a collector for years, and find that dealers and even collectors will give me only about one-third of what I paid for some items, including my Shelley china. This is disappointing, because I invested money for my later years. Can you explain?

A: We have always said to buy what you like or want to use -- not for investment. Whether or not your antiques and collectibles appreciate in value is often a matter of luck or changing tastes. We've made our own share of "bad investments," including 18th-century English porcelains, but we still enjoy them. Many china sets of dishes were made in huge quantities.

A unique utensil

Q: I am trying to identify my unusual eating utensil. It has a four-tonged fork at one end and a wooden handle at the other. The center section between the handle and fork forms a curved and sharp knife blade. The utensil has its own leather-covered case.

A: Combination knife-forks similar to yours are made today for people who have the use of only one hand. The curved knife blade can be rocked back and forth to cut food. Some older combinations might have been used by the military; it's easier for a soldier to keep track of one all-purpose eating utensil.

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