A Connecticut Yankee in Bill Harrah's casino | Hoffman

Tuesday 21st January 2020

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It is with sadness that I read of the recent sale and pending closure of Harrah's downtown casino. The place played a central role in my early life.

Six months out of college, I got in my car shortly after Christmas 1983 and drove from my childhood home in Connecticut to Reno. I had an invitation from a guy I'd met the summer before traveling in Europe. We'd stayed in touch and he'd written me that I could make money working in the casinos in Reno and then use it to do more traveling. I liked that idea better than getting a regular job, so I took him up on his offer of a floor to sleep on and coaxed a 1975 VW Rabbit across the country in the dead of winter.

More: Harrah's Steak House ending its 52-year run with sale of casino

At my friend's advice, I went for a job at Harrah's -- it's the gold standard, he told me -- and soon found myself walking the floor of the Virginia Street casino with a change apron around my waist. After about five weeks of "slinging change," as we called it -- the worst job I've ever had -- I started in Harrah's "21" school. By early spring, I was on the floor dealing single deck out of the hand. It was fun and I was good at it.

Bill Harrah had died only a few years before and, in spite of Holiday Inn buying the operation, his spirit still very much pervaded the place. In the Harrah's tradition, management went out of its way to treat employees well. It was the best place I've ever worked with good pay, great benefits and supervisors who actually cared about you. The emphasis was on customer service and excellence in all things. It sounds corny and all but incomprehensible in today's era of bloodless corporate efficiency. But there seemed to be a real effort to create an esprit de corps, even a sense of family.

I met so many interesting and great people during the year I worked there. One fellow dealer with whom I became good friends had an English degree from the University of Oregon -- he'd read every book Dickens ever wrote -- and was also a master car mechanic. Another guy had been a carnie and regaled us with tales from the midway. A third had joined the army right after we left Vietnam, figuring he'd never get sent there only to find himself being pulled off a Saigon rooftop in 1975.

We gathered most evenings after work at the cabaret bar -- we dubbed it "Star Bar" -- for drinks, and then headed out to eat at the cheap buffets or a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant on the way to the employee parking deck. To say the liquor -- much of it free -- flowed freely those nights is an understatement. Pit bosses had stamps in their pockets good for a certain number of free drinks a month. On their way out, they'd buy us a round. The bosses also regularly gave out drink "tokes," tickets for free drinks they'd stuff into your shirt pocket for a job well done or working overtime.

Harrah's Reno -- all of downtown for that matter -- was bustling and full of energy. Interesting characters and famous people were always wandering around. Harold Smith, son of Harold's Club founder Pappy Smith, who had sold out to Howard Hughes back in the 1970s, was a regular. He'd come in dressed in a tailored suit, huge cowboy hat and fancy cowboy boots and lose a lot of money at craps. I dealt cards once to Tommy Smothers, who was playing the main showroom with his brother. Other days, I sighted Los Angles Mayor Tom Bradley and heavyweight boxer Tyrell Biggs.

I worked for some legendary pit bosses, including Major Inch, whose outlandish attire once earned him a "Best Dressed Man in Reno" award, and Carmel Caruso, who came from Chicago to play football at Nevada and stayed to work for Bill Harrah. Caruso -- a rock of granite, six feet-plus tall, well over 200 pounds with a voice that sounded like gravel spinning in a dryer -- was a deeply intimidating old school figure to us younger dealers. I recall him coming up behind me once and growling in my ear, "You're bowing the (expletive) out of those cards."

I saw a lot of funny and strange things at Harrah's. The funniest was the day I was headed off on my break -- we got 20 minutes off each hour -- and a middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat stopped me.

"Ya gotta help me son," he said in a friendly, beseeching voice. Expecting him to ask where the men's room or the keno was, I said, "Of course sir. What can I do for you?" To which he replied, "I'm getting married in a few hours. Where's the nearest cat house?" I laughed and sent him out to Virginia Street to catch a cab to the Mustang Ranch.

It was an education for a middle class kid from rural-suburban Connecticut who had led -- at least by the standards of the day -- a pretty sheltered life. I learned a lot about people and the world in that casino.

After a year, I moved on. The guy who'd invited me out to Reno had become a close friend, and we decided to embark on a new adventure by becoming English teachers in Japan. After three years there and extensive travel, I returned to Connecticut and launched a career in journalism.

More: 'Bill Harrah's name should be carved in marble for how synonymous he is with Reno'

A few years ago, I returned to Reno for the first time in decades and headed downtown. I'd heard the city's casinos had fallen on hard times, but I was shocked to see how Virginia Street had changed. Most of the clubs from my day were gone as were the crowds. Inside Harrah's, there were far fewer people and the atmosphere was quiet, even subdued. I was surprised by how few table games were left. Gaming tastes have shifted to slot machines, and multi-deck shoes and mechanical shufflers have taken most of the fun -- and dealer skill -- out of "21."

It's with more than a tinge of nostalgia that I lament the demise of Harrah's Reno. Looking back, I am grateful that I got to experience it.

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