An itinerant roulette operator found his heaven in Reno -- bringing fairness and fun to gambling, and gambling to the masses.
Born in Vermont in 1887, Raymond "Pappy" Ingram Smith lost his father when he was seven and set out on his own at age 14. He worked in a series of odd jobs, and eventually went into business at country fairs with a roulette wheel. Unlike other operators, Smith didn't rig his wheel, and customers quickly favored his stand when they discovered they had a real chance to win. Smith established his lifelong attitude early: run a fair game and make a fair profit. He spent years on the road with his games, making enough money to support his two sons and studying his customers' psychology.
After the stock market crash of 1929, Smith, along with his son, Harold, traveled from California to Florida and back, making a living running bingo and penny roulette games. Gambling was illegal in California, so in 1936, the two moved to Reno, Nevada, where it was allowed, and opened a small casino on Main Street.
Gambling for the Masses
The place, Harolds Club (no apostrophe), sought a clientele of ordinary people. Smith opened his club to the street, installed bright lights, lowered the smallest allowable bets from twenty-five cents to a penny, and put up an eight-foot electric roulette wheel. He and his son briefly introduced "mouse" roulette, in which gamblers laid bets on the color or number that a mouse would choose once released from a cage. It was a publicity stunt that people remembered for years. Playing at their "shop" was fun. Their low-margin, high-volume strategy worked; people came to the club again and again, because they could win there. In the 1930s, most casinos seemed to exist only to take patrons' money, but the Smiths made their casino a friendly place."Pappy" Smith went so far as to offer losing gamblers a meal and bus fare home.
To advertise their casino, the Smiths initiated a large-scale, advertising campaign. They erected signs reading "Harolds Club or Bust" on the side of covered wagons in a circle extending 500 miles out from Reno, then across the country. By the 1950s, the casino had become a household name, and by 1962, the year the Smiths sold the business, it was grossing $12 million per year.
The Smiths became the first family of Nevada gaming, and continued to innovate. Since gambling was traditionally a man's pastime, casinos were off limits to respectable women. The Smiths tried to attract a female clientele by employing female dealers and by offering a baby-sitting service. They brought in celebrities like Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Dean Martin. The casino put on a fireworks show on the weekends, and built a gun museum and a frontier museum. The crowds kept on coming."Pappy" Smith died in 1967, after having made Harolds Club the largest in Nevada. In the end, the town of Las Vegas would eclipse Reno as the state's gaming hub. Harolds Club closed in 1995.