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Playing at the Courts

Detail from 'The Only Game In Town' by Joan Arrizabalaga

Detail from
“The Only Game In Town”
by Joan Arrizabalaga

Playing cards can be thought of as the convergence of aesthetics, history, practicality, and, some would say, mysticism. Believed to have been used in imperial China as early as the 9th century, they were originally painstakingly hand painted and appeared in Europe, probably by way of Egypt, in the 14th century. Woodcut paper decks appeared as early as the 15th century. With the invention of the Gutenberg Press around 1455, cards became more widespread and were soon an integral part of the social and political histories of countries in which they appeared. Cards in Muslim countries were adorned with intricate motifs from nature rather than portraying human figures. European decks featured the royal court—the king, queen, jack, and joker. On a more mystical level, Tarot cards were used in Egypt to predict the future. Tarot cards are still in wide use and are associated with magic, fortune telling, mystical symbolism, and hermetic knowledge.

Carnival to Casino

Popular imagination associates carnivals with casinos; both are rife with risk, danger, iffy environments, and fringy people. Before coming to Nevada, Raymond I. (Pappy) Smith operated carnival game concessions in Ocean Beach, California (San Francisco). His son, Harold Sr., came to Nevada after the legalization of gambling in 1931 to open Harold’s Club. Both father and son are credited with the phenomenal success of the club. Many fans of Harold’s Club attributed its far-ranging popularity to its atmosphere that captured the lure and mythology of the 19th century west. Other fans touted its variety of slots and game tables and, especially, its attractive women dealers as the secret to its legendary popularity. Known, too, for publicity stunts and gimmicks, Harold’s Club remains, even after its closing, a model for what worked.

'Pappy Smith' in his early days.

"Pappy Smith" in his early days.

The Pharaoh plays Faro

At one time, Faro was the most popular game in the country. Originating in France in the early 18th century, it is said to have been a revised form of the popular British pub game Basset. The face of an Egyptian pharaoh on the royal deck of cards led to “Faro.” Faro spread to the New World rapidly after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and was more widely played than poker in many Western saloons. (From “The Game of Faro” by Joe Zentner in Nevada in the West, Spring 2011).

Liberty Bell at
the Liberty Belle

Liberty Belle Saloon

The Liberty Belle Saloon

Many Nevadans remember having a delicious meal in the historic and iconic Liberty Belle Saloon, which closed in 2006. The Barbary Coast décor and the museum-quality displays of old slot machines gave the restaurant a character not found anywhere else in Reno. Marshall and Franklin Fey, the restaurants owners, paid homage to their grandfather, Charles Fey, who created the first slot machine in 1895, opening the door to the multi-billion dollar business upon which Nevada was soon built. He dubbed one of his inventions, the first nickel slot machine, “The Liberty Bell.” (Stewart, Patricia, “Slot Machine Man,” Nevada Highways and Parks, Spring 1979)

Liberty Belle Saloon

Liberty Bell Slot Machine

'Oldtime gamblers playing Faro.

Faro card game.

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

In a special issue of Nevada Magazine (March/April, 1981) celebrating Gaming’s Golden Anniversary: 1931-1981, writer Buddy Frank devoted several pages to reporting on the fast-evolving world of cheaters and their tricks. Cheating was and is so pervasive in gambling that casinos need to relentlessly come up with new ways to foil cheaters, an aspect of the business that some may not be aware of. On June 11, 2013, Fox 5 news channel in Las Vegas reported that the Nevada Gaming Control Board was warning casinos about the potential for Google Glass to facilitate cheating. Google Glass allows the wearer to take pictures, record video and transmit data.