Desert Companion

The quiet storm: Bill Harrah's impact on gaming

Bill Harrah changed the face of gaming — very quietly. Why aren’t we celebrating this unassuming innovator?

Even in his day, Bill Harrah was an enigma. He was at once omnipresent, innovative and vain — as well as awkward, reserved and milquetoast. He loomed as large over the gaming industry and the state of Nevada as Steve Wynn or Moe Dalitz ever did, and yet he was no one’s idea of a force of nature, nobody’s best friend, no one you would have been all that excited to meet.

This conundrum may go a long way to explaining why it is that, despite having his name on more casinos than anybody else in history, there will be little fanfare to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday on Sept. 2. His original property, now known as Harrah’s Reno, is offering gambling tournaments and a special concert series, displaying some of his classic cars in the casino and gifting commemorative gaming chips to high rollers, but beyond that, you’d have to be a fairly astute student of gambling history to even know an occasion was passing.

 “It’s a business that’s not as devoted to history as it should be,” says Dave Schwartz, director for the Center For Gaming Research at University of Nevada at Las Vegas and author of “Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling.” “A lot of the casinos don’t really want to remind you they’ve been around a long time, which seems incongruous to me because, hey, you’ve got longevity.”

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Carpet, keno and eyes in the sky

And not just longevity for longevity’s sake, either. The list of casino-industry innovations implemented by Harrah, who died at 66 in 1978, is so extensive it’s hard to imagine the casino business as it is today without them. At his first full casino, opened in 1946 as Harrah’s Club but rebranded Harrah’s Reno after he built a property at Lake Tahoe in 1959, he installed the first casino carpeting, hired the first female dealers and offered the first gaming lessons to customers. The concept of the keno runner was invented there after a guest complained she couldn’t play blackjack and keno at the same time, and the industry’s first “eye in the sky” was a passageway built above the gaming floor where security could watch out for cheaters via one-way glass.

Harrah was gifted at finding ways to keep the customer coming back, says former Harrah’s Entertainment CEO Phil Satre. At a time when most casino operators had little interest to catering to women, he realized that they preferred slot machines and began loading up the casino to entertain them while the men took to the gaming tables. By the 1960s, he had created the first customer loyalty program, adding meters to slot machines to keep track of play and giving customers credits they redeemed for such prizes as TV sets or golf clubs. It was Harrah, a powerful political influence, who had to be persuaded to support a change in the law that allowed corporate ownership of casinos, the match that ignited the Vegas economy.


The great unknown

Yet he did all of this while remaining a respected but unknowable figure, says Satre, who first worked for Harrah privately as a lawyer attending to his personal tax and estate matters. Harrah almost never spoke to reporters, did not mingle with customers and delegated authority so effectively he rarely interacted in a meaningful way with the managers who carried out his visions. His longtime driver, Hank Wiley, spent countless days and nights with the man and could only say: “He was real nice. He didn’t say much, but he was just groovy.”

Another veteran employee, Dwayne Kling, managed 400 employees for Harrah at Lake Tahoe, but says, “I didn’t say 10 words to Bill Harrah in my entire life or him to me.”

 “He didn’t have that hail-fellow-well-met personality. His handshake was almost like a wet fish,” says Satre, who helmed the company until 2005 and is now chairman of the board of slotmaker IGT. “His style was to pursue his interests and do so in a way that created a lot of loyalty for the people who worked for him. But I don’t think anyone really was all that close to him.”

That’s not to say he wasn’t an intriguingly strange man. Harrah was famed as classic car enthusiast and collector, but few knew he made a point of driving each of his more than 1,400 vehicles at least a mile once a year. He flew to Italy once a year to have suits and ties handmade by Brioni, and had them numbered so he could avoid ever wearing the same clothes twice when dining with entertainers who played his hotels.

None of this, however, is a prescription for enduring stardom, Schwartz says, which may explain the lackluster effort being made to commemorate his centennial across the company that last year changed its name from Harrah’s Entertainment to Caesars Entertainment. While his name remains in use on dozens of casinos across the United States, the corporation is a dramatically different, unrecognizable entity than when he died. It was Satre who took the company into Atlantic City, Las Vegas and then beyond when Indian gaming and overseas markets presented opportunities, until Harrah’s was the largest gambling conglomerate in the world.

[HEAR MORE: About the rise and fall of Atlantic City and whether Vegas could be next on KNPR's "State of Nevada".]

Bland ambition

For their part, Caesars officials insist they are not overlooking the occasion or actively de-emphasizing Harrah, but they note that the Reno and Tahoe properties were the only ones he owned or ran and, thus, Northern Nevada is the natural home for centennial-related events. The corporate name change was meant to take advantage of Caesars’ name awareness abroad, says Vice President for Advertising Monica Sullivan, but Harrah’s remains a core brand.

Sullivan says there will be some internal acknowledgment of Harrah’s birthday in the form of posters and messages bearing famous Harrah slogans and comments in spaces like the employee dining room to remind the workers of the legacy of customer service that the founder prescribed. “It’s not necessarily a consumer-facing experience, but reminders of the culture of what Bill started,” she says.

Still, the lack of anything more than that disappoints — but does not surprise — historians.

“You don’t really hear a lot said about the innovators of the past from these companies, and you usually don’t hear about that because a lot of them had checkered pasts, and a lot of those who didn’t have checkered pasts in the Mob way weren’t that exciting,” says Schwartz, who is completing a book on Circus Circus and Caesars Palace developer Jay Sarno, another gaming iconoclast whose story is now unfamiliar to most. “Harrah was a businessman, he got married seven times, had his car collection, but if it wasn’t his wives or his cars or his casinos, there wasn’t that much there. Even though his name was very important, he didn’t really have a cult of personality around him that made him missed much personally.” But the unassuming Harrah certainly made a lasting impression on how casinos operate today. 

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