A Comstock in the Starlight

July 9, 2023 4:41 PM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
July 9, 2023 4:41 PM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

The Comstock Hotel Casino opened in May 1978 and closed in November 2000. Its rise and fall mirrored the casino industry in Reno. It is an oft told tale, at least in these columns.  

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Photo: Guernica Editions

Now there is a new version, Starlight Casino-Hotel by William A. Douglass. The book is a fictional account of the final phase of the Comstock as experienced by Douglass, his brother John, and their father Jack. The elder Douglass was a pioneer in gaming in northern Nevada. He began his career as a slot route operator and when he died, his gaming license was the longest continuous gaming license the state. Jack Douglass was a key factor in the fate of Comstock.

It is no secret that Reno is one of my favorite topics. The reasons are obvious: It is where my career in gaming began and my home is still there. My gaming career in Reno had two parts, first with the Club Cal Neva and then with the Comstock, and was closely linked to the Douglass family. One part blended into the other almost seamlessly on May 28, 1978. After 15 years of very profitable operations, the owners of the Club Cal Neva with some outside partners built the Comstock. It opened five years after the Carano family opened the Eldorado. And like the Eldorado, it was located outside of the core casino district. Not north of the railroad tracks like the Carano’s casino, but two blocks west from the casino core.

The location created many challenges, but it also offered an opportunity to differentiate itself from the other casinos in town. Unlike the Caranos, the Cal Neva group had little expertise in food, beverage, and hotel. Their forte was the casino floor. The casino floor in Reno in the late 1970s and 1980s was not like the one in the modern era, though it shared the same basic components, a table-game pit, slot machines, a keno game, and at times a sportsbook and poker room. The Cal Neva successfully operated hundreds of slot machines, keno, table games, and poker and eventually developed one of the largest sportsbook operations in the state.

The Comstock failed at poker and sports betting, lacking the requisite operational and management skills. It did achieve some success with slots, table games, and keno. The slots of those days only superficially resembled the modern machines. Mechanical devices, when their handles were pulled, the reels began to spin. Games had three or at most four reels with at best 20,000-30,000 combinations, whereas today’s virtual reels and electronic games have hundreds of thousands of combinations. The combinations determine the mathematical possibilities for each outcome. The number of possibilities is the key factor in determining the size and frequency of the jackpots. Except for progressive jackpots, top jackpots in the early 1980s were between $100 and $500.

Warren Nelson was a partner of Jack Douglass and four other men who founded the Club Cal Neva. Warren was responsible for the casino games. He became friends with William “Si” Redd, the local Bally’s slot machine salesman and distributor. Si convinced Warren to try Bally’s dollar machines with a very low hold percentage, 5 percent or less. Other slot machines held 10 percent or more. Si argued that frequent jackpots with a low hold would change the industry and it did.

Those games were so successful that Cal Neva converted more and more machines into dollars. The expansion of slot machines took floor space away from other departments, primarily table games. The dollar machines were put on carousels, banks of machines around a center platform manned by a person selling change and barking the game. The barker kept up a constant banter, including announcing every $50 and $100 jackpot, the largest awards the games paid. Those first dollar slots were always busy, noisy, and profitable beyond belief. The Cal Neva was the first casino in northern Nevada with those dollar games, but the other rushed to follow.

When the Comstock opened, it followed the Cal Neva’s lead with its slot product, with less success. However, in time, the Comstock managed to develop its own brand, a game with four reels and a top prize of $1,000. The games were also on carousels with barkers. The jackpots did not happen as often as the $50 and $100 jackpots at Cal Neva, but frequently enough to create an atmosphere of excitement and winning. Called Pic 1000s, those slot machines and jackpots became the core of the property’s marketing and early success. Along with a $4.99 steak dinner and the Pic 1000s, the property was unique. No other casino anywhere had those games. The Pic 1000s led to slot tournaments and other special events and developed one of the first slot clubs in the industry. It was database marketing at its most primitive. The branding strategy worked very well for the first 15 years of the Comstock’s existence.

By the mid-1990s, the gaming industry had changed and Comstock had not. It was the victim of serval convergent factors. Located away from other casinos, it garnered less foot traffic. It lacked enough parking to build up a local clientele. And probably most critically, it was unfunded and had little access to additional financing. Like the other casinos in Reno, it was hit hard by Indian gaming in California, Oregon, Washington and the spread of legalized casino gaming to many other states.

There was another factor that is rarely mentioned, technology.

The Pic 100s were built on old technology. The mechanical slot machines had reel strips. A property could design its own game with its own symbols and pay schedule; it could create its own brand. That ceased to be possible after electronic and computer-like slot machines with virtual reels. Slot machine companies could create their own brands, but casinos could not. With or without Indian gaming, the Comstock would have failed; its ability to be different with a unique brand was gone.

That is the dry, but hopefully objective, account. Bill Douglass’s version is anything but dry, objective, and unemotional. In Starlight Hotel-Casino, Bill gives a much more personal and at times emotional account of the final days and his family’s struggles and conflicts. He deals with the issues of Indian gaming, financing, technology changes, and a wide range of other challenges as they impacted his family’s business. The Starlight Hotel-Casino is a story of people who worked and struggled in the wake of seismic changes in their world and the journey of the Douglass family and Comstock Hotel Casino in the starlight. It is a worthwhile journey.