One-time casino executive Douglass ranks as a ‘Distinguished Nevadan’ on many levels By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports March 27, 2019 at 8:00 pm Around Northern Nevada, William A. Douglass is probably best known as a writer and the co-founder of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Basque Studies Program. The author of an eclectic array of books on subjects ranging from Basque sheepherders and the letters of Tasker Oddie to fly fishing in exotic locales, his writing and academic pursuits have won him much acclaim, including a place in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Douglass, 79, was recently among those honored by the Nevada System of Higher Education as a “Distinguished Nevadan” for his many contributions to anthropology, Basque studies, the Desert Research Institute, and the university system. He’s also a member of the Basque Hall of Fame and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nature Conservancy. A world traveler, he knows the Silver State intimately. But thanks to the investment savvy of his father, Jack Douglass, William also logged a successful career as a casino and gaming company executive. Born into a pioneer Nevada family – his grandparents were born in Virginia City, and a branch of the family is from Tonopah – William grew up collecting reptiles and exploring mining outposts throughout the state. But Jack Douglass found gold in another place. He was a 50-percent owner of the Nevada Novelty Company, a gaming and slot route operator with an expansive range from Reno down to central Nevada. Owned in partnership with Louie Benetti, the company also distributed jukeboxes and pinball machines. If you’ve ever played a country song or pulled a one-armed bandit in a saloon juke north of Goldfield, your coin probably fed a Nevada Novelty machine. After selling his half of the slot route company, Jack invested in Reno’s Riverside Casino. Following a falling out with a slippery partner, he bought 20 percent of a nearby grind joint called Club Cal Neva (not to be confused with the Cal Nevada Lodge at Lake Tahoe.) After adding experienced partners Warren Nelson, Ad Tolen, and Howard Ferris, Douglass’ business took off – right around the time the Tahoe Cal Neva Lodge and its part-owner, Frank Sinatra, crapped out after catering to Chicago Outfit boss Sam Giancana. As Douglass recalls in William A. Douglass: Mr. Basque, a biography by Miel A. Elustondo, the Reno partnership took over the lake property and made a go of it before cutting its losses. “They more or less recuperated their investment,” Douglass recalled. “An investment group from Ohio was the purchaser, and they came to regret it. The truth is that the Cal Nevada Lodge has always proven to be a difficult proposition. It has damaged, if not destroyed, more than one owner along the way.” Jack Douglass later had more success betting on the creation of the Maxim hotel and casino just off the Las Vegas Strip. For his part, sons William and John cut their teeth in gaming at the Reno Cal Nevada. William was a loyal executive, but he’d never claim to have been raised in the racket. “I was never involved in the daily operations at the Club Cal Nevada,” he recalled. “Indeed, although I have been a ‘gamer’ for about half a century, I have never been an ‘operator.’ To this day, I can scarcely tell the difference between one slot machine and another (there are actually critical differences) and have never dealt a hand of cards. In fact, I scarcely visit casinos — I find them pretty boring. I’m not a gambler. I guess you could say I’m in the percentage business. My personal involvement has always been at the level of negotiator and communicator.” His time around the Cal Neva wasn’t wasted. He gathered experience and parlayed his profits into other investment opportunities, from the Comstock casino in Reno to gaming ventures that included a playing card manufacturer. Family members were casino executives in Atlantic City and Colorado, as well. For his part, William’s efforts grew to include tribal gaming efforts in the West, including the Chinook Winds project on the Oregon Coast, as well as the Pilot highway truck stop and travel centers that became slot profit centers. The gaming industry’s story is filled with multibillionaire titans and corporate mega-resort pyrotechnics, but the experience of Douglass is a reminder that at any level the business is complex, at times cutthroat, and offers no guarantees of success. It only looks like easy money. Douglass’ own personal wealth rose and fell dramatically during his career. Although Douglass will remind you that he wasn’t a casino operator, he still managed to craft one of the more intriguing and diverse stories in Nevada gaming history. Contact John L. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.