Gambling city Reno and pioneer Warren Nelson

  width =Warren Nelson is one of the many prominent individuals interviewed by the University of Nevada. For years, the university has been interviewing people who are or have been important to the state of Nevada. In this way they obtain an extensive oral record of their history.

Sometimes these interviews are worked out in books. That happened for example in the 1994 book "Always bet on the Butcher". It tells the life story of Warren Nelson, a gambling pioneer in Reno. But it also gives a nice picture of the development of the American gambling industry in Reno.

Warren Nelson

Warren Nelson is born in Great Falls on January 19, 1913. He grows up with family elsewhere in Montana after his mother, Bertha Meisenbach, has died. Nelson sketches the life on the cold cattle farm. It was not an easy time for anyone in the early twentieth century, but he keeps nice and good memories of those days.

As a teenager he returns to Great Falls and moves in with his father, Lawrence Nelson, and stepmother. His father works as a chef in the restaurant of the Park Hotel.


Warren Nelson shows ambition from an early age. At a young age he works as a piccolo in the hotel where his father also works. However, he earns the most money by buying bootleg whiskey and selling it to hotel guests.

Introduction to gambling

Warren Nelson is sixteen when, at the end of 1929, the major economic depression strikes. Many people, including Warren and his father, become unemployed. His father starts an illegal gambling opportunity with a partner in the back room of a cigar shop. That is how Warren Nelson's introduction to gambling begins.

Gambling is mainly about the Chinese game Keno. Warren Nelson wants to get to know everything about the game. When he doesn't understand something, he looks for people who can explain it to him. For the formulas of the game, he visits his former maths teacher, for example.

More gambling lessons

Warren Nelson - Palace Club 1938

The Palace Club in 1938

Towards the end of the "draining", 21 is also played behind the cigar shop. Soon Warren Nelson also learns everything about this game and his skills in the games stand out. Francis Lyden, an acquaintance, asks him to come to Reno to introduce the Keno game there.

Warren Nelson starts working at the Palace Club in Reno in 1936. He improves the Keno game by making it faster and more exciting. It tempts more casino visitors to play the game.

He shows the ingenuity that makes him legendary in the gambling industry in several places at the Palace Club. He introduces there, for example, that the payment of large prizes is done demonstratively, in the sight of all other visitors. The grand public celebration of the Jackpot's fall is still an important marketing tool in the gambling industry.


The career of Warren Nelson is interrupted by the Second World War. He is stationed as a marine in San Francisco. At the same time, he manages, secretly, to have a second job at an illegal game in a club in El Cerrito.

There he experiences how much can be stolen by management, customers and staff. His description of those days in the book "Always bet on the Butcher" gives a beautiful picture of gambling in the war years.

Warren Nelson - passage from book

Passage from the book "Always bet on the Butcher"

And the circumstances in a club. The craps tables, for example, were so busy that players were not allowed to stand with their hips directly opposite the table. They were only allowed to play with one hand, to make room for more customers.

History gambling in Reno

The first part of the book describes the life of Warren Nelson and his experiences in a colorful way. But the second part is perhaps more interesting. It describes the history of the gambling industry in Reno. After all, that starts shortly before Nelson goes to Reno.

Unlike the history of gambling in Las Vegas, Reno's is less well-known. Yet that history turns out to be just as colorful. Illustrious names such as Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel are missing. But the lesser-known names in Reno have certainly contributed to the development of the international gambling industry.

The Harrah’s Club

Shortly after the war, Warren Nelson helped Bill Harrah build the Harrah’s Club. He is involved in the construction of the casino and the management of gambling activities. He mainly hires people he knows from Montana, from the Marines and from other casinos. It's a working method that is common in the gambling industry, Nelson says, and it's called "juice."

During construction, he discovers that casino owners are watching the casino floor from holes in the crawl space in the attic. At Harrah, in response to that new knowledge, he installs two-way mirrors in the ceilings. They are the precursors of today's electronic surveillance systems.


More beautiful than Warren Nelson can tell, Albert Woods Moe writes in his book "Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling" about the qualities of Nelson. In numerous anecdotes, Nelson emerges as an amiable, innovative all-rounder. It's not for nothing that Bill Harrah calls him his "Jack of all trades".

Owner Club Cal Neva

Warren Nelson - Club Cal Neva

Club Cal Neva, circa 1955

In 1948, Warren Nelson leaves the Harrar’s Club. He buys the Club Cal Neva with some friends. Everyone agrees that thanks to Warren it will soon become an extremely successful company.

In "Always bet on the Butcher" Nelson talks about his management style. What he says about it is similar to what many other successful entrepreneurs, also outside the gambling industry, comment about it. See, for example, William Crockford. According to Nelson, these are the conditions for success:

  • Good customer service
  • Treat employees well and pay well
  • Good people choose in important positions
  • Follow with developments in technology
  • Train employees and encourage them to develop themselves
  • And especially know where you stand in the whole


In the book, Warren Nelson does not hesitate to mention the setbacks as easily. He talks about business deals that were not successful, such as the Waldorf Club and some projects outside the gambling world.

Active until the last years of life

Warren Nelson has always been involved in gambling organization. Among other things, he is a board member of International Game Technology, of which 5 years as chairman. He has also been a board member of the Boyd Gaming Corporation for a long time.

In the book, Warren Nelson emerges as a man who is satisfied with his life. He is still involved with the Club Cal-Neva during the interview. He stays active there until he is very old.

Additional information and sources

  • The above is a sketch of the book "Always bet on the butcher" from 1994. The book provides an image of the dominant role of Reno's gambling industry in an easily readable style.
  • Warren Nelson dies naturally on September 23, 2004 at the age of 91. His wife Pat, whom he married on 11 February 1946, explains this unusual remark in his necrology as "he was always a bit sick."
  • An explanation for the title of the book can be found in Edward Oakley Thorp's book "Beat the Dealer" from 1964. Thorp turns around a well-known saying when he writes: When a lamb goes to the slaughter, it might kill the butcher. But we always bet on the butcher. (When a lamb goes to the slaughterhouse, it can kill the butcher. But we always bet on the butcher)
  • Warren Nelson was always enthusiastic about the Megabucks, a progressive slot machine. He experienced shortly before his death that a 25-year-old man in Las Vegas won the highest ewe at that time: almost 40 million.
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