This is not Ben Cartwright's Ponderosa
Non-smoking casino loses butt
Expanded from the 3-2-1990 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
Updated 3-8-2007, 6-5-2011

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and Ego Trips

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The second thing I ever learned about Reno concerned the Ponderosa Hotel.

It was January, 1971. I was on my first flight into a town I had no desire to know, sitting next to a gravelly-voiced old man.

"I work at the Ponderosa Hotel. Ever heard of it?" said the weathered face collapsing around a cigarette.

"As a matter of fact, I have. Saw some tv spots in Fresno years ago," I said.

"Used to be a real nice place till Kathy Tripp took over and screwed it up."

The rubbery old jowls seemed to grind out the words with equal parts of sorrow and disgust.

"Some people can't do anything but screw up a nice place," he puffed.

Doesn"t seem like much has changed.

After years of mismanagement and scrapes with gaming control authorities, the Tripps were pushed out in 1980. Veteran gambler George Prock tried to revive the Ponderosa from 1982 until 1985.

Kathy Tripp opened a liquor store across the street at the old Kohlenberg Chrysler-Plymouth location. Prock died, and the hotel lay vacant for years.

A little over a year ago, ex-Nevada Assemblyman Bob Rusk, R-Reno, and former Iranian Olympic discus athlete Joe Keshmiri reopened it as "the world"s first smokeless hotel-casino."

My wife and I patronized the place. We played the slots and visited old friends working there. Within a few months, I noticed that several banks of slots had been removed. That usually means there's not enough action to continue paying the licensing fees.

Toward fall of last year, just about any customer could see things were thin. I began a series of phone calls trying to reach casino owner Josh Ketcham.

I wanted to ask the simplest of questions: Does a no-smoking policy turn away gamblers?

I left a detailed message on January 31. I'm still waiting for an interview. After Ketcham was evicted a few weeks ago, I called some insiders.

Television and newspaper stories recounted charges and countercharges between Rusk and Ketcham. Rusk tried to look accommodating, saying that a proposed new lease called for allowing smoking at the bar and in bus tour customer hotel rooms. The stories all said business was bad for the casino.

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"The winter just finished him off," Rusk told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

I heard otherwise.

With no fanfare, Ketcham eliminated the non-smoking policy in January. He then went all out for the Latino market, bringing in Mexican bands on the weekends.

"He packed the place," a wise guy told me. The bar business went up four to one. The blackjack drop tripled and the slot drop doubled. Ketcham placed a few television spots on KREN TV-27, the area's Spanish language station, and distributed posters at grocery stores frequented by Hispanics.

"It didn't take much to fill the place up. The Mexican band did it. The parking lot was always full," said one insider.

"I just think it's funny that Bob Rusk, who heads the committee to find a new homeless shelter, just put 80 people out of work."

Back to my original question: Did the non-smoking experiment fail?


"Non-smoking hotels and bars in other states don't make money," said one expert I consulted.

"Non-smokers are a lot smarter gambler," said the wise guy.

"The type of person who came in (during the non-smoking policy) would not drink or play slots. Some of the 21 players cleaned the place out."

[2007 UPDATE: She added that a sober player would come in, bet heavily, get ahead and walk out after 15 or 20 minutes.]

The evidence is in. People who are addicted are addicted to multiple vices. Smoking begets drinking begets losing at the tables. Casinos give out booze to gamblers and it ups the drop.

Surprise, surprise.

Put in smoking and it ups drinking and gambling. Mix band with booze and garden variety mating behavior takes over.

Find an underserved marketing niche — like Latinos — and do land office business.

Now, Ketcham is out and says the Ponderosa is up for sale.

He leaves a strong impression that therein lies the underlying reason for all the harassment he says he suffered. On the other hand, if he had problems with Rusk and Keshmiri, he could have made lease payments to an escrow account instead of not paying the rent.

The answers to a lot of these questions will pop up in court.

I've had my question answered. You can't run a clean sewer or a moral whorehouse.

If you're going to sell vices, sell all of them or you'll end up selling none.

The world's first non-smoking hotel~casino contracted terminal cancer learning that lesson.

Be well. Raise hell.

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist. He hosts weekday morning news and talk on KHIT 1590 AM.
Barbwire by Barbano originates in the Daily Sparks Tribune/Reno Evening Tribune.


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Copyright © 1990, 2007, 2011, 2014 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 38-year Nevadan, editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org, and a member of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his opinions are strictly his own. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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