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Gambling History

Gambling History

The Global Gaming Expo or G2E as it is known, opened this week in Las Vegas. Most of the expo is closed to the general public, but one popular exhibit is open to all - history. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

PLASKON: There are a couple of gambling museums around town. Public displays of artifacts like casino chips, ashtrays and matchbooks. One is at the Tropicana.

TROPICANA CUSTOMER: Dice cards, jewelry cigarette lighters, some plates.

PLASKON: A constant stream of passers by eagerly devours short descriptions of historic photos on the wall too.

TROPICANA CUSTOMER: El Rancho casino was the first casino on the strip . . . offered great food.

TROPICANA CUSTOMER: What Las Vegas used to look like. It was tiny before and it is not so tiny now, it is huge. It is quite something, I would love to have some of these hanging up at home.

PLASKON: The museum is really marketing for a nearby gift shop that re-sells old casino chips. A sister museum - slash - gift shop at Neonopolis downtown has a larger display including videos to silverware. It does a pretty brisk business says store clerk Garylee Porter

PORTER: We were just saying yesterday the museum was packed but for some reason it slowed down today. Monday's and Tuesdays are our slow days, but everybody likes the history aspect of it. When you come out you will see we have napkins, dice, chips, tokens.

PLASKON: But visitors like Mark Mortensen and Anne Mosumgaard from Copenhagen Denmark say these displays don't satisfy their appetite for Las Vegas history. They want more of the behind the scenes.

MORTENSEN: A lot of the history of how Vegas started with the gangsters and stuff.

PLASKON: But it is a pretty small display.

MOSUMGAARD: Ya too small.

SCHWARTZ: There really hasn't been any genuine attempt to explain casino gambling in Las Vegas, to make it exciting to people in Las Vegas and really present a narrative history of it.

PLASKON: Director of the Center for UNLV's Center for Gaming Research, David Schwartz says it's a rare occasion that the public can get the deeper look into the Las Vegas history that they crave. This years' Global Gaming Expo has that inside look. In the public area of the convention center right next to the G2E registration, are large colorful boards full of documents, pictures and descriptions. Even before G2E opened, a steady stream of visitors came to see the display. Reno gaming software engineer Curt Voutaz came to answer some of his questions.

VOUTAZ: Why isn't Reno a Vegas? Ha!

PLASKON: Have you come to a conclusion?

VOUTAZ: No still looking at it, I love this kind of stuff.

PLASKON: What would you like to see more of.

VOUTAZ: There are political drivers that kind of thing.

PLASKON: Though it doesn't explain why Reno isn't like Las Vegas, the question about the inner workings and driving forces behind Las Vegas becoming what it is today is the most common question UNLV's Schwartz gets. The display boards offer insight into that he says.

SCHWARTZ: I think some of the really interesting things is the way the owners worked with the politicians and stuff like that and promoted the place and I think that is really the hidden story.

PLASKON: He points out his favorite display . . . thank you letters to Wilbur Clark, a 1950's Desert Inn personality and lobbyist. One letter is from Jackie Kennedy thanking Clark for the gift of a portable TV. Schwartz's is favorite letter to Clark is one that indicated softening relations between gaming and religion.

SCHWARTZ: It was Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn and he would give gifts and do favors for politicians and I have a letter from Billy Grahm thanking him for taking him out to lunch and it is very interesting because he reconciles it with his religious principles and thanks him for helping to enlighten the citizens of this fabulous city.

PLASKON: The display covers 1905 to the present from the land auction to the first theme casino, the origins of the famous 90-foot waving cowboy, how "The Strip" got its name, Elvis' Las Vegas comeback, and the 1990's tradition of building the world's most expensive hotels.

FROST: I just like the narrative story, it was quite amusing seeing the story of Wyett Erp back there. I thought he was a lot older than 1905.

PLASKON: Tim Frost is from Australia. He was fascinated. G2E paid for the display. After the convention, the display will become the property of UNLV. It hopes to take the history lesson on the road for the first time so that others can learn about Las Vegas.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR