The Backyard Traveler: Gaming history at Virginia City's Gambling Museum

Long before video poker or Megabucks, many Nevada saloons offered card games like faro, monte, and hazard. Today, while it's tough to find any casino dealing any of those mostly-forgotten games, Virginia City's Nevada Gambling Museum offers a chance to find out what they were all about.

The museum has one of the finest collections of rare and exotic gambling paraphernalia found anywhere in Nevada. In fact, you can see an authentic faro table complete with an abacus used to keep score.

The museum introduces the subject of gambling with a short but detailed history of traditional gaming among Nevada Indians, which largely involved something called "gambling sticks." With the discovery of gold and silver in Nevada, miners, settlers and ranchers introduced other games of chance.

Of course, as other displays explain, along with these new games came new ways to cheat. The museum has a fascinating collection of ancient devices designed to give an edge to the user, including elaborate levers that supply hidden cards up one's sleeve.

In the lavishly decorated main room, visitors will find antique roulette wheels, a re-creation of an 1870s poker room (using authentic cards, table, chips and whiskey bottle), an actual saloon bar and plenty of wall displays describing various games and gambling history.

The next room features an amazing collection of more than 100 antique slot machines. It quickly becomes obvious that during the 1930s and 1940s, which has been called the Golden Age of the slot machine, the construction of a slot machine was art. The machines on display include some of the most ornate and decorative ever built, such as classic Mills, Jennings and Bally's machines.

There is even a Polk slot machine that stands about chest high and is hand carved in the shape of a western outlaw, complete with a mask. Players would actually pull on his arm to work the machine - a true one-armed bandit.

The bandit slot machine is part of a series of unique life-size, carved figures crafted in the mid-20th century by Frank Polk (hence the machine's name). Polk built 92 of these full-figured machines for the Character Manufacturing Company of Reno.

The slot machine room traces the evolution of the gaming devices from the original Liberty Bell machine (invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco in 1899; his grandsons own and operate the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant in Reno) to the more modern computer chip-driven video poker machines.

Along the way, you can see early versions of a slot machine like a 1901 Mills Commercial machine, a 1904 Elk (also made by Fey) and a 1906 Mills Liberty Bell.

The true golden age of the machines seems to be the 1930s and 40s, when slot machines became true works of art with enameled metal faces and elaborate designs. Some of the more beautiful devices include the 1933 Mills Golden Bell, which had an enameled golden Roman head on the front and the 1934 Mills Silent Bell War Eagle, with an elegant eagle front.

For those wanting to know just how a reel slot machine works, there is a working glass enclosed slot machine that shows the inner workings of a typical slot machine. For once, you can pull the handle to see how the bandit robs without paying the price.

One of the best features of the museum, which has been culled from the personal collection of Angelo Petrini, owner of the nearby Delta Saloon, is the presentation. Detailed and complete placards that provide interesting information are adjacent to each rare and unusual object. Considerable thought and work has gone into making this a small but thorough historic display.

The Nevada Gambling Museum is located at 50 South C Street in Virginia City, across from the Delta Saloon parking lot in the center of town. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $1 and children under 11 are free. For more information call 775-847-9022.

(Richard Moreno is the author of The Backyard Traveler and The Backyard Traveler Returns, which are available at local bookstores.)


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