William Harrah Begins His Career in the Gaming Industry


William F. Harrah, UCLA ’34, stands as one of the most influential figures in gaming history. The company named for him is currently the world’s largest gaming operator, and his focus on efficient management and effective marketing has become the industry standard.

Harrah’s gaming career began in Venice, California, when in 1933, he bought out his father’s interest in a bingo-style game on the Venice boardwalk. Biographer Leon Mandel attributes his immediate “classing up” of the gambling operation to an innate sense of “The right way of doing things” that would guide him throughout his career. Harrah indeed fired the shills [employees hired to simulate play] and added padded stools and drapes to the gambling facility.

But Harrah’s new business occupied a precarious legal perch. In 1937, Harrah wearied of his struggles with the law and moved to Reno, where he opened a bingo club. The club promptly failed due to its poor location, two blocks away from the cluster of gambling halls in downtown Reno.

Harrah owned a series of small bingo parlors for the next decade in downtown Reno. Then, in 1946, he opened a larger gambling hall called Harrah’s Club. There, Harrah focused on providing outstanding customer service and attention to detail: later, employees would rush to replace burned-out lightbulbs almost instantaneously for fear that Harrah’s wrath would come down upon them.

In 1956, Harrah opened a Harrah’s Club at Lake Tahoe. To stay open during the slow winter, Harrah inaugurated a bus program that delivered patrons from across Northern California to his casino. The Reno and Tahoe casinos became highly successful and subsequently added hotels.

Harrah brought principles of standardization to the fore: all employees were thoroughly ‘Harrahrized’ before being allowed to serve the public. Thus, all customers could expect the same high service level regardless of the property they visited.

Harrah was generally content to let his top executives run daily operations and devoted much of his time and money to an extensive collection of automobiles that was, at the time of his death, assessed at over $40 million.

In 1971, Harrah’s offered its first stock to the public, and in 1973 it became the first gaming company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Harrah died on June 30, 1978, during heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. On his death, his attorney Mead Dixon became executor of his estate and chairman of Harrah’s board. In 1980, Dixon orchestrated the sale of Harrah’s to Holiday Inn, a purchase that created the company Harrah’s Entertainment.

In 1989, Harrah’s family endowed the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus with a generous gift to support hotel management education. Today, the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration is one of the world’s top hotel programs—a legacy worthy of this gaming pioneer.