More than 400 gamblers turned out Thursday to try their luck in what is being touted as the world's first nonsmoking casino.
"No more burning eyes. No more runny nose and sneezing. I can breathe. I love it," happily exclaimed Neta Chalmers, 78, of Minden, Nev., as she plunked nickels into a slot machine at the Ponderosa Casino. "And I won't have to air my clothes to get rid of the smoke when I get home."
Other casinos have recently installed nonsmoking gambling areas in Reno and Las Vegas but at the Ponderosa, smoking is prohibited throughout the casino.
The casino is on the ground floor of the five-story, 165-room Ponderosa Hotel. All of the rooms in the hotel are nonsmoking, as are the hotel's bar, restaurant and lobby.
No Smoking symbols--the familiar red heart embracing a burning cigarette with a slash through it--are on the entrance doors to the hotel and casino, on the 21 tables, in the lobby and restaurant. The hotel's logo is "a breath of fresh air."
"For The Health Of It, The Butt Stops Here" is printed on the entrance doors above the No Smoking symbols. A sign at the restaurant cashier's counter proclaims:
"If we see you smoking we will assume you are on fire and we will take appropriate measures."
What does that mean, hotel president and co-owner Bob Rusk, 49, was asked. He laughed and replied: "We have a fire extinguisher ready under the counter." In all seriousness, he said, anyone caught smoking will be asked to put the cigarette out and ushered to the exit door if he refuses.
Owners Rusk and Joe Keshmiri, 51, casino operator Josh Ketcham, 33, and all 86 employees of the hotel and casino are nonsmokers.
When the 24-year-old Ponderosa Hotel and Casino went bankrupt, Rusk and Keshmiri bought it and spent $4 million refurbishing it. The 100% nonsmoking hotel opened last August.
Keshmiri, a native of Iran, now an American citizen, was a discus thrower on four Iranian Olympic teams.
Rusk served eight years as a Washoe County commissioner and eight years in the Nevada Assembly, where he was the Republican leader. He is currently a member of 13 different state and local boards and commissions including the Reno-Sparks Convention Authority.
"When I was in college I worked for a mortuary to pay for my education," Rusk recalled. "I saw a lot of smoking-related deaths come through the door and saw the terribly abused lungs of smokers when autopsies were performed. That convinced me never to smoke."
He and his wife, Marilyn, opened a nonsmoking hotel, the Truckee River Lodging House, two years ago in Reno. Rusk said that, at the time, it was the second of its kind in the country. The first, he said was in Dallas.
The hotel has been a huge success, he said, explaining: "It is very popular with businessmen and women. Many of our guests suggested we open a nonsmoking casino. The Ponderosa was available and we went for it."
He has leased the casino operation to Ketcham, who has run the Crystal Bar Club Casino at Lake Tahoe for 10 years.
"This is a revolutionary idea in the casino industry and I'm certain it will become a most popular place with nonsmokers," Ketcham said. "Everybody is more health-oriented these days. There are more nonsmokers than smokers out there.
"A few casinos have recently opened nonsmoking areas for gaming but patrons have to go through smoke-filled rooms to get there and smoke drifts into the nonsmoking areas."
Welcomed by Employees
No one tried to break the Ponderosa's no-smoking rule on its first day of business. On the contrary, all the customers and employees had nothing but praise.
"For the first time in 35 years working at casinos I can look out the window and see," said pit boss Ron Heathman. "All the other casinos are foggy from smokers. Yet other casino dealers can't wait for their breaks to duck out and get some fresh air. You can't imagine what it's like to be behind a table and have everybody blowing smoke in your face."
Rusk said he has a long waiting list filled with names of employees from other casinos who have applied for jobs, eager to work in a nonsmoking atmosphere.
"I worked 21 years in casinos. I was always exhausted after work because of smoke-filled rooms. I have asthma. This is heaven," said April Healy, 41, on her new job at the Ponderosa as a change clerk.