The Cal-Neva is a casino in downtown Reno, Nevada on 2nd Street. And as I walk through the doors I imagine the hardened gamblers, cowboys, ladies of the evening, and down on their luck renegades that have walked these well-worn footsteps. The carpet almost feels – and looks original. The casino was built in 1962 and the exterior lights flicker with beautiful retro goodness. Huge letters “CAL-NEVA” lure those looking to score. To add to the quirkiness, strangely, the parking structure is called the “Parking Stadium.” Not sure where that terminology came from but I like it.
It’s dark-ish inside and the trademark sound of slot machines and karaoke fill the room. This is as down and dirty as it gets in Reno; other casinos in town have updated to the 21st century for the most part, but the Cal-Neva feels stuck in time – but in a weird kind of a good way.
Showing me the way is Zach Girdis, proprietor of Golden Jackal. No, that’s not the name of a strip club or a casino. When I first heard the name Golden Jackal it sounded like a mythical outpost where great secrets are kept. Golden Jackal is actually a vintage clothing store in Midtown Reno, the happening side of town, transitioning quickly to craft beer/cocktails/boutique stores and A-list restaurants.
I had met Zach a few hours earlier during a photo shoot location scout. He was helping a woman with a beard wearing a unicorn shirt. Friendly, talkative and donning a Gunsmoke style cowboy hat, Zach told us about the store and its tumultuous beginnings. “It was originally called Golden Jackal because it sounds like a casino,” he says, admitting a girlfriend came up with the name originally. Open since January 2017, it was originally called Dave Diamond’s Golden Jackal, and when he split up with his business partners, the name got split up too. I think he got the better part of that deal.
Golden Jackal is a brilliantly curated mix of cowboy and trucker hats, Pendleton flannels, classic uniforms, patches and cowboy boots. A sprinkling of vinyl and vintage furniture fill out the stock and everything is carefully organized and curated. It’s merchandised in a way that makes you want to buy something.
The clothes may be old, but they don’t look it.
Zach is a jack-of-all-trades of sorts, dabbling in film and music – he and his wife own the Yoga studio around the corner. Zach fills in the backstory: “I’ve always shopped at vintage stores since I was 14,” he says. It’s been a long way around to get to Reno for Zach. “I moved here ten years ago from Los Angeles, was born in the Bay Area, grew up in Massachusetts, and came back to California after college. I lived in LA for 15 years – went to audio engineering school, and worked in Malibu.” If you look closely Zach is in one shot of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, about the legendary recording studio in LA. Zach co-engineered an At The Drive-In album at that studio.
Zach leads me through the main casino of the Cal-Neva, then we go out a set of doors into an alley, then another set of doors that lead to the back casino. To our left a guy is on stage singing AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock” straining to hit the high notes in what sounds like an alcohol-induced strain. Nice try dude, but you’re no Brian Johnson.
He spots a Pai Gow poker table in the back as he walks me through the rules. “It’s a poker game that’s based on an Asian tile game where you get 7 cards and you divide them into your best five card hand and your low two card hand. The dealer has to beat both hands or it’s a push,” Zach says. I’m not familiar with that specific game, but know how to play poker. Pai Gow is a game where you can’t lose a lot but you can’t win a lot either, it’s more gambling for sport and fun, and to while away a few hours playing cards. “Where they get you is on the bonus,” Zach says, explaining that you can place a side bet that pays big if you get a certain high hand. Zach remembers the time about a year ago where he got five aces (jokers in the game are wild) and won $2,000. He remembers calling his wife.
“Honey I just won $2,000.” She replied, “Shut up!”
As I predicted, an hour or so later I had lost 60 bucks, Zach was down 50 bucks, and decided to call it a night.
This adventure to the Cal-Neva should never have happened. A few hours earlier I was sitting at the bar of my hotel, having a nightcap when I spotted Zach sitting next to me, surprisingly. He remembered me from the scout a few hours earlier and introduced me to the bartender at The Whitney Peak hotel, a friend of his named Gator.
It was a total chance meeting that turned into a poker side trip, in the bright lights of Reno.
I may have lost 60 bucks, but I gained a lot of learning here.
Reno is a really interesting place, a city in transition. I will certainly be back, and will likely visit Zach at Golden Jackal. And I will play cards again as well. The great thing about Reno is that you can enjoy a down and dirty card game knowing that just a few minutes away is sexy Midtown – and only 30 minutes away is Lake Tahoe and some of America’s most beautiful mountains and scenery. The majestic mountains are visible from many spots in Reno -- you’re surrounded by them. Outside the confines of a casino, fresh lake air isn’t far away. There’s little that you can’t experience in and around Reno.
Hey, it’s called the biggest little city in the world for a reason.