James C. McKay was born and raised in Virginia City, Nevada. As part of a wealthy mining family, James was interested in mining and mine owners. He met George Wingfield through his family and worked briefly as a bodyguard before moving on to sell mining claims and stock. As a favor for his excellent work, Wingfield asked Nick Abelman to put him to work at the Big Casino in Tonopah, and to give him a 20 percent stake. The year was 1917.
McKay adapted quickly to the saloon business, was always interested in the back-of-the house dealings, and learned to manage the casino end quite quickly. And, according to the book, The Roots of Reno, McKay took great pleasure in guarding Abelmans assets against crooks and cheats, often handling the administration of instant justice on the spot by serving a quick and thorough beating.
Moving Up in the World
He and Bill Graham became good friends and moved to Reno in 1920 to help George Wingfield open casinos in the buildings he owned. McKay sold his 20 percent interest in the Tonopah Club to Shoshone Brown and put the money to quick use in setting up ownership (with Graham) of The Stockade, Renos largest place of prostitution.
McKay never shied away from a fight of any kind, and he didnt mind playing for high stakes. When he was arrested twice in 1923 for violating the Volstead Act (prohibition), he just got his lawyers to pay off the clerks and administrators to keep the case from coming to trial. No problem. McKay was interested in boxing and horse racing, especially if he might have some inside information.
His gift for winning earned him the nickname Cinch. Graham may have been a great talker, who got people to do him favors, but when Cinch talked, people really listened. He often walked around the casino tumbling a pair of dice in his hand, doing math problems in his head, and planning new strategies for his clubs.
McKay and Graham took their profits and paid Rick DeBernardi $40,000 for his club on South Verdi Road outside of Reno and reopened as The Willows after doing a massive remodeling to the tune of $160,000. Although prohibition was the law of the land, The Willows offered some of the finest liquor available in the nation. Graham and McKay could always get liquor from their suppliers in San Francisco, or their friend, bootlegger Cal Custer.
Tex Hall ran the casino in The Willows, and Jack Sullivan often brought a few ladies from the Stockades, but only those he considered refined. In Reno, Graham and McKay ran the Rex and the Haymaker clubs, plus the Bank Palace Club.
Expanding Beyond Reno
In 1929, Graham and McKay paid Norman Biltz $65,000 for the Cal-Neva casino at North Shore Lake Tahoe. The casino featured two roulette tables, a big six wheel, craps, and six blackjack games that Clara Bow, Hollywood star was known to frequent until a searing streak of bad luck left her owing the club over $10,000. Her check bounced and it was left to Tex Hall and Bones Remmer to travel to California and collect.
The Bank Palace Club was a successful but small operation until it was obvious the 1931 open gaming bill was going to pass (Cinch knew in advance). Then, construction crews worked for weeks getting the expanded casino in the lobby of the Golden Hotel ready for action. The casino was doubled in size and was soon the states largest employer. Although McKay wasn’t known to play any table games himself, he knew the club needed poker tables and would sit down for a few hands at a table on occasion to buy the players drinks before losing $50 and leaving.
Down in Tijuana, Mexico, McKay and Graham invested in the casino at the Agua Caliente Casino. The resort opened in 1928 with four hundred rooms and bungalows located far across the border, but the lucrative casino, visited by rich Americans like Jean Harlow, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable, fell to the Reno partners to run. Soon enough money was running through the tills and the gaming tables like water through the rain forest.
The Bank Club was Renos largest, most successful casino in the 1930s and 1940s until Harold’s Club expanded and took more of the Bank’s business. Jim McKay kept an interest in the casino until 1952. Prior to that, McKay spent seven years in Leavenworth prison after being found guilty of using the mail to defraud after a string of swindlers used Graham and McKays Riverside Bank accounts to bilk gamblers out of thousands of dollars in stock swindles.
Although President Truman eventually issued full pardons to McKay and Graham, the whole episode was physically trying, and McKay was less apt to be found in the casinos after his release. He sold all his gaming interests and retired to a quiet life in the 1950s, enjoying his family and friends. He passed away June 19, 1962.