The Siena Hotel, Spa and Casino is a quirky little oddity that

hunkers down hard by the Truckee River on South Lake Street in downtown Reno.

Once, when the river threatened to occupy the guest rooms, the staff held it back with sandbags. The owner is a guy named Barney Ng. The general manager grew up in Pakistan, spoke English so well he passed the University of Cambridge test and jumped into the casino business the minute he landed in the United States.

I’ve never met Barney, but I know I’d like him. On one of his trips to Reno, he phoned ahead and asked if the hotel could send a car to meet him at the airport. Somehow the message got twisted. A car showed up all right - from the Grand Sierra. Barney got in, calm as usual, and politely asked the driver to take him to the Siena. I know owners who would fire the whole joint if that ever happened to them.

The GM, Anwar Masud, is an old friend of mine. We worked together on a couple of places in Reno, and I help him with the Siena now - but I think he teaches me more than I teach him.

 I mean, here’s a guy with a 214-room hotel, 480 slots, 11 tables and a casino floor that’s not a lot bigger than the coffee shop. If you get a speck of dust in your eye and blink a couple of times, you could drive right by the building. It’s not only out of the downtown walk pattern; it’s right across the river from a deserted building.

So how do you think they advertise the place? The line they use is, “The Ultimate Locals Casino.” And they back it up. I’ve been around the business for quite a while, and I’ve seen hundreds of casinos claim they cater to locals - but the “claim” is about as far as it goes.

Masud has a formula that works. So, if you have fewer than 500 machines and you have to compete against the big guys every day like he does, here are some of the common sense ways he does it.

“We offer great value,” Masud said. “If you want to go out for dinner, you can get a Chef’s Special in our Contrada restaurant for $4.95. The menu changes every night, but the price stays the same. For a few dollars more, you can get a three-course dinner in Lexie’s, our gourmet room. Even on nights when the town is hosting a special event, locals jam Lexie’s. And we offer a Sunday brunch that some of our guests say is the best in Reno.”

Masud’s “value” strategy carries over to table games. “We have one of the most liberal table game packages in the world,” Masud said. “We offer 10 times odds on craps, single-zero roulette and single-deck blackjack with Las Vegas rules. Not many places offer all three.”

And the slots? “About half are video poker games. The rest are a mix of video reels, video keno and multiline games. We have about 100 video reels that take up to 50 coins.”

Masud is heavy on slot promotions that demand repeat visits. An event the locals call “Triple Udder” (actual name, “The Udder Nonsense Cash Cow Celebration”) builds to a climax once a month when more than 500 players converge on the Siena in a 24-hour period. Some actually play for the entire 24 hours, trying to nail one of the 50 cash prizes. Players qualify for “Triple Udder” based on theoretical win. The event has no entry fee, requires no tournament registration, and has no rules or special starting time. Players plug in their cards, and the computer counts coin-in.

“The event went over so well that I tripled the amount of prizes,” Masud said, “which is why we now call it Triple Udder.”

Another slot event named “Eggstrava-ganza” assures a big night on the last Friday of every month. Players must meet a coin-in total for the previous month to compete, and I wouldn’t call the cash payoffs walking-around money. The dough sometimes builds to more than $30,000. The big prize is a “progressive egg” that adds $2,000 a month until won.

So, the secret lies in consistently high value - in food, tables and slots – combined with what Masud calls, “A commitment by our people to deliver the best service in the city.”

Down on the floor, presiding over the Siena’s 480 machines, is Slot Manager Bob Bigelow. And with 27 years in the business, he’s covered a lot of ground. When he started in l981 at Circus Circus in Reno, the newest games were electro-mechanicals. The EMs were just a momentary pause before the era of computer-driven games, and Bigelow still tells stories about chasing “handle poppers” and “sluggers.”

“In those days I used to catch guys feeding slugs into a game and chase them into the street,” Bigelow said. “Caught a few, too. Now, I leave that to the younger guys.”

Bigelow likes the challenge of a small casino and spends time on the floor meeting players and making them “feel comfortable.” When you know your customers, he said, the machine mix pretty much works itself out. But there are other problems in a small store that the larger operators don’t always face.

“I’m a big believer in ‘line of sight’ when you set up a slot section,” Bigelow said. “It’s really a selling tactic. When I put a playing area together, I place my machines so the players can look up and see a bar, or a restaurant, or any other kind of outlying attraction. If they leave their game to get a drink or a sandwich, they usually stay in the Siena.”

Card usage is as high as 65 percent among locals, he said. “They like the variety of games we have on the floor, and we make sure the sections have a fresh look by rotating the floor often. At the same time, we’ll leave a few of the old favorites around because people still like to play them.”

If you’re the slot manager of a small store, you’d better know your locals, and Bigelow is good at that. “I can tell their moods with one question. I just say ‘How’s it going?’ The winners won’t tell you. The losers gripe. It must be the same everywhere in the business.”

So, the secret of the Siena’s success isn’t a secret at all. It’s simply quality, good value, super table game odds, a variety of machines dictated in part by the customers, a casino that proves its devotion to locals and a staff who love the place.

Sounds easy to put together. It’s not.