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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Las Vegas casino pioneer Jackie Gaughan dies at 93

13 March 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Legendary casino pioneer Jackie Gaughan never wanted to leave downtown Las Vegas.

His son, South Point owner Michael Gaughan, even offered to build his father a penthouse apartment atop one of the south-Strip resort’s hotel towers. He wouldn’t budge.

The elder Gaughan, who once controlled 25 percent of the downtown gaming market and owned portions of some of the city’s most historic casinos, died Wednesday at age 93 while in hospice care.

He spent his last years in the place he loved: an apartment atop the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, overlooking the city he adored.

“Downtown is where Jackie belonged,” Michael Gaughan said Wednesday of his father. The elder Gaughan was moved to hospice late Monday. On Tuesday he was visited by his seven grandchildren and most of his eight great-grandchildren.

“He lived a full life,” Michael Gaughan said. “He may have been the most licensed person in the history of the state. He had a great sense of humor. All his life, Jackie Gaughan believed in handshake deals and that a person’s word was his bond.”

The El Cortez was the last piece of Jackie Gaughan’s empire that he parted with in 2008. Until a few years ago, he appeared in the hotel’s advertising campaigns. His wife, Roberta, who died in 1996, never wanted to live anywhere else, either.

“He told me that’s where he wanted to stay,” his son said.

The Epstein family — longtime friends and business associates of Jackie Gaughan — let him remain in the apartment and provided him with 24-hour care.

“Las Vegas lost a legend today and the El Cortez lost its patriarch in Jackie,” El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein said in a statement. “But his vision for the gaming industry and his presence as a beloved member of the El Cortez family will be felt for years to come.”

Michael Gaughan said the Epstein family “took tremendous care of dad.” He said longtime El Cortez employees, some of whom date back to when Jackie Gaughan operated the casino, enjoyed seeing the gaming legend in the building.


The son of a Nebraska bookmaker, Gaughan was raised in Omaha. He graduated from Creighton University there and moved to Las Vegas in 1951, the year his family bought a stake in the Flamingo on the Strip. Three years earlier, Gaughan had bought a piece of the old Boulder Club, and was then licensed for the first time, Michael Gaughan said.

He quickly sold his stake in the Flamingo and focused his efforts on downtown. During his career, Gaughan owned parts of the Union Plaza, Golden Nugget, Showboat, Boulder Club, Gold Spike, the Western, Las Vegas Club and the El Cortez.

During some six decades in gaming, Jackie Gaughan was licensed 12 times. He also held gaming licenses in New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana and Australia.

Boyd Gaming Corp. founder Bill Boyd said Wednesday that Gaughan helped put downtown Las Vegas on the map. Boyd and his late father, Sam Boyd, were for a short time investors with Gaughan in the Union Plaza.

“Jackie got around to all his casinos,” Boyd said. “Any time you walked around downtown, you were assured of bumping into Jackie inside one of his casinos. He was hands-on and a very hard worker.”

Boyd said Gaughan, like other downtown casino pioneers, knew their customers personally.

“They were his customers, but they were also his friends,” Boyd said. “Jackie worked very hard and gave back to the community.”

Gaughan’s passing brought tributes from elected leaders and gaming industry officials.

“Few people have influenced Las Vegas and Nevada like Jackie Gaughan,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement. “He played an important role in the history of Las Vegas, helping shape it into the city we know today. There is no question his incredible legacy will be felt for generations to come.”

Wynn Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn, who once owned the Golden Nugget, said in a statement that Gaughan was respected beyond the downtown casino market.

“I believe it would take a month to name all of the friends that Jackie Gaughan had in the state of Nevada,” Wynn said. “It would take that long to list all of the people from Reno to Las Vegas, from Elko to Laughlin who respected Jackie for his warmth, his business integrity, his affection for his employees and above all, for his happy, positive personality. I am one of those people whose life was brightened by a friendship and association with that delightful man.”

Station Casinos Chairman Frank Fertitta III called Gaughan “a true gentleman,” and said his contributions “helped shape both Southern Nevada and our industry.”

During his reign on Fremont Street, Gaughan was widely known to tourists who viewed his casinos as friendly refuges.

He would personally deliver his casinos’ coupon books, which offered dinner specials and other promotions, to motels along Fremont Street and near the Strip. A security guard would accompany him on the monthly goodwill mission.

He always entered his casinos through the front door, never through a private entrance. His office was a converted hotel room shared with a couple of other executives and a secretary. The coffee shop was where business was conducted.

The El Cortez is where the newest slot machines were always tested.

“Jackie would put in a slot machine and eventually he’d get a call from Kirk Kerkorian or Benny Binion asking if it worked,” El Cortez General Manager Mike Nolan, who has been at the property since the 1970s, said in 2012.

There are stories of Gaughan doing everything from fixing busted plumbing to jump-starting customers’ cars.

In his final years, Gaughan would often venture from his apartment to play poker in El Cortez casino and visit the Epstein family in the executive offices.

CDC Gaming Reports Publisher Jeffrey Compton, who is a consultant to the El Cortez, said the Epsteins maintained a desk for Gaughan in the executive offices. Several employees looked after him.

“His life was probably longer and definitely much happier because of Kenny Epstein and company,” Compton said. “They treated him like a treasured member of the family.”

Michael Gaughan is Jackie Gaughan’s only surviving child. Funeral services are pending. In lieu of flowers, the Gaughan family asks that donations be made to Bishop Gorman High School.

The El Cortez said it would hold a celebration of Gaughan’s life on Tuesday at 2 p.m. in The Parlour Bar with champagne and cake. The event is open to the public.