The name Jackie Gaughan may not be familiar to as many people as it should.
So, please allow me to take some time to tell you why this man was important, and so beloved, by so many, for so long.
Mr. Gaughan was one of the last surviving of Las Vegas’ early pioneers. He was cast in the same mold as his iconic contemporaries — including Benny Binion, Bill Harrah, and Sam Boyd — all legends who embodied the casinos they built along with the reputations they earned and established over decades of changes within Las Vegas and the gambling industry, earning universal respect and admiration.
I just learned Mr. Gaughan passed away last night. He was 93.
Mr. Gaughan was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a veteran of World War II. After the war, he went college on the G.I. bill and graduated from Creighton Univeristy. He moved to Las Vegas in 1950. READ MORE ABOUT HIS LIFE HERE
Mr. Gaughan didn’t just see Las Vegas and the gambling scene change over the next 60 years. He was a fundamental part of it. He owned several casinos during that span of time, including four that were located downtown. But his personal flagship was always the El Cortez, where he lived during the final 18 years of his life, following the death of his loving wife “Bertie.” The couple was married for 54 years.
When it came to princely deeds among men, few if anyone could compare with Mr. Gaughan. Consider these extraordinary comments from Las Vegas writer-journalist John L. Smith:
Gaughan gained a reputation for being a hard worker and hands-on with all his properties, walking the floor and interacting with guests. He is also known for his bond with his employees: He kept The Western (casino) open long after it was no longer profitable because he did not want to tell the employees they would have to look for a new job.
Can anyone imagine today, in this day and age, a benevolent casino owner refusing to close the doors of a business that’s losing money, just so the employees won’t be thrown out of work?
That’s what I call class.
That story wasn’t anything unusual. Over the next few days as our community remembers Mr. Gaughan pay close attention to how he treated people and the way he did business. It’s just the way Mr. Gaughan was. It was the way he lived.
Speaking of living, Mr. Gaughan absolutely loved life. He embodied Las Vegas. He was Mr. Downtown. He lived and breathed the structures he built and the people who came to run them were treated like part of his own family.
During the 1970s and 1980s, when the World Series of Poker was still in its formative stages, Mr. Gaughan was a major influence on the scene. He didn’t compete in many tournaments, even though he was a lifelong poker player. Instead, Mr. Gaughan opted to play the role of bookmaker. He loved to take side action. Mr. Gaughan posted odds and booked bets with high-stakes poker players on the odds of certain things happening and various players winning. Sometimes, the money exchanged with Mr. Gaughan exceeded the actual amount of the cash prizes won in the poker tournament. He reportedly lost a bundle when Stu Ungar won the world championship back-to-back in 1980 and 1981.
Mr. Gaughan eventually sold off his entire stake in what had once been a casino empire. He may have stepped down and way from the ownership of his beloved El Cortez, but he remained a part of daily life inside the casino and its restaurants until his final day. To their credit, the ownership which assumed control led by Kenny Epstein allowed — even encouraged — Mr. Gaughan live and remain in the hotel he once built for the remainder of his life.
I met Mr. Gaughan many times over the years, and it was always a supreme honor. No one ever had a bad thing to say about him. No one. Ever. He remained sharp mentally until the very end, playing poker many hours per day inside the El Corez’s tiny poker room. Most of the people who played in that $2-4 limit game probably had no idea who the “old man” was who usually parked in the number 4 or 5 seat, so he could read the board cards. When it came to poker, Mr. Gaughan didn’t care much about the money, which was for low stakes. He just liked being around people. He was a people person.
The high-end restaurant at the El Cortez is called The Flame Steakhouse. It’s a hidden gem frequently mostly by locals and a place where I’ve dined many dozens of times. On numerous occasions I’ve seen Mr. Gaughan enjoying his dinner, sometimes alone, but more often along with the casino’s current management team. A group of perhaps 3 or 4 much younger men dressed in business suits would come in and sit down in the evening, and they were joined by Mr. Gaughan, who was usually afforded the special seat at the head of the table.
Indeed, Mr. Gaughan was treated with reverence and respect until the very end, just as he should have been. He sat there among his much younger peers, those who will carry on his legacy at the El Cortez, and elsewhere.
We shall miss Jackie Gaughan. He was a part of our past. He’s now remembered as part of our present. And the wonderful things he taught us all should be a part of our future.
Note: Read the Las Vegas Review-Journal article by Howard Stutz HERE, which tells more about the colorful life of Jackie Gaughan.