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Las Vegas gambling pioneer Jackie Gaughan dies at 93

Jackie Gaughan

Las Vegas News Bureau

Jackie Gaughan bought the El Cortez in 1963. Over the years, he had stakes in many Las Vegas casinos, but this was his love, his baby. He held onto his majority stake until 2008, selling to his longtime friend and partner Kenny Epstein.

Updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 | 5:24 p.m.

Jackie Gaughan (1920-2014)

Casino owners Jackie Gaughan, left, and his son Michael Gaughan pose together at a luncheon honoring the elder Gaughan on Thursday, May 4, 2000, at The Orleans. Launch slideshow »

Jackie Gaughan's 92nd Birthday

Las Vegas gaming pioneer Jackie Gaughan arrives with Alexandra Epstein, executive vice president of the El Cortez, as he celebrates his 92nd birthday with a champagne and cake celebration at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Gaming was in Jackie Gaughan’s blood.

The son of an Omaha bookmaker and the father of an owner of casinos, Gaughan took the most pride not in bragging of his own accomplishments — which he had earned a right to do — but rather in how his family built a gaming empire that likely will never be equaled on the non-corporate level.

In 2000, Gaughan and his son Michael Gaughan surpassed Sam and Bill Boyd as having owned more casinos — nine — than any other father-son duo in Las Vegas history. Gaughan long said that he wouldn’t have lived his family-oriented existence any other way.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing about my life,” he told the Sun in a story published Sept. 13, 2000, on the eve of breaking the record with the opening of Michael Gaughan’s Suncoast. “I’d do everything just the same, and I don’t plan to retire. I’ve got no place to go.”

John D. “Jackie” Gaughan, who in 1963 purchased El Cortez and parlayed it into ownership of string of downtown casinos that catered to locals with giveaways and other promotions, died at 4:15 a.m. today in his sleep. He was 93.

Gaughan died from pneumonia and complications of old age less than 36 hours after being transferred from his longtime residence in the penthouse atop El Cortez to a local hospice, said Michael Gaughan, who with his wife was at his father’s side when Jackie Gaughan died.

“My father was an independent guy who did not want to ever leave the El Cortez,” said Michael Gaughan, who got his start in gaming working as a busboy at El Cortez. “He was old, old school — a man who took people at their word and long believed in doing business with a handshake.”

Services for Gaughan, who was fiercely proud of his Irish-American heritage, will be 11 a.m. Monday — St. Patrick’s Day — at St. Viator’s Catholic Church at Flamingo Road and Eastern Avenue.

Viewing for the Las Vegas resident of 64 years will be 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Palm Mortuary on Main Street with a rosary to follow.

El Cortez will be honoring Gaughan and celebrating his life at 2 p.m. Tuesday with champagne and cake in The Parlour Bar. The memorial will be open to the public.

“Jackie was a pioneer — a legend whose name will live on in Las Vegas forever,” said Boyd Gaming Corp. Executive Chairman Bill Boyd, a friend of Gaughan’s for more than 50 years. “Aside from his casino ownership, Jackie will be remembered for of his philanthropy that was second to none.”

Boyd and his late father, gaming legend Sam Boyd, were at one time partners with Gaughan in the ownership of the downtown Plaza — formerly the Union Plaza and later Jackie Gaughan’s Plaza.

“The father-son relationship in gaming was very important to Jackie, as it was to my father, because he wanted to keep the family culture in gaming going for generations to come,” Boyd said.

Boyd said the family way of running resorts amid the larger corporate entity continues to survive because Jackie Gaughan and others like him had a great partnership with the community.

“Jackie was a tremendous marketer and was wonderful with people,” Boyd said. “His customers were more than just customers. They were his friends. His legacy was his family and his desire to constantly be giving back to the community.”

Gaming giant Steve Wynn, who often called Gaughan his mentor in the casino business, said in a statement today that Gaughan had a great deal of warmth and business integrity.

“I am one of those whose life was brightened by a friendship and association with that delightful man,” Wynn said. “(He will be) impossible to replace.”

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Gaughan a pioneer of gaming and said “there is no one more respected in the industry.”

“He created the modern-day casino in Nevada. He has a wonderful family and leaves a wonderful and lasting legacy in Las Vegas,” Reid said.

El Cortez released a statement from current owner Kenny Epstein, Gaughan’s longtime partner and friend, that said, “Las Vegas lost a legend today and El Cortez lost its patriarch in Jackie. But his vision for the gaming industry and his presence ... will be felt for years to come.”

Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said of his friend: “A piece of Las Vegas has disappeared.”

“It was remarkable how he changed the El Cortez from a smoke-filled, run-down lady into a shining star in downtown Las Vegas’ renaissance,” Goodman said. “Jackie Gaughan was a hard-working fellow who rolled up his sleeves and got the job done.”

Gaughan often said his hard work in the casino business was a labor of love.

“I’ve always put in 12-hour days, seven days a week because I just love being around this business — you have to,” Gaughan told the Sun in 2000. “I never pushed my sons into the business. They did it on their own, and they also worked hard.”

Gaughan’s improvements to El Cortez over the decades included the construction of a 14-story, 200-room tower for $10 million in the 1980s and, more recently, major renovations, including painting the main building’s exterior and gutting the Ogden House to make way for the upscale Cabana Suites.

Although he sold off many of his casino properties in his later years, Gaughan at one time or another also owned the Gold Spike, Las Vegas Club and the old Western. He had an interest in the Showboats in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the Flamingo, Golden Nugget, Pioneer Club, Boulder Club and the Royal Inn, which Michael Gaughan also owned. When the Gaughans set the record for father-son ownership, Michael Gaughan also owned or co-owned the old Barbary Coast, Gold Coast and the Orleans.

Jackie Gaughan often said in the 1970s and ‘80s that all of his casinos “are up for sale every day. I'll sell them all if anyone is willing to pay my price.”

In the ’70s, El Cortez became the top choice in Las Vegas for slot manufacturers to test and debut new games. To this day, the casino remains one of the most popular destinations for slot players in the valley.

Gaughan established a generous pension plan for his employees. Many workers and former employees have said over the years that they considered Gaughan a father or grandfather figure.

Up to the year 2000, the Gaughans and the Boyds were tied at eight casinos apiece, with the Boyds owning Sam’s Town, the old Stardust, Fremont, California, Main Street Station and three other resorts.

At his peak, Jackie Gaughan by himself owned six Las Vegas casinos, tying him with late reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, the businessman who ushered in the corporate gaming age in Las Vegas.

Almost up to the day he died, Jackie Gaughan went to his office every day and was a regular player in El Cortez poker room. The walls of his El Cortez office were lined with photos of the numerous celebrities he had met and hosted over the years. Every day, Gaughan ate his meals either in El Cortez’s café or gourmet restaurant.

In recent days, he could be seen in the restaurant in a wheelchair.

The Gaughan family’s involvement in gaming stretches over four generations — three in Las Vegas.

Jackie Gaughan first bought interest in the Flamingo Hotel from celebrated mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, later sold it and bought El Cortez from pioneering Las Vegas gamer J. Kell Houssels.

In addition to giving away jackets, candy and free meals at his gourmet restaurants to gamblers who hit royal flushes on poker machines, Gaughan took a special interest in his race and sports book operations and played a major role in popularizing proposition wagers on sporting events.

Gaughan was a caring and generous man who, while he was still driving his old Ford Bronco, carried spare containers of gasoline to stop and help motorists in need. When he learned about people who died penniless, Gaughan would pay for their funerals.

For his 90th birthday, Gaughan was honored at El Cortez with a birthday dinner and the dedication of the walkway linking the hotel to Las Vegas Boulevard.

Born Oct. 24, 1920, Gaughan learned the bookmaking business from his father, who worked in casinos at Carter Lake, Iowa.

Jackie Gaughan was raised in Omaha, Neb. As a senior in college, he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to Tonopah in 1943 and later to Nellis Air Force Base.

While in Las Vegas, Gaughan stayed at El Cortez, then in its second year of operation. On the advice of a friend, he bought 3 percent interest in the Boulder Club in 1946 with money he had made as a bookmaker prior to joining the service.

After his service years, Gaughan returned to Nebraska and completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Creighton University. After graduation, he worked as a bookmaker for legal gaming properties.

However, with passage in the late 1940s of a 10 percent gambling tax that crippled bookmaking in Nebraska, Gaughan pulled up stakes and moved to Las Vegas in 1950. The next year bought an interest in the Flamingo that was founded four years earlier by Siegel.

Gaughan also operated the Saratoga and Derby sports books from 1953 to 1959.

Gaughan later sold his shares in the Flamingo and concentrated his efforts on the downtown area, where he had been buying hotels, including the Las Vegas Club in 1961 and El Cortez in 1963 — both with his good friend the late Mel Exber.

Gaughan made El Cortez, which he bought for $4.3 million, the flagship of his operations.

In 1970, Gaughan bought the Western, where he promoted penny slots and low-limit table games and bingo. Three years later, he bought the Plaza. Gaughan bought the Hotel Nevada in 1975, sold it, bought it back and later sold it again. In 1985, he bought the Gold Spike.

In 2004, Gaughan sold the Plaza, Gold Spike, Vegas Club and Western, along with additional downtown real estate, to Barrick Gaming for $82 million. He sold his controlling interest in El Cortez to Epstein in 2008 but continued to maintain his residence there.

Gaughan also was a civic leader, supporting numerous causes and charities. He was a supporter of the Catholic Church and Bishop Gorman High School, from which both of his sons graduated.

In 1987, Gaughan was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Clark County Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

In 1996, his wife of 54 years, Roberta Mae “Bertie” Gaughan, died at age 75. She and Gaughan were high school sweethearts, and she was long active in the operations of El Cortez, overseeing the operation of the coin-counting room.

In 2002, Gaughan’s other son, Jackie “John” Gaughan Jr., who at one time co-owned El Cortez and Gold Spike with his father, died.

In addition to Michael Gaughan, Jackie Gaughan is survived by seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter. Sun Library Services Specialist Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed to this report.

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