Jackie Gaughan dies at 93; pioneer of Vegas casino industry

Jackie Gaughan dies at 93; pioneer of Vegas casino industry
Jackie Gaughan posing in front of his El Cortez Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas in 1965; the gaming pioneer died March 12 at 93. (Las Vegas News Bureau)

Downtown Las Vegas knew him as the guy who wore wacky ties and kept his pockets stuffed with coupons for a free lunch at El Cortez Hotel and Casino. When he met someone new, he handed them a "fun book," as the vouchers are sometimes called, and introduced himself: Jackie — just Jackie — not Mr. Gaughan.

A kingpin of the old, original part of Las Vegas known as Glitter Gulch, Gaughan at one point owned or had interest in about a quarter of downtown Las Vegas, including the Golden Nugget, Union Plaza and Las Vegas Club.


"He was one of the fathers of downtown Las Vegas," said Boyd Gaming Corp. Executive Chairman Bill Boyd, Gaughan's longtime friend and former business partner. "I don't think anything will ever replace him."

Gaughan, who had a stake in so many places in the area that he earned the nickname "Mr. Downtown Las Vegas," died March 12 in Las Vegas from complications of old age, two days after leaving his home in El Cortez, the hotel he owned for many years, his son Michael said. He was 93.

Nevada power players such as Gov. Brian Sandoval, casino magnate Steve Wynn and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid heralded his impact on the state's most famous industry.

"Jackie is a pioneer of gaming, and there is no one more respected in the industry," Reid said in a statement. "He created the modern-day casino in Nevada."

The son of a gambler, Gaughan loved the world of wagers. He kept crumpled notes in his pocket about employee profit shares or the odds on upcoming football games. He also made El Cortez the go-to spot for testing slot machines. If they worked well at El Cortez, only then would other places buy them, said Kenny Epstein, his longtime business partner who now owns El Cortez.

Gaughan (pronounced "gone") was a gambling tycoon, but friends and family knew him as a man of habit and generosity.

He almost always wore ties — his impressive collection included one with a leprechaun on it for St. Patrick's Day — and his son said he ran out of gas so often that he kept an extra gallon in the trunk of his 1960s-era Ford Thunderbird convertible. Every time he went to a Chinese restaurant with Epstein, he ordered the same thing: strawberry chicken. He often bagged the leftovers and took them to a man who worked the sports book at El Cortez.

When someone asked for a favor, Gaughan did what he could to help, said Boyd, who once owned Union Plaza — later renamed Jackie Gaughan's Plaza — with him.

"I saw him reach in his pocket many times and pull out a $100 bill," he said.

Born John Davis Gaughan on Oct. 24, 1920, he grew up in Omaha and married his high school sweetheart, Roberta. He enrolled in Creighton University, but left to join the Army Air Forces during World War II. It was during his stints as a gunnery instructor in Nevada that Gaughan first discovered the city he'd later help shape. After his military service, he completed his bachelor's degree in commerce at Creighton and moved to Las Vegas with his family.

With money borrowed from his mother, he made one of his first major investments with a stake in the Flamingo Hotel, on the Vegas Strip.

But unlike that purchase, almost all of Gaughan's future money flowed into downtown, where much of the action was. In a 2002 interview with The Times, Gaughan said he remembered a time when going to the now-bustling Strip felt "like going out of town to play."

Even though his empire included hotel casinos like Gold Spike, Showboat and Sundance, he felt most at home at El Cortez. That's where he put in 12-hour work days and played poker every morning after he retired. And up until almost the very end, the penthouse atop El Cortez was his home.

Gaughan, who was preceded in death by his wife and son Jackie Jr., is survived by his son Michael, his sister Rosemary Daly, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.