Jackie Gaughan: Last King of Downtown Las Vegas

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Jackie Gaughan turned 88 earlier this week.  Our buddy John L. Smith has plenty to say about one of the men who helped shape Fremont Street in the 1960s and 1970s:

The last king of downtown moves slowly these days. He can still be found most mornings puttering around the El Cortez amid the clatter of slot machines and din of gamblers' voices.

The king spends hours at a table in the poker room, smoothing the green felt and playing the cards he's dealt. He's in for small stakes, but the chip count doesn't matter. At 89, he's comforted by the rhythm of the game he's played longer than he can now remember.

Outside, the Las Vegas he knew and helped create has grown and changed, gone corporate and strange.

In here, the world still makes pretty good sense to Mr. John D. Gaughan.

His many friends call him Jackie, but to me he'll always be the ebullient, baggy-pants king of downtown.

And he's the last king left in the old Vegas deck. Benny Binion died in 1989, Sam Boyd in 1993, and Mel Exber in 2002. That leaves Jackie.

Legend has it Jackie goes so far back in the gambling racket he watched Palamedes put dots on the first dice, but I trace his wagering roots to the storefront bookmaking shops of Omaha, Neb., in the sunny days before World War II. Those who think Omaha was a sleepy crossroads don't know it once was considered the gambling capital of the Midwest. Those who perceive Jackie as a simple old-schooler should know the World War II veteran earned a degree from Creighton University.

At one time or another, Jackie has owned or had a hand in operating most of the buildings of Fremont Street. An incomplete list: Jackie Gaughan's Plaza, and a partnership with Exber in the Las Vegas Club, the Pioneer and Sundance; he was a major stockholder and board member of the Golden Nugget, and he owned the Gold Spike and Western Bingo, and the Bingo Club and Boulder Club.

Jackie also owned several points in the Showboat and the Flamingo, but as son Michael Gaughan says, "Dad was a downtown guy. He never understood why people would build neighborhood casinos. He liked downtown. And my dad always did well with the local citizens. Even the El Cortez does well today. He's probably had more gaming licenses than anybody else."

And the thing is, Jackie knew his places intimately, visited them daily wearing his plaid sport coats and a sunny disposition. Jackie was never too big to pick up an empty glass or clean an ashtray.

Talk about a hands-on operator. He was a one-man welcoming committee. Years after he could afford to delegate the grind work to a gaggle of assistants, Jackie insisted on making the rounds and distributing his kitschy but profitable "fun books" filled with food discounts and gambling specials.

Big or small, for many years his casinos made money. The coins rolled, the cash flowed, and the net profits made Jackie the envy of some corporate casino titans who strained under elephantine overheads.

"When he was healthy he would walk his places every day," Michael Gaughan recalls. "He always knew the names of all his employees. He cared about his customers and he cared about his employees."

That familiarity, impossible at a mega-resort, endeared him with his workers. That, and a generous pension plan that enabled porters and waitresses to retire in dignity.

Jackie sold his downtown casino interests a few years ago, and today his beloved El Cortez is owned by a group of family friends that includes Kenny Epstein, Mike Nolan, Lawrence Epstein, and Joe Woody. The son of gambler Ike Epstein, Kenny first met happy, hard-working Jackie in Lake Tahoe in the 1950s.

Although Jackie sold the El Cortez, he still lives there as he has for decades. He still eats his meals with Kenny and Co. Epstein wouldn't have it any other way.

"I've met a lot of people in my life, but I've never met anybody like him," he says. "Jackie treats everyone alike, from a porter to the chairman of the board of one of these big corporations. He's just a regular guy. There's nobody like him. He's just a Midwesterner."

Casino impresario Steve Wynn knows Gaughan as a mentor who played an integral role in his career when he took over the Golden Nugget in 1973.

"What I remember and am most grateful for is, as green as I was in that position, Jackie treated me with great respect," Wynn recalls. "He treated me as a young guy that should be helped. He did nothing but help me. If I called him six times a day, he'd be nothing but warm and supportive."

Wynn has met his share of characters, but few match Gaughan. Mention those sport coats, and you can't help but smile.

"He's one of the most colorful, delightful, warm, and sincere men I've ever known," Wynn says. "And he was a real category breaker. No one dressed like him except him."

But unpretentious doesn't mean simple.

When Wynn made the acquaintance of billionaire Warren Buffett, who was the first person the financial wizard of Berkshire Hathaway inquired about?

His old friend Jackie Gaughan.

Gaughan was a gifted businessman, but he could also be a soft touch. He kept the Western open long after it was no longer profitable. He didn't have the heart to tell the employees they would have to look for a new job.

Michael Gaughan laughs at the memory of a late-night phone call a few years ago from his father. Jackie was worried about the homely little Western.

"I said, 'It loses money. Not making money causes problems,'" Michael says. "He took the loss. Until we sold it two or three years later, he took the loss. You don't have people like this any more.

"He sincerely cared about his people. There are some people who talk about it. My dad always cared about his employees, and he had a fabulous pension plan."

I asked the son about his father's generation of royal casino characters who managed to trade notoriety for secular salvation in the land where gambling was legal.

"Everyone else is gone," Michael Gaughan says, wistfully. "Even people you don't know about. He's the last one."

Here's to the town that had such kings in it.