Jackie Gaughan owned and operated eight casinos in his Las Vegas career. At one point he was the single owner of six casinos, tying him with the elusive billionaire Howard Hughes. In the gaming industry, Gaughan was no less of a legend than Mr. Hughes.
Born John Davis Gaughan, Sr. (October 24, 1920 – March 12, 2014), in Hastings, Nebraska, Gaughan grew up in Omaha. His father was a legal horse race bookmaker and worked at the Chez Paree casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on the outskirts of Omaha. Jackie shared his father’s love for casinos and the ponies.
In 1942, Gaughan married his high school sweetheart, Roberta Mae. They had two sons, John and Michael. It was Michael who retained day-to-day management of his father’s casinos as he reached his eighties and today owns the South Point Hotel.
Gaughan, Sr. entered Creighton University but was drafted into the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to Tonopah, Nevada in 1943 and met gaming pioneer Barney O’Malia, who ran the El Capitan.
It was a rough-and-tumble joint in a tough military town where fights broke out on a regular basis. Gaughan loved it.
Tonopah was a tiny town in the Nevada desert with no future. However, Gaughan was transferred to Las Vegas Air Force Base and began thinking there was a future in Nevada. A friend introduced him to Jim Young at the Boulder Club and Gaughan invested the bulk of his pre-service savings in taking a 3% interest in the casino.
When Gaughan was released from the service, he returned to Omaha and his wife and family. He finished his college education and worked as a legal bookmaker for three years until the government instituted a 10% tax on gambling that made bookmaking a losing proposition.
Las Vegas was calling.
The Gaughans Move to Las Vegas
Gaughan moved his family to Las Vegas in 1950, staying briefly at the El Cortez hotel while looking for a home to purchase. He invested in the Flamingo and took a spot in the sports book.
He quit soon afterward when casino manager Davie Berman said he was “nothing but a dime-a-dozen punk,” after he asked the maître d’ in the steakhouse for a favor.
The experience left Gaughan longing to own his own property. He was very independent, trusting his instincts. So, he invested in two sportsbooks, the Saratoga and the Derby. They provided his family with a nice income from 1953 through 1959. Then he purchased the Las Vegas Club, once the mainstay of Bugsy Siegel.
Through a series of loans and savings, Gaughan invested in the El Cortez casino in Downtown Las Vegas and took control from John Kell Houssels in 1963.
The property was a steady earner, nothing fancy, and required a very diligent operator. True to his instincts and determination, Gaughan put in 12-hour days and turned the Old Lady of Downtown into an institution.
The club catered to the masses, people who wanted a good time and a good deal.
He marketed the club relentlessly and purchased a share of several other casinos, including the Western, the Gold Spike, the Union Plaza, the Royal Inn, the Showboat, and the Pioneer.
The purchases meant Gaughan dominated the Downtown market, holding more than 25% of the available real estate. His share of the Golden Nugget put him in touch with Steve Wynn, who purchased control of the property in 1973.
Wynn would later credit Gaughan with teaching him much about the business and how best to treat guests. The master must have been a good teacher, based on Wynn’s future dominance of the Las Vegas Strip.
Old School Old Gangsters
Gaughan never cared who he bought his casinos from. He was old school, and anyone with an investment was good with him.
Although he never worked with ”Bugsy” Siegel, he did own a piece of the Flamingo, and of course, the Las Vegas Club and the El Cortez that the Mob had owned.
When J.K. Houssels bought the El Cortez back from Siegel’s group of gangsters, he also took on a series of negotiations that eventually resulted in “payback” for an old Siegel bodyguard.
Legend has it that Fat Irish Green watched over a large satchel of cash for Siegel, never touching it. He presented the cash to Meyer Lansky after “Bugsy” got blasted, and the bodyguard was rewarded with a room and free meals at the El Cortez for life. He lived a long time.
Even after Houssels sold the property to Gaughan, the deal lived on, with Jackie keeping Green in a free room for another decade. Fat Irish was also known to get free meals at the Horseshoe, courtesy of Benny Binion, who admired the hood from the past.
The old gangsters of yesterday moved slowly away from Las Vegas and the Downtown casinos, with Gaughan and Sam Boyd presenting family ownership. In 2000, Jackie and Michael Gaughan surpassed Sam and Bill Boyd by having owned nine casinos in the Las Vegas market.
Gaughan’s Commitment to the Community
Both the Boyd’s and the Gaughan’s have consistently given back to the community. Gaughan supported numerous charities as well as the Catholic Church and Bishop Gorman High School.
In 1987 he was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Clark County Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Numerous stories have circulated about Gaughan stopping to help stranded drivers along the road. He carried a spare container of gasoline and helped whenever he saw someone in need.
At the El Cortez, he gave away more free meals than anyone could ever count and was known to help pay funeral expenses for both players and hotel workers whose families were in need.
Gaughan sold the Gold Spike, Plaza, Las Vegas Club and Western in 2004 to Barrick Gaming for $82 million. A few years later he sold his El Cortez to Kenny Epstein. Like Fat Irish Green before him, Gaughan never wanted to leave his beloved El Cortez. He lived in a penthouse suite on the property and went to his office each day to visit with friends and casino workers.
The El Cortez poker room was his favorite spot, and he ate his meals in the café or the club’s gourmet restaurant.
Jackie Gaughan passed away March 12, 2014, a much more enduring, endearing legend than Howard Hughes could ever have hoped to be in Las Vegas history. He is still missed.