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Who was Jackie Gaughan?

John Davis Gaughan, Sr., better known as Jackie Gaughan was a famous casino owner and operator who is credited with advancing the casino culture in Vegas. It is reported that at one time, Gaughan owned nearly 25% of gaming real estate in Downtown Las Vegas, which included some of the city’s most iconic Casinos. He is best remembered for the ownership of the El Cortez, one of the earliest casinos in downtown as Vegas. The El Cortez was his favorite casino of the nine he owned and he resided in a penthouse in the property for more than 50 years, despite the casino having changed hands several times.

Gaughan was born on October 24, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska, where he grew up until he joined the military and got stationed at the Las Vegas Air Force Base. While in Las Vegas he got exposure to the city’s gaming heritage. He returned to Omaha and began to work as a legal bookmaker at horse racing tracks. In 1950, a 10 percent tax on bookmaking activities was passed, rendering the business inhospitable in Nebraska.

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Gaughan relocated to Las Vegas and purchased a stake in the Flamingo. After a scuffle with mobster Davie Berman, Gaughan quit his job at the hotel but retained a 3% ownership of the property. In 1961, he bought the Las Vegas Club, followed by The Western in 1970 with business partner Mel Exber. He popularized his casinos with giveaways and promotions to locals. This led to massive profits and a string of downtown casinos. In 1971 along with Sam Boyd (another famous casino owner) and Howard Cannon, he opened the Union Plaza which would later be renamed Jackie Gaughan Plaza in the 1990s. In 1983, he bought what later became the Gold Spike. He additionally bought stakes in the Royal Inn, the Showboat and the Golden Nugget. In 2000, with the opening of the Suncoast, Gaughan and his son Michael surpassed Sam and Bill Loyd as the father-son duo to have owned the most casinos – nine – in the history of Las Vegas.

Gaughan was born on October 24, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska, where he grew up until he joined the military and got stationed at the Las Vegas Air Force Base. While in Las Vegas he got exposure to the city’s gaming heritage. He returned to Omaha and began to work as a legal bookmaker at horse racing tracks. In 1950, a 10 percent tax on bookmaking activities was passed, rendering the business inhospitable in Nebraska. Gaughan relocated to Las Vegas and purchased a stake in the Flamingo. After a scuffle with mobster Davie Berman, Gaughan quit his job at the hotel but retained a 3% ownership of the property. In 1961, he bought the Las Vegas Club, followed by The Western in 1970 with business partner Mel Exber. He popularized his casinos with giveaways and promotions to locals. This led to massive profits and a string of downtown casinos. In 1971 along with Sam Boyd (another famous casino owner) and Howard Cannon, he opened the Union Plaza which would later be renamed Jackie Gaughan Plaza in the 1990s. In 1983, he bought what later became the Gold Spike. He additionally bought stakes in the Royal Inn, the Showboat and the Golden Nugget. In 2000, with the opening of the Suncoast, Gaughan and his son Michael surpassed Sam and Bill Loyd as the father-son duo to have owned the most casinos – nine – in the history of Las Vegas.

As was the case in many casino businesses, Gaughan brought in his sons John and Michael to help him manage his empire. John also known as “Jackie Jr.” had a minority stake in the Gold Spike and the El Cortez, while Michael owns the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa. Michael also holds the rights to run the slot franchise at McCarran International Airport.

Jackie died from pneumonia and old age on March 12, 2014 at a local hospice barely 36 hours after being transferred from his El Cortez penthouse. Gaughan was praised for his contribution towards turning Las Vegas into the gaming capital of the US. His son Michael described him as an old school man who believed in “doing business with a handshake.” Gaughan had a knack for marketing. He maintained a close relationship with his customers and employees, as he valued a personal management style. He would personally deliver coupon books to his motels along Fremont Street, accompanied by a single bodyguard. According to Mike Nolan, who served as a general manager at the El Cortez, Gaughan entered his casinos through the front door rather than using a private entrance. Even as downtown casino business was swallowed up by the vortex that was the burgeoning Las Vegas Strip, Gaughan kept his ventures in downtown.

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