Loyalty, love for Jackie

New visitors to the El Cortez some years ago would have been forgiven for failing to spot the owner of the downtown casino.

He wasn’t a fresh-faced CEO or a consummate corporate type with an MBA. On the contrary. He was the affable old fellow in the loud sport coat who moved through the slot bays picking up cocktail glasses and emptying ashtrays while keeping up a playful patter with customers he addressed by name.

They knew him, too, those regulars. Gaming historians would recognize him as the undisputed casino king of downtown, but to John Davis Gaughan’s customers he was just plain “Jackie.”

Jackie Gaughan, God bless him, was in his element on that casino floor, mixing with nickel-slot Suzy and blackjack Buddy and constantly checking on his business. He remained at the El Cortez until a few days ago, when he died at 93 after a bout of pneumonia.

An Omaha native and the son of a bookmaker, Gaughan made a fortune treating small customers with big respect. Although he sold out his interest in the El Cortez in 2008, Gaughan continued to reside on the property and remained a presence there until the final week of his life. The truth is, as Gaughan slowed down, El Cortez CEO and Chairman Kenny Epstein and General Manager Mike Nolan stepped up to look after him. They wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Nolan says: “He looked after all of us for years. In my case it was 36 years he looked after me. Looking after him was an honor and a privilege, because all he did his entire life was look after us.”

Back in 1956, a 15-year-old Kenny Epstein was introduced by his father Ike Epstein to Gaughan, who at the time was running the Tahoe Biltmore casino. After watching Gaughan in action at the lakeside casino, Ike told his son, “He’s a triple threat: He’s a go-getter, he’s smart, and he’s on the square.”

It was a winning formula that served Gaughan well.

Decades after that life-changing first meeting, Kenny Epstein says: “We loved Jackie. We just loved him. He was like my second father.”

Epstein knows he is not alone in that assessment. Gaughan’s steady influence echoes through the gaming industry, where he could say he helped a couple of generations of executives break in as shills, dealers, bar boys and waiters.

With his coupon books, slot specials, inexpensive food and the personality of a small-town mayor, Gaughan turned substantial profits from his diminutive casinos, no matter what the economy elsewhere was doing. He was proud of his business savvy, and he was happy to share his secrets with anyone. In that way, he helped mentor and educate a generation of successful casino bosses.

Consider Steve Wynn one of Gaughan’s grateful students. As an investor in the Golden Nugget in 1973, Wynn looked to Gaughan for guidance during some rough-and-tumble times. He grew to rely on Jackie for insights into everything from slot drop percentages to human nature. When Wynn rose to chairman of the Golden Nugget, Gaughan was among his greatest allies.

“I got treated like a son by Jackie,” Wynn says. “He not only was helpful, but he treated me with respect at a time I had no credentials to be treated in such a way.”

That generosity of spirit impressed sports bettor Lem Banker half a century ago when Jackie and longtime gaming partner Mel Exber encouraged him to take over the Derby Sports Book downtown. They weren’t in competition, Banker says, they were comrades.

“Jackie Gaughan was one of the finest men I’ve ever met,” Banker says. “He was a great Irishman.”

Gaughan not only helped start a lot of rising stars in the gaming industry, he also put to work hundreds of people who needed a second chance at gainful employment. Many of them became his most fiercely loyal employees.

“My dad said ‘No’ to nobody,” son Michael Gaughan says. “He helped a lot of people.”

A friend of the Gaughan family since childhood, attorney Donald Campbell observes: “Jackie Gaughan, literally until the day he stopped running the El Cortez, had some people working for him 40 years and longer. He was a man in every sense of the word, a real man, somebody who wasn’t afraid to show compassion or kindness.”

The trick was, there was no trick. As sharp and shrewd as he was in the casino game, Gaughan remained a regular guy who drove a used car, was fond of the same shirts and styles of a previous era, and kept the same friends for decades.

Nolan recalls Gaughan being sighted in the El Cortez parking garage changing a flat tire on the car of an elderly customer. The then-owner jump started dead car batteries and rescued customers who had run out of gas.

Gaughan was no stranger to celebrity. He knew a hall-of-fame’s worth of professional athletes, movie stars, politicians and business tycoons.

On visits to Las Vegas, investment king Warren Buffett was often heard to inquire, “How’s my friend Jackie?”

It was a question asked often by billionaires, blue-collar workers, and blue-haired retirees alike.

And everyone had a friend in him.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.