Gaughan offers link to days of old Vegas


Alexandra Epstein gently held Jackie Gaughan's hand Wednesday and slowly walked the 92-year-old casino legend a short distance from the El Cortez's Parlour lounge to a seat in the downtown casino's poker room.

Once there, as he does almost every afternoon, Gaughan sat down to a game of low-limit Texas Hold'em. Epstein placed a slice of Gaughan's chocolate birthday cake next to his chips. A few moments earlier, she had helped him cut the cake in front of television cameras and photographers.

Epstein made sure the former owner of the historic hotel-casino was comfortable.

Gaughan enjoyed the personal attention from Epstein, 27, the executive vice president of the El Cortez. It's something he taught her.

"I think in a few ways, the El Cortez is an extension of Jackie," said Epstein, whose father, Kenny Epstein, bought into the El Cortez in 1975 and became the majority shareholder in 2008. "It's a family-owned property and so many people here have a connection to Jackie."

Gaughan once controlled 25 percent of the downtown Las Vegas gaming market. For a time, he owned all or part of eight hotel-casinos, including the Flamingo, Union Plaza and Showboat.

The El Cortez, his last property, is where Gaughan is most closely associated. Up until a few years ago, he appeared in the hotel's advertising. He still lives in a penthouse apartment there. His wife, Roberta, who passed away in 1996, never wanted to live anywhere else.

Michael Gaughan, Jackie's son and owner of the South Point, wanted to build his father a place atop that resort's third tower. But he declined the offer.

"Downtown is where Jackie belongs," Michael Gaughan said. "The people around him take good care of him. They keep him active and he's healthy."

Jackie Gaughan is looked after around the clock by the El Cortez staff and the Epstein family. While slowed by age, he still visits the executive offices.

"My grandfather died 10 years before I was born," Alexandra Epstein said. "So Jackie has always kind of acted like a grandfather to me."

Having him around serves as a daily lesson in old-style casino management. During his years downtown, he brought a personal touch to casino ownership. Gaughan had close relationships with both his customers and employees.

Back in the day, Jackie Gaughan would personally deliver his casinos' coupon books, which offered dinner specials and other promotions, to motels along Fremont Street and near the Strip. A security guard would accompany him on the monthly goodwill mission.

He always entered his casinos through the front door, never through a private entrance. His office was a converted hotel room that he shared with a secretary and a couple of other executives. The coffee shop was where business was conducted.

The El Cortez is where the newest slot machines were always tested.

"Jackie would put in a slot machine and eventually he'd get a call from Kirk Kerkorian or Benny Binion asking if it worked," said El Cortez General Manager Mike Nolan, who has been at the property since the 1970s.

Michael Gaughan can't remember a time when his father turned away an employee who needed an advance on his or her paycheck. Jackie Gaughan, he said, was the epitome of the old-school casino boss.

"He dealt in a different world where a man's word was his bond," Michael Gaughan said. "That's how it was in the '50s and '60s and '70s. He was used to making deals without lawyers. My dad liked everybody. I don't think he would enjoy how business is done today."

Alexandra Epstein says the El Cortez operates in two worlds: a modern casino blending into a burgeoning downtown Las Vegas revival, and the old-school casino where she grew up.

The casino and hotel have been remodeled and renovated in recent years. But there are still touches of old Las Vegas.

In many ways, the El Cortez offers a glimpse to the past with its future very much ahead.

Like Jackie Gaughan, Alexandra Epstein shares office space with her father and sister, Katie Epstein, the vice president and director of guest relations, as well as other casino and hotel managers.

"Customers still come upstairs and visit us," Alexandra Epstein said. "We want to know our customers and know their habits."

And, there are the daily visits from Jackie Gaughan, which reminds the Epstein sisters of the lessons they've learned since childhood - how to be conservative and run a casino like an "old timer" but also to take advantage of your opportunities.

Howard Stutz's Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

 

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