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Gaming pioneer Mike Ensign, father of a former Nevada senator, dies at 79

Mike Ensign, a retired gaming executive who helped usher in the new era of Las Vegas casinos and father of former U.S. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, died Wednesday morning in his Las Vegas home. He was 79.

Ensign served as CEO of Circus Circus Enterprises, which eventually became Mandalay Resort Group in 1999, and oversaw properties that included Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur and Circus Circus. The company was sold to MGM Resorts International in 2005 for $7.9 billion.

Tony Alamo Jr., chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission and a close family friend who also served as Ensign’s physician for the past 24 years, said Ensign died in his sleep “at peace, restful and with his family.”

Ensign was a pioneer in the gaming industry and helped move the Strip into the current era of luxury-resort gaming, shopping and dining, Alamo said.

“He was the tip of the spear for where gaming is today,” Alamo said. “The death of Mike Ensign is an end of an era.”

Ensign started his gaming career more than fifty years ago as a craps dealer at Harrah’s Reno. It was there he met Alamo’s father, the senior Tony Alamo, and took the new dealer under his wing in 1963.

“He was a like a second father to me. He has always been a part of my life,” Alamo Jr. said Wednesday.

Ensign moved to Las Vegas in 1974, bringing the elder Alamo and others with him to join William Bennett at Circus Circus Enterprises. Ensign left the company and bought a stake in the Gold Strike Casino at Hoover Dam.

But he eventually would return to Circus Circus, which bought Gold Strike Resorts for $500 million in 1995 and named Ensign as vice-chairman and CEO of the company. Ensign, who rarely granted interviews to the press, was named chairman of the company in 1998 and retired in 2005 after Mandalay Resort Group was sold to MGM.

“He went through the whole industry from bottom up,” Alamo Jr. said. “He wasn’t about the limelight. He was about getting the job done.”

David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, said Ensign’s influence on the Strip was up there with the likes of casino mogul Steve Wynn.

“He was definitely one of the architects of modern Las Vegas,” Schwartz said. “Circus Circus Enterprises in the 1980s was probably the most successful gaming company, probably in the world.”

Mike Ensign married John Ensign’s mother Sharon, and went on to adopt then-15-year-old John and his two siblings. Sharon Ensign died in 2014.

The couple came under scrutiny during a scandal that led to their son’s resignation from the Senate in 2011. The couple paid John Ensign’s mistress and campaign treasurer, Cynthia Hampton, $96,000 in 2008. The Federal Election Commission ruled the payment was not a gift but a severance, which counted as an undisclosed campaign contribution. Both Ensign and his parents were fined.

Alamo said services for Mike Ensign probably won’t be held until next year and that the family is grieving privately.

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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