El Cortez

Jackie Gaughan’s last hand: Remembering a Vegas legend

Hundreds mourned the passing of gaming pioneer Jackie Gaughan on Monday. The El Cortez “patron saint” and former owner was known for his honesty and inventiveness.
Courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

There’s a photo I keep on my phone, an artless snapshot of an old desk. The paper on top isn’t covered with payroll data or meeting reminders, just a pattern of dark lines drawn by a Las Vegas legend. He’s not at the desk, but the Scrabble-letter nameplate reads: “J Gaughan.” On Monday, hundreds mourned the 93-year-old’s passing with a formal church service. Tuesday, those who loved him best toasted his memory with Champagne and cake at the El Cortez, where his spirit is in the walls.

I took the photo in 2012 while working on a story about the El Cortez and Jackie’s legacy. He was 91 then, still coming to the office most days, straight from his penthouse to the casino’s nerve center and the former business partners who had long ago become family. They told me he rarely talked anymore, but you could set a watch by his trips to the poker table and bet on the fact that he refused to fold a single hand. It was a special thing, playing with Jackie, who once paced the streets of Downtown making sure his casinos were straight up.

As a gaming pioneer, he was known for honesty and inventiveness. To those who worked for him—who still do—Jackie was uncommonly caring, whether treating them to dinner, loaning them money or paying for their funerals and even stewarding ashes with nowhere to go. Las Vegas was his livelihood, but it was also his home, and he always said what was good for the community was good for the El Cortez.

That’s according to Alex Epstein, executive VP and daughter of CEO and Chairman Kenny Epstein, one of Jackie’s closest friends. She grew up thinking of him as a grandfather. When we talked in 2012, she called him her mentor and the casino’s patron saint, though it was clear she saw his influence reaching way beyond its operations. His ideals, she said, were in the fabric of Downtown’s comeback. Sitting by him at lunch, I felt lucky. Who gets this close to a giant? The answer is anyone. That’s what made Jackie different. He was right there, salt of the Earth, the last of his kind.

At the end of my story, I mused about Jackie’s final hand of poker, if his ghost might watch over the El Cortez and the city he loved for more than 60 years. I was sure his loss would dim the neon. But with memories of what he stood for on so many minds, I think maybe it’s the opposite.

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