Behind Jackie Gaughan’s Love Affair With Las Vegas

How a casino pioneer made big impressions by sweating the small stuff

Jackie Gaughan in 1965. Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Jackie Gaughan in 1965. Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

The really iconic figures in Las Vegas casino history are known for big moves and bold thinking. Sheldon Adelson, for making Las Vegas Sands a magnificently profitable juggernaut. Steve Wynn, for conceiving The Mirage at a time when most on the Strip believed the future was quarter slot players. Benny Binion, both for bringing the World Series of Poker to town and for, well, being Benny Binion.

On March 12, Jackie Gaughan died at 93. We lost a man who became an icon not through being big or bold, but by paying attention to the little things. For most people who visited his casinos, those little things add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

Gaughan came to Las Vegas in the 1940s, having learned the gambling business in his native Omaha, Nebraska. Though he bought a share in the Flamingo early on, he truly made his mark Downtown. Gaughan was a profoundly hands-on owner: Mike Nolan, now the general manager of El Cortez and a longtime Gaughan employee, remembers him driving through the parking garage with a filled gas can, waiting to encounter a patron who needed a fill-up. That’s not customer service; that’s a devotion to the customer that qualifies Gaughan for casino secular sainthood.

Other casino owners didn’t start roaming their parking lots with jumper cables; Gaughan wasn’t an innovator in that sense. Rather, he was an innovator in showing all of us a platonic ideal of what an owner should be. That wasn’t just someone who listened to his customers; it was someone who anticipated his customers’ needs before they were conscious of those needs themselves. For years, Gaughan owned a range of Downtown gambling halls—the Plaza, the Las Vegas Club, El Cortez and the Western—and in them he catered to customers who wanted good values and friendly service.

That kind of down-home casino management seems, at first glance, distant from the vibe that Tony Hsieh is bringing to Downtown Las Vegas. On one side, you’ve got quarter video poker that still spits out real quarters, and on the other you have a new pair of Nike Roshe Run, shipping free. But Hsieh’s motto, “Delivering Happiness,” is really just another way of describing what Gaughan was doing all those years on Fremont Street—making people feel welcome and, yes, happy.

Certainly, if Gaughan had decided to stay in Omaha, someone else might have brought the coupon book to Las Vegas; someone else might have hit on the idea of giving away boxes of chocolate on slow days; someone else would have figured a way to keep costs down and make the difference up on volume. But no one would have brought the dedication and, dare we say it, love to Las Vegas and his customers that Gaughan did.

Gaughan certainly gave a great deal back to the community in the philanthropic sense, but his greatest contribution might have been just showing everyone how it could be done. For the few who own and operate casinos, the lesson is clear: You’ve got to live your job to really get it. But the vast majority of us who aren’t in that position can still take something away from Gaughan’s life: It’s not about doing something big, it’s about doing the little things right, day after day.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.