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September 30, 2014

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Even if he didn’t have the best hand, if he was playing, Jackie Gaughan was winning

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Courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Jackie Gaughan is a man of the people, which is why he still plays cards among them. Mike Nolan, general manager and COO of the El Cortez, says this of the old days, when he and Jackie used to make the rounds on Fremont: “Any customer, any employee could go up and talk to Jackie any time they wanted. And that was the difference. A lot of owners back then didn’t even live in this town, but Jackie was right here.”

On the night of the day Jackie Gaughan died, I walk into El Cortez, to the heart of the hotel in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. I wade in without a real plan, but rather a strong sense that I will run into someone who knew Gaughan well and could spin some yarns about the casino pioneer.

Just off the casino floor, I spot the man who runs the hotel’s operations, General Manager Mike Nolan. He is standing at the entrance of Parlour Bar observing play on the blackjack, roulette and craps tables. He is talking to an employee when I approach, not eager to halt his conversation but to find someone who might have dealt cards to Gaughan over the years.

The longtime owner of El Cortez, who bought the hotel in 1963 as the start of what would become a Las Vegas resort empire, was known to love poker. Gaughan died Wednesday from complications due to pneumonia. He was 93.

“I have someone for you,” Nolan says, pacing quickly over to the pit. He grabs the sleeve of Paul Morer, who for 15 years was the manager of the El Cortez poker room until the room was taken apart in favor of slot machines last December. That space was Jackie Gaughan’s favorite haunt.

“Take a break, Paul,” Nolan says as the pit boss glances around as if to make sure he is not the subject of a practical joke, then grins and says, “Whatever you say, boss.”

It was a total Jackie Gaughan move. No procedural series of emails, texts or phone calls needed to move the casino’s highest-ranking floor employee off his shift just because a friend of the hotel needed a few minutes.

In the casino’s keno lounge, Morer talks of Gaughan’s fondness for gambling. Before he ever played poker at El Cortez, he was partial to a card game rare even a generation ago and not at all found in Las Vegas today.

“He played Pan at the Union Plaza, when he owned it, at the Pan/Poker room,” Morer says. “It’s a very old game. That was his passion, actually. He’d play for hours and hours, but they stopped dealing it in Las Vegas in the 1990s.”

Gaughan switched to poker and played every day, seven days a week, several hours a day for the past 15 years or so. Gaughan never tried to be a great player. Instead, he was only seeking a great time.

“He played fairly loose and didn’t win very often, because to him money was no object,” Morer says, chuckling. “He was into the social aspect of it. He would stay in every single hand. Even when he was slipping at the end, he was a regular player and the people loved him. He was one of the legends.”

I ask of stories that when Gaughan owned El Cortez, he spent most of his time in the middle of the action on the casino floor, not locked away in his office.

“He was never afraid to come down and mix with people, shake hands and talk. He was such a social person,” Morer says. “The first time I was in here, I saw him picking up empty glasses on tables. I mean, this was the owner doing this.”

Nolan tells similar stories of walking Fremont Street with Gaughan at sunrise and running through financial figures before returning to the hotel to meet guests. He would hand out coupon books and tickets for free dinner at the hotel.

“He was so generous, and he helped so many people you couldn’t count them,” Morer says. “Employees would tap him and ask for loans until they got paid, ‘Hey Jackie, I’m short.’ And he’d hand them some cash and say, ‘Pay me back on payday.’ ”

As Morer rises to return to work, the song “Don’t You Forget About Me” plays on the sound system.

“He was one of a kind,” Morer says, “and this place was his baby.”

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