Along with well over a thousand other Las Vegans and Downtown visitors, I had a piece of cake today to celebrate the 91st birthday of local casino legend Jackie Gaughan. After the jump, I'll talk a little about the man and his considerable legacy.
Before having my slice of cake (I waved off the champagne since it's still working hours), I went upstairs and had a long chat with El Cortez general manager Mike Nolan. Nolan first met Gaughan around the time that he became an Eagle Scout, thanks to Gaughan's long involvement with the Boy Scouts, one of many local institutions he's been involved with. Current El Cortez majority owner Kenny Epstein's known Gaughan since he was 16, and he's had an interest in the property since about 1975. So while Gaughan no longer owns the El Cortez, it's still, in a sense, in the family.
Talking with Nolan about Gaughan as a mentor, he stressed three sayings that Gaughan would often repeat.
1. "If it's good for Las Vegas and it's good for Downtown, it's good for the El Cortez."
Today, many industry leaders have got this one the other way around, stressing that whatever's best for their bottom line will be best for the community. In the global sense this is true--Adam Smith would agree that people acting in their rational self-interest will usually benefit each other in the long run--but when it comes to doing things like cutting corners on service or tacking on "hidden" charges to hotel bills, it's not true because it damages the reputation of the city in the long run. Or, in modern marketing speak, "dilutes the brand." It's to Gaughan's credit that he thought first about the impact his decisions would have on those around him before he made them. This isn't to suggest he was some kind of socialist--he was doing his best to run a business, and that necessarily meant luring customers away from competitors. But he saw what he was doing as being more than running a few casinos--he was a civic leader Downtown.
2. (To a prospective partner about a deal) "If it isn't good for you and it isn't good for me, it isn't good."
Again, when executives brag about making bondholders take haircuts on money they lent in good faith, this is almost counterintuitive. Gaughan wasn't a sucker by any stretch of the imagination, but he didn't want to ruthlessly get the better of someone. In a perfect world all transactions are like this: both parties end up richer thanks to them. That only happens, it seems, in economic textbooks. For decades, Gaughan lived by it.
3. "Let the players choose."
Again, this runs against the resort fee/6:5 blackjack mentality found in too many Vegas joints today. Gaughan knew his patrons were playing negative expectation games, but he didn't treat them like they were stupid. Instead, he treated them like people who he respected and for whom he was willing to work to get their business.
In planning today's festivities, the organizers gave revelers a choice between chocolate and vanilla cake. Yeah, it would have been easier to order one or the other and be done with it, but they knew, like Gaughan did decades ago, that, given the chance to choose for themselves, players will be much happier.
Gaughan gets credit for inventing the casino fun book, but most people don't know about how far ahead of the curve he was when it came to slot machines: long before most other owners in Las Vegas, he understood the importance of slots. He also took a personal role in his casinos that's nearly unthinkable today. If anyone had a problem--patron or employee--they'd get Jackie. Driving around with a gas can and jumper cables in his blue station wagon, he was always eager to help out guests whose cars wouldn't start. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
So it's fitting, on Jackie's 91st birthday, to reflect on what he's stood for and to remember that there's still plenty he can teach people in the industry.