Nevada Gaming Legend John Ascuaga Dead at 96 

Posted on: June 29, 2021, 02:46h. 

Last updated on: June 30, 2021, 11:39h.

John Ascuaga, whose name was attached to a Northern Nevada landmark casino for decades, died Monday. He was 96.

John Ascuaga
Nevada gaming pioneer John Ascuaga is seen in this portrait. In 1960, Ascuaga became the owner of the Nugget in Sparks. (Image: Record-Courier)

Anthony Marnell II noted that Ascuaga was one of the state’s most prominent gaming figures. Marnell is CEO of Marnell Gaming, which owns the Nugget Casino and Resort in Sparks, just east of Reno. When Ascuaga owned the property, it was called John Ascuaga’s Nugget.

John was not only an icon in Northern Nevada and throughout the region, he was also one of the true pioneers in Nevada gaming and helped shape the direction of the entire state,” Marnell said in a statement.

Ascuaga grew up in Idaho as the son of Basque immigrants. His family was involved in sheep herding and farming. But he pursued college degrees in accounting and hotel management, according to the Record-Courier in Gardnerville.

In the 1950s, Ascuaga followed Idaho restaurateur Dick Graves to Northern Nevada and assisted Graves in establishing Nugget casinos in the area. Ascuaga had worked for Graves in Idaho as a hotel bellman, according to the Nevada Handbook.

In 1955, Graves opened a 60-seat coffee shop in Sparks. The coffee shop, called the Nugget, is opposite the current hotel-casino.

Ascuaga eventually bought the Sparks Nugget from Graves and “turned it into a humongous complex, built under and around Interstate 80, which came through the area in the early 1970s,” according to A Travel Guide to Basque America.

As the Nevada Handbook states, the Nugget’s location makes it “the only casino in the world, probably, holding up a superhighway.”

Iconic Casio, Unique Attractions

Ascuaga was known for roaming the Nugget with a smile on his face, talking informally with employees and guests. For years, an elephant named Bertha performed in a showroom at the resort and participated in parades throughout the region. Elephants named Tina and Angel also were involved in these events.

In 2017, the University of Nevada, Reno unveiled an exhibit of photographs and other memorabilia associated with Bertha and Ascuaga’s ownership of the Nugget. His family sold the property in 2013.

The Nugget is and was a true icon in our region, and no one had live elephants in their casino,” Jacquelyn Sundstrand, the university’s manuscripts and archives librarian, said on UNR’s website.

Another feature at the property was an 18-karat gold rooster sculpture on display in the Golden Rooster Room. The rooster remained at the property from May 1958 until the family took possession of the 14-pound object after selling the hotel casino.

Throughout the years, the Nugget has not been without controversy, including a shooting death on the gaming floor and a $1 million fine in an anti-money laundering case.

Basque Culture

In 1959, when Ascuaga worked for Graves in Sparks, the Nugget sponsored the first Western Basque Festival. 

This event put Sparks “in the forefront of modern Basque cultural manifestations in Nevada,” according to A Travel Guide to Basque America.

To this day, the Basque culture remains strong in Northern Nevada, with festivals and family-style Basque restaurants throughout the area. Many of the Basque traditions in Nevada and other states in the region originate from the Pyrenees mountain range along the border of Spain and France.  

Basque events are one of many sporting and cultural offerings that tourism officials in Northern Nevada promote to attract visitors to activities other than gambling. This diverse approach to marketing is credited with helping Northern Nevada rebound better from the pandemic than the Las Vegas Valley in the southern part of the state.