Mirage Resorts CEO and former World Series of Poker champ Bobby Baldwin goes all in on, and off, the felt
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006
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Considering the place that poker holds in Baldwin's heart—right now he's enthusiastic about the game's recent growth, but finds the rampant showboating to be undignified and still can't wrap his head around the idea of people playing for free on the Internet: "That is like working for free," sniffs Baldwin—it is no surprise that the game has always played a big part in the properties he's developed. At the Mirage, for example, Baldwin consciously gave the card room high-profile placement, right in the center of the casino, just steps away from the main cage. One reason for this was because he wanted the Mirage to feel alive and animated at all hours, and the poker room, with its round-the-clock action, accomplished that. More subtly, it made a statement about the importance of poker to the casino: Baldwin intended for the Mirage to be Las Vegas's poker Mecca. Back in 1987, however, when Vegas casinos were typically closing their card rooms, this seemed like a strange aspiration. Nevertheless, Baldwin saw a value there that others didn't. "Poker rooms are important to the overall mix of your business," he says. "But they don't run themselves, not like blackjack. You have to know what you're doing, you have to keep the cheating out, you can't let people fight. Operated properly, though, they support everything else. They support the sports and race book. Guys play in the middle of the night when the rest of the casino is dead. It makes a lot of business sense."
It's also a point of pride for Baldwin to have the best and busiest room in town. "I remember [when the Mirage first opened] the people at Caesars had the largest poker room; my intent was to put them out of business," says Baldwin, outlining one of his early ambitions for the Mirage. "I was going to hire the right people, get all the players, and give the players a better deal in terms of room rate and food. Caesars had a big poker business, with 30 tables. But I was getting ready to open a 30-table room of my own and there wasn't [enough business] for both of us. Caesars closed its poker room 12 weeks after I opened mine."
Last year, when former boss Steve Wynn launched his eponymous casino/resort down the Strip, there was a looming threat to the Bellagio's poker-room superiority. Baldwin preempted it with the building of Bobby's Room—a luxe, semiprivate lair, within the poker room, that provides a high-stakes hideaway for the famous Big Game and its star-studded lineup of players—along with the expansion of the general poker room at the cost of a number of gaming tables and slot machines. "I always put poker at the top of the list," Baldwin says, emphatically. "Some guys around town say that you only make one million or two million or whatever from poker. They think it's not worth it and put in more slot machines. Let's just say that I have a different point of view."
Bobby Baldwin began his professional poker career in 1974 and soon found himself earning a couple hundred thousand dollars a year by barnstorming through the card rooms of Texas, Louisiana and Las Vegas; he eventually moved to Vegas, in 1982. He was so good at the game that he wrote the Limit Hold'em chapter in Doyle Brunson's legendary poker bible Super/System and attracted the attention of Steve Wynn, who tried persuading him to come work for him at the Golden Nugget (then the burgeoning mogul's only operation). But Baldwin, who had been playing in the highest stakes game at the Nugget, had no desire to be a full-time suit, and he adamantly turned down Wynn's frequent entreaties. More critically, Baldwin figured that the job would not be sufficiently remunerative. "I met Steve at the poker table and told him that I make more money playing cards with him than I could make as his employee."
Nevertheless, by 1982, Baldwin sensed himself tiring of the itinerant lifestyle and came to desire some of the stability that the job with Wynn would provide. Plus, it promised to offer him plenty of flexibility: he'd start out as a marketing executive while being able to play tournaments when he wanted and ring games on the weekends. Baldwin accepted the job and quickly discovered that he had moved from the small game of high-stakes cards to the much bigger game of high-stakes business. Slowly the poker phased itself out and casino development took over.
Working without a contract (which he continues to do), Baldwin seemed like a sure-thing to his new boss. "He was very self-contained, appeared to have a good deal of discipline, and possessed few vices considering his fraternity," remembers Wynn. "He clearly had a superior IQ and was familiar with the environment. Bobby took the job and immediately got drawn in."
Juiced by the challenge of working for Wynn, Baldwin quickly rose through the ranks, going from poker marketing to casino marketing to being named head of the Golden Nugget and playing a major role in developing the Mirage (upon opening, in 1989, it was the most lavish casino that Vegas had ever seen and proved wrong the naysayers who were blind to the upside of selling gourmet meals and exotic back rubs to gamblers). A decade later, Baldwin was integral in the creation of Wynn's Bellagio, which, like the Mirage before it, served as the template for every one of Vegas's major casinos that have followed.
Baldwin felt so attached to the project that when Wynn's Mirage Resorts was taken over by mogul Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Grand, in 2000, just 17 months after the Bellagio opened its doors, Baldwin chose not to go with Wynn to develop a new place. "I wanted to get the Bellagio sophisticated and successful," says Baldwin. "And maybe I wanted to test our business prowess against [what would be] Steve's new development down the street."
Good thing for Terry Lanni, who had stepped down as chairman of MGM Grand right before the takeover. "I said I would come back to work if Bobby was coming back," recounts Lanni, now the chairman and CEO of MGM Mirage. "I called Bobby, caught him on the golf course, and it took about a nanosecond for him to say he would do it. Bobby's got an acute mind; he's very quick, very thorough and an excellent negotiator—not the kind of person I'd want to go up against."
Though poker clearly remains a passion for Baldwin—he always buys into the World Series championship event and plays in the Big Game when the action is sufficiently juicy (i.e. at least one weak player is present)—he brings a lot more to MGM Mirage than just gambling smarts. Spend a few hours in his company and it becomes clear that he is as conversant with fabric design and the implementation of retail stores as he is with issues related to the green felt. "Bobby can't stand to know less than anyone else in the room," says Wynn. "And he has a work ethic that is tremendous. I remember Bobby taking work home every night. He loves to compete and strategize. He does not get intimidated, and his pick-up on information is very fast."
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