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
Then Mirage Resorts president and chief executive officer Bobby Baldwin wants to have fun, he gets behind the wheel of a $600,000, 5,800-pound truck that has been outfitted with 39-inch-tall tires, rests on a custom-built super-reinforced frame, and boasts a 760-horsepower engine, and heads off to the most grueling desert roads on earth. Once there, he drives as fast as he possibly can without flipping the truck or ramming into another driver who's manning an equally souped-up vehicle and trying to reach the finish line first. Baldwin calls this big-budget, big-balls, strategically intensive type of truck racing "poker on wheels."
But it's not the only form of poker the 56-year-old father of two enjoys, nor is the desert wilderness his natural habitat. At the moment, far from the rutted and rocky trails, out of the flame-retardant one-piece outfit that he wears for racing, Baldwin looks impeccable in a midnight-colored suit that's been custom made by his New York City tailor, William Fioravanti. Curly-haired, tight-lipped and lanky, he sits behind a big, shiny, wooden desk in his sleekly furnished office at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Asked about the knock-around nature of truck racing, Baldwin shrugs it off as one more calculated risk in a life that's been full of high-wire gambles: from betting paper-route money on billiards (and beating grown men at the game) to blowing his first big score ($180,000) on three months of gambling and stock-market speculating to going head-to-head with casino magnate Steve Wynn in 2005. "I'm no longer a professional card player," states Baldwin, who won the 1978 World Series of Poker championship. "But I still view the whole world as a big poker game."
Playing poker in one form or another—whether it's of the business variety, the racing variety or even the card variety—resides at the core of Baldwin's success. How successful? He's been amply rewarded for his achievements: back in 1999, he received $11.2 million in salary and stock options.
Especially revelatory about Baldwin's work ethic and cognitive abilities is that in an industry that has become increasingly dominated by computer scientists, bean counters and Ivy League MBAs, Bobby Baldwin, one of the most influential executives in the business, is a University of Oklahoma dropout.
That college dropout is currently involved in the highest stakes proposition of his almost 20-year career: the development of CityCenter, a sprawling complex of hotels, condominiums, casinos, high-end retailers and nightclubs. It is situated between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio casinos, spreads across 66 acres (making it as large as SoHo, Rockefeller Center and Times Square combined), has a budget of $7 billion and ranks as America's largest privately financed development.
Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Andrew Zarnett has said that the complex will redefine MGM Mirage—Mirage Resorts' parent company—as well as the Strip. Star architects such as Rafael Vinoly and Cesar Pelli are designing the high-rise buildings (Pelli told The New York Times that CityCenter provides a rare opportunity to work from "a clean slate" rather than needing to be influenced by existing buildings around his project). And Baldwin himself anticipates that CityCenter will further secure Vegas's status as the apotheosis of a resort and gambling destination. "CityCenter raises the bar for everybody," he says. "This is Las Vegas's next level of evolution. You're either growing or you're dying, so you need to keep pushing forward." Ask Baldwin about his business acumen and the degree to which poker has influenced it and he provides an all-in answer, beginning with the fact that poker has trained him to think in three dimensions instead of two. "Poker's a game where you have virtually no information, yet you need to make life-and-death decisions all the time. You need to fill in all the blanks with assumptions and piece together why an opponent would check on the flop or raise on the turn. The game teaches you to face adversity, it makes you leather-tough, and it helps you learn to determine who's lying and who's telling the truth." He hesitates for a beat and rhetorically asks, "You think that's important in business?"
Baldwin goes on to explain that his poker game is rooted in a rock-solid foundation that would not be apparent to the casual observer ("There are specific hands that I won't play out of position against certain players, not ever") and his moves at the table have everything to do with the composition of the game ("Successful players play every opponent differently. They play Gus Hansen [who's wildly aggressive] different than they would play Johnny Chan [who's aggressive but more measured]").
Similarly, when Baldwin has to deal with a table full of executives in an MGM Mirage boardroom, he plays the man as well as the situation. "If you need broad-based support to launch a project, you go into the meeting knowing that everyone won't receive information the same way," he says. "People have different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, some are in good moods, some aren't. It isn't one-size-fits-all. You need a different program for each person"—and that's exactly the kind of approach that top players bring to the high-stakes table. "If I played a poker game with a hood over my head, and all I saw was the cards and the pot, how successful would I be?"
Moreover, just as Baldwin does a ton of research before he plays an unknown opponent—finding out the guy's background, his skills as a player, his level of expertise, his finances—he applies the same approach to anybody with whom he negotiates on behalf of his employer. Moments before our interview began, Baldwin was on the telephone, making some calls regarding glass windows he needs to purchase for one of the casinos at the planned CityCenter complex. It's a major expenditure and he approaches it in a way that is anything but casual, thus turning what seems like a mundane transaction into a give-and-take adventure that has the drama and subterfuge of a World Series of Poker final-table showdown. "You don't influence a guy's behavior by just saying, 'Oh, you want $40 million for the glass? How 'bout if I give you 37?' That's not how you do it."
The way Baldwin does it is the way he plays poker. "Before I do anything," he explains, "I need to know what the game is. At the beginning, I know that there are three American companies and two Chinese [which all produce the product he needs]. For a variety of reasons, it would be better to use a U.S. company, but all of their prices are too high. If I need to go to China, even as a bluff, to create the right competitive environment and get the attention of an American company, I might do that. After all, if there's no threat present, how can I influence the other guy's behavior? So now he knows I went to China. And I know the cost of his bulk glass, his process glass and his tinted glass; I know about his subcontractor, how much work he's got in the pipeline, and whether or not he'll have unfulfilled capacity if he doesn't get this project. Like playing poker, my job here is about free enterprise, developing information, deciding what's real or what isn't, and learning where the truth lies."
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