Bobby Baldwin’s journey from Tulsa poker player to Las Vegas casino executive
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Tulsa native Bobby Baldwin is one of the biggest names in poker, taking part in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in its early years and winning its Main Event championship in 1978 for $210,000. He was only 28 years old at the time and was the youngest WSOP Main Event winner at that time. In 2003, he was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame. His unique life journey took him from teenage pool hustler to poker shark. And while Baldwin found major success at the poker felt, including three other WSOP bracelets, in the mid-1980s he used his business education to help run Las Vegas casinos. In 1984, he became president of the Golden Nugget, the Mirage in 1987 and was then named president of the Bellagio in 1998.
While he continued to play poker, this old-school Texas gambler, who had moved from poker game to poker game in Texas and Oklahoma, transitioned to a respected casino company executive. In 1999, he became the CFO of Mirage Resorts under casino impresario Steve Wynn and in 2000 was named CEO of the merged MGM Mirage corporation. His biggest task was spearheading the company’s CityCenter project in 2005 on the Las Vegas Strip.
TulsaPeople recently spoke with Baldwin about his Tulsa roots, poker and his job running major casino properties.
Where did you grow up in Tulsa, and how did you get into poker?
I grew up in southeast Tulsa. I went to Memorial High School and graduated in 1968. I wasn’t really into much of anything except for playing pool and playing poker. The pool came before cards because I played pool at a place called Brookside Billiards. I played 9-ball and they had a poker game in the back room. After some period of time, I couldn’t get a pool game anymore (he was such a good player, no one would take his action). I was a winning player at the time and just hung out at the pool hall, and then I became interested in the card game. So I gravitated to the poker room in the back room. When I was about 15, I joined in the game, and I lost every time I played. I was the only one in the game who was younger than 50.
When did poker turn around for you?
I went to Oklahoma State University and majored in business administration. It didn’t turn around for quite some time — literally until I got to play in some games at OSU. I had a roommate in college who was a very good card player, and he did a lot to teach me the game. I played on Tuesday and Friday nights. If I remember right, it was a $100 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em. By the end of college, I was quite a bit better. I actually quit college in my fourth year and became a full-time professional poker player, mostly in Texas and some in Oklahoma City. I lived in Dallas in 1976 and 1977. I played at the Amvets Club in Dallas on Greenville Avenue (this was a popular underground poker club that hosted some of the biggest names in poker throughout the 1970s and ’80s). I slept in the backroom there. I had a lot of good poker games there.
What were some of your favorite places to play?
There was the Amvets and there were several house games I played at. There were a variety of guys who had poker games on various nights of the week. I kind of played the Dallas circuit, and on Sunday nights I played in Denton, Texas, which is just about 30 miles north of Dallas. I played in Belton, Texas, and Corpus Christi, Texas, and I pretty much played every night of the week. I moved to Vegas in 1982, but I first started playing cards in Vegas in 1975. My first time to enter the World Series of Poker was 1975.
What was it like to win the WSOP Main Event championship in 1978?
I was 28 years old, and when you’re 28, you think that you’re going to win every time you play, but I was obviously happy to win the World Series of Poker. There were 43 players at that time; nowadays they have 7,000 players. I didn’t drink at the time, so there wasn’t much celebrating. It was just packing up the money and trying to get it to the bank. Usually, when a poker player wins a tournament, he has to pay the people he owes and then pay all his bills that are stacked up.
What are your feelings on how far poker’s popularity extends today?
The Internet and TV and the advent of how the TV can show the players’ cards has, of course, expanded the number of people who want to play No-Limit Hold’em dramatically. It’s a great game and people have a lot of fun at it, and there are more professionals now than ever, but still 95 percent of all players are amateurs playing just for recreation.
Do you still play poker quite a bit?
I play a couple times a month, and I play during the World Series of Poker. I have a place called Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio, which is my room inside of the poker room that has two tables and is named after me. I mostly play there.
Do you still have family in Tulsa or ever make it back?
I have an older brother, Kenny, and a twin brother, Billy, who are still in Tulsa, and I have a sister named Karen who is still in Tulsa. But I don’t get back very often.
What are your thoughts on Tulsa native Ben Lamb, who finished third in the WSOP Main Event and earned WSOP Player of the Year?
I play with Ben occasionally. He’s a fantastic player. He’s got a great deal of confidence and a great understanding of No-Limit Hold’em and the players in the game, so he’s just a talented card player. He has a great read on the other players.