Legends of Poker: Bobby Baldwin
Bobby Baldwin is an enigma. A brilliant person, and one of a select group of poker players and gamblers who have bested the competition across the green felt first, and then gone on to succeed in the business world.
Bobby had a typically upper-middle-class childhood in the early 1950's. Nothing in his family history would lead you to assume he would mature into a world-class poker player, but that's just what happened after he got his first taste of the game at the age of twelve in 1963. His opponents at the time, all around the same age, had already learned the game as it was played in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bobby was the rookie, and he lost.
The only remarkable thing about those first few poker games was that Bobby felt the huge rush that most gamblers feel, but didn't push his friends to play at every opportunity. Instead, he took up pool, and by the time he was in high school, there was virtually nobody close to his age that he couldn't beat.
Pool, like poker, seemed to come to him naturally, but that's not to infer he didn't work hard to improve his game. In fact, he spent a great deal of time playing pool, and won a little money along the way. As he improved, he also matured, and to this day, Bobby says, "I don't believe in hustling, in the old-school idea of misrepresenting your talent and then taking advantage of your opponent's misguided idea that they are better than you." In fact, Bobby learned early that most everybody "enjoys a challenge, and a gambler will play you because you are good."
From those early lessons came the belief that you can be a gracious winner, as well as a gracious loser. I've never met a calmer, almost disarmingly congenial person, as Bobby Baldwin. His temperament is legendary in the poker community, and even in the heat of battle, his demeanor is very even. Doyle Brunson, who also has a very even temperament, said of Bobby, "Believe me, for as competitive a person as Bobby, that soothing exterior is a learned trait, nobody is born that good natured."
Baldwin attended Oklahoma State University, and continued playing poker and pool. During his sophomore year, his group of poker buddy's took a trip to Las Vegas. It was 1970, Bobby was nineteen, and he already thought of himself as a gambler. According to Mike Caro and a local newspaper account, Bobby took his entire bankroll of $5,000 to Vegas, and lost it. He managed to get $500 in credit from the Aladdin, then lost $425 of that before going on the dice-roll of a lifetime. Over the next six hours, Bobby won $38,000, but that was just the beginning. By the time he returned home (with a dress box stuffed with his winnings), Bobby had won over $180,000.
He tried to be sensible with his new bankroll, investing some of the money in stocks and using the rest on a second trip to Vegas. He also tried his luck in some local poker games. In less than three months, he was broke. It was a devastating blow, but Bobby was convinced his future was in gambling. He joined the local country club and began cultivating poker clients, and even drove to local towns when he heard there was an especially good game.
While his bankroll improved at poker games, it took a beating when Bobby tried to beat the NFL. He struggled with the ups and downs a gambler endures, married his high school sweetheart, and divorced her less than a year later. According to Bobby, "She never could have withstood the rigors of my lifestyle, she wanted security, and that's not something found with most gamblers."
However, shortly after their marriage dissolved, Bobby met his future bride, Shirley. She was a single mother, and more willing to accept the tough road that Bobby was traveling at the time. Although there were still hard times to come, Bobby was able to settle down with Shirley and her daughter, Staci, as a family.
Over the next two years, Bobby played the Southern Circuit of poker games, learning his trade, and taking the subtle moves he saw from players like Amarillo Slim and Puggy Pearson to heart. He also learned to stop betting on football games after one disastrous weekend at the end of 1973 when he spit 80% of his bankroll between five games and lost them all. Poker would be his ticket for the next 10 years.
Doyle Brunson jokes that he "Couldn't wait to get this new kid, Bobby Baldwin, across the table from me, but before I knew what was happening in our first meeting, I was stuck $40,000." Over the next few years, Doyle was so impressed with Baldwin (who won the WSOP titles in seven-card stud and deuce-to-seven-lowball in 1977), that he asked him to write the "limit hold'em" section of his book, Super System. Bobby was 26 at the time.
By the time the book came out, Bobby had won the 1978 World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in Hold'em Championship. Other poker tournament wins would come Baldwin's way, and praise from the best in the game is still heard. Bobby Hoff, the 1979 WSOP Championship runner-up, and himself an excellent no-limit player, says Baldwin is the "best no-limit player I've ever played with." Bob Ciaffone, who recalls playing regularly with Bobby in Dallas in the mid 1970's, adds, "He's brilliant. A brilliant poker player, very polished, a pure player."
In spite of his poker ability (or because of it), Bobby stunned the poker world when he took a job with Steve Wynn at the Golden Nugget (Las Vegas) in 1982. He revamped the card room, then moved to other projects and was promoted to the position of President of the Golden Nugget in 1984.
Baldwin continues to play in live cash games, often with friends like Doyle Brunson, and Lyle Berman, but has spent the bulk of his time working in the casino and gaming industry.
In 1987, Bobby became President of the new Mirage casino, and then took a similar job ten years later at the Bellagio. After Steve Wynn sold his holdings, Kirk Kirkorian retained Baldwin, making him CEO of Mirage Resorts.
Shirley, Bobby's "gambling woman," and the mother of his children, Staci and BJ, passed away in 1996. He has since remarried, and his new wife, Donna McNeil, and his son BJ, live in Las Vegas. When he has the time, Bobby can be found in some of the biggest games in town, often at the Bellagio. His poker bankroll probably hasn't needed to be "propped-up" for a long time, and his bonus for signing a contract with Kirk Kerkorian in 2000 was over $7 million dollars.
Bobby Baldwin was elected into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2003, securing his legacy as one of the greatest poker players of all time. If someday there is ever a hall of fame for casino executives, Baldwin will no doubt be elected there too. This gracious, southern gentleman, deserves all the praise he has received.
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