Bobby’s Room in Bellagio

Almost everyone agrees that the Poker Room at the Bellagio is the classiest place to play in Las Vegas. As one of the regular stops on the World Poker Tour, the resort offers 40 tables, with Limit Hold’em starting at $4/8. Daily tournaments are held at 2pm, too, featuring a $120 buy-in on Monday through Thursday, rising to $330 on Sunday and $540 on Friday and Saturday.

But as lavish as the Poker Room may be, the true jewel of the Bellagio’s crown is a special salon where some of the highest stakes card games in the world are conducted—Bobby’s Room. Named after Bobby Baldwin, the 1978 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Champion, this is where pros like Jen Harman, Daniel Negreanu and Doyle Brunson can be found, and high rollers from around the globe come to test the limits of their play.

The Creation of a Landmark

When the Bellagio opened in 1998, it was hailed as the new standard for luxury on the Las Vegas Strip. Everything about the $1.6 billion hotel-casino-convention complex was grand, from its manmade lake and dancing fountains to a display of multimillion-dollar art owned by Steven Wynn. The collection featured master works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Warhol and more.

As it happened, the man selected to oversee this magnificent new property was Bobby Baldwin. His skills at the poker table were legend. He had won four WSOP bracelets by 1979. In 1984, he finished second at the Grand Prix of Poker for a cash worth $128,000. Thereafter, he turned his attention to the business side of the gaming industry, becoming president of the Golden Nugget casino in 1984 and made the head of the Mirage three years later. No one was better suited to take charge of opening the Bellagio.

It was only fitting that the resort should also have a grand location for its highest stakes poker games, reflecting the affluent style to which its guests would be accustomed. An exclusive enclave was designed on a slightly elevated floor, separate from the main Poker Room, but visible through large stained glass windows. On the inside, the walls of the two-table chamber were adorned with portraits of famous players, flat screen televisions and a stunning Leroy Niemen painting. Stylish chandeliers would provide light from above, while a small sitting area offered additional space and privacy.

Because Nevada laws prohibit private games in casinos, at least one of the two glass doors opening into to Bobby’s Room would always have to be open. A podium was installed outside the doors, where an attendant could stand and restrict traffic going in and out. The stage was set for some poker of mythic proportions.

Playing for High Stakes

It did not take long for the poker pros of Las Vegas to discover Bobby’s Room. Many of them had been playing at the Mirage on Baldwin’s watch, and they were happy to occupy the new space. Soon, Table 1 became the hangout for a nucleus of “regulars” like Brunson and Harman, plus out-of-town tournament players like Lyle Berman, Sammy Farha and Johnny Chan. It’s been said that Chip Reese was “born in Bobby’s Room,” and gradually what’s known as “The Big Game” evolved, with $100,000 buy-ins for $2,000/$4,000 Limit Hold’em as well as No Limit sessions that could see swings as big as $1 million.

Billionaire banker Andy Beal had never played poker seriously before March 2001. That’s when he sat down at a table in the Bellagio Poker Room for some $15/$30 Limit Hold’em. Based on some success, he moved up to an $80/$160 table and then one where the stakes were $400/$800. That’s when Todd Brunson, Doyle’s son, took notice and challenged the novice to a heads-up game. Beal was a quick study, however, and won the session rather easily.

Figuring there was a big fish ripe for catching, the sharks in Bobby’s Room circled, inviting the banker to play for some “real” money. Against some of the best players in the world, with stakes rising from $1,000/$2,000 to $4,000/$8,000, Beal took the pros for $100,000 in a single day. In spite of his victory, the billionaire decided he liked heads-up matches more than full tables and began challenging the pros one on one. That launched a series of confrontations lasting five years at the Bellagio, referred to collectively as “Andy Beal versus The Corporation.”

Bigger than the Big Game

None of the pros of Bobby’s Room could afford to take on Beal alone, so they pooled their resources to back one another in the heads-up matches. Led by Doyle Brunson, six players—Chip Reese, Jennifer Harman, John Hennigan, Howard Lederer, David Grey and Chau Giang—pitched in $1 million initially to form “The Corporation.” They were later joined by Lyle Berman, Ted Forrest, Johnny Chan, Todd Brunson, Barry Greenstein and Phil Ivey.

The matches Beal played in Bobby’s Room are now part of poker lore. In one week he relieved the pros of $5.3 million. Soon after, he dropped $3.4 million to them. The tug-o-war continued through the end of 2001 and into 2002, then 2003 and beyond. At one point, they were playing with $100,000/$200,000 blinds. But finally, on Super Bowl weekend in 2006, the battle between the pros and the banker took a turn that would bring the long series to a close.

It was Phil Ivey sitting in the Corporation’s seat at the beginning of the end. He took Beal for $3.3 million. A week later, the banker returned to beat the group out of $13.6 million over the course of four days. Stunned and determined, Ivey stepped into the breach once again with blinds set at $30,000/$60,000 and increasing to $50,000/$100,000. Over three days in February, the pro methodically extracted $16.6 million from the billionaire and that was it. Beal left Las Vegas swearing never to return to Bobby’s Room again.

Following the Economy

Those wild days are gone now. By 2009, owing to poor economic conditions, high stakes games were severely on the decline everywhere as “dead cash” became less and less available. Instead of the $4,000/$8,000 sessions that were once so common in Bobby’s Room, limits were lowered to $1,500/$3,000 to attract new players. Only when major tournaments are in town do the blinds rebound to the $2,000/$4,000 level or higher.

Bobby’s Room has been hurt by competition, too. The Venetian, the Wynn and the Aria at CityCenter are just a few of the Las Vegas resorts now catering to high-rollers, and their poker rooms are extremely attractive. In fact, the latter is under the wing of none other than Bobby Baldwin himself. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2003 and has been the Chief Executive Officer of CityCenter since 2005.

Nicknamed by pros as “The Office,” Bobby’s Room will always have the cachet of being Las Vegas’s original high stakes poker arena, where privacy is respected and aspiring players can’t simply stroll in and sit down. To cross the threshold, there is a minimum buy-in requirement of $20,000—perhaps a small amount given the legendary status of the room, where some of the biggest cash games in the history of poker have been held.