Everything Old is New Again

Craig Lumpp & Sean McCormack – The Men Behind the “New” Bellagio Poker Room

Bellagio

The Bellagio Poker Room was the crown jewel of the Las Vegas strip from the time the casino opened in 1998 through the entirety of the first wave of the poker boom. The biggest cash games in the world took place inside Bobby’s Room, and the rest of the room was packed to capacity almost every night with a wide range of cash game options.

Add in several World Poker Tour events a year, and the Bellagio offered everything a high stakes player wanted, and everything a low limit grinder aspired to. As other major poker rooms opened their doors or expanded, and the poker economy started to lag, things started to get a little bit harder at the Bellagio. Player complaints started to pile up about certain elements of the room, and numbers started to slip.

Enter Craig Lumpp and Sean McCormack. Following the departure of Doug Dalton, the previous director of poker operations, the Bellagio turned to the two young candidates who had worked their way up through the ranks of the poker to help turn things around. Each came from a different part of the country, and found their way into the industry after leaving a vastly different career track.

“I was living in Ohio, finishing up school, on the path to a career in finance,” said Lumpp. “It wasn’t the life I wanted. I had an interest in poker, and I came to Vegas a lot with my father — who played a lot of poker with Adam Altwies, who’s now the director of poker at Aria. He basically said you’ll enjoy it — come out here and you’ll do well.”

“I started out on the graveyard shift here at Bellagio,” said Lumpp, “Very little experience, just a passion for the game — loved it, and loved to play it. I came out here to deal, and I’ve been at the Bellagio the whole time [I've been out here]. I dealt, [worked as] floor, shift supervisor, and then I got scooped up and started working as part of the tournament staff,” said Lumpp. “That was quite an operation. That was the greater portion of my job for a long time, from 2007 until 2011.”

“Back in 2003, I had left Boston, Massachusetts, with a friend of mine,” said McCormack. “He opened up a business in Florida, in the Daytona Beach area. When I moved down there, I got into poker and started playing it, but it was obviously very limited back in ’03. I broke in as a dealer at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club, which is a completely different property now than it was [back then],” said McCormack. “It was a small, little, tiny, 20-table card room back in the day. I think they have like 40 or 50 tables now, it’s amazing how much Florida gaming has changed since I’ve been there.”

“In January of 2006, I started doing World Poker Tour events. I did my first event in Tunica, where I actually met Adam Altwies and Jack McClelland and a lot of the Bellagio old management that used to be here. I guess I got on their radar — they told me, ‘If you’re ever in Vegas and need a job or want one, come see us. It was probably about six or eight months after that, me and a friend of mine that worked in Daytona, we packed up the car and left, just a spur of the moment decision.”

They each worked their way up from the graveyard shift, to supervisor positions and eventually jobs as shift managers. They were near the top level of the staff that worked under Dalton and Jack McClelland, though Lumpp took an opportunity to explore another role at the Bellagio while McCormack worked his way up to Poker Operations Manager.

“I took a year out of poker,” said Lumpp. “I was a casino marketing executive; I was working for the vice president of Casino Marketing, Justin Manacher. I was a host for table games — that was a good path, I liked that. It was a great experience, and a great way to learn about the rest of the property. When Doug [Dalton] retired last spring, the opportunity came up to go back and I took the job as director of Poker Operations.”

“It was great for knowing the property, knowing more about what the company does, knowing what the Bellagio does,” said Lump, “Just a broader base of experience. I think I’ve brought a lot of those principles back into what we do with poker here. I also came to realize how much I love poker, and that’s what I know really well.”

There were a lot of things that had to be worked on, but it quickly became clear that Lumpp, McCormack and their crew were serious about rehabilitating the image of the Bellagio poker room.

“The goal was to take what was already a good room and make it better,” said Lumpp. “We made a lot of little changes, physically with the room and in how we handle our day-to-day business,” said Lumpp. “The cool thing we’re seeing is all the people coming back. People always loved to come here to Bellagio, and even when things were not the best, they still wanted the room to do well. It was our goal to get those customers back and keep them this time.”

Player-friendly changes included adopting the Bravo poker system, which allowed for a number of benefits including the ability to see game lists from anywhere in the world. There was also a shift in the physical layout of the room last September.

“We took three tables out and it feels like we took out 20,” said McCormack. “It’s a much better layout.”

Tournament events like the Bellagio Cup and the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic continued to draw solid, enthusiastic crowds, with the $10,000 buy-ins drawing a fairly pro-heavy crowd. A small percentage of the local players in those fields approached the staff at the Bellagio with the idea of running several $25,000 buy-in tournaments, with small fields and a friendly atmosphere.”

“We had a group of players, pros and businessmen alike, who just wanted to have one- or two-day events with high buy-ins,” said Lumpp. “Just playing poker because they love it, and maybe they’ll make some money. It’s been a good group, and a consistent group — I’m really happy with the events. I’ve been thoroughly surprised that they’ve hung on and continued as long as they have. They’ve been very successful — they’re not the Main Event, they’re not supposed to be 6,000 player tournaments.”

Much of the difficulty in the past with the cash games at Bellagio, however, seemed to stem from the lower limits. Balancing their attention between the high rollers and the low-stakes grinders was another important element in rebuilding relationships with players.

“There’s never been a doubt that our room’s been able to handle very well the high limits,” said Lumpp. “I think we do that as well as anyone in the world. The cool thing about our room is that [low limit players] have the chance to experience something they can’t get anywhere else. That is, if you’re a $1/$3 player, you can sit there in the middle of the room and you can see the biggest game in the world right in front of you in Bobby’s Room. You can’t get that anywhere else.

“That is one of the focuses we’ve had with our floor, and our dealers — elevating that experience,” said Lumpp. “Making sure that these people know that they’re just as important to our room, and that they have the ability to have an experience here that they can’t get anywhere else. I think that drives a lot of people to the room.”

“At other places, you bring a complaint to a floor person and sometimes it feels like they’re just yessing you to death,” said McCormack. “The difference here is that we try to make ourselves as available as possible, and actually listen to the players and the issues they’re having.”

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April 2014