Doug Dalton raises poker stakes in Las Vegas

Sep 2, 2008 7:01 PM

The-Inside-Straight by Joe Awada | For players who take poker seriously, the place to play is the Bellagio, where the poker room routinely hosts the best players and features the hottest action of any room in Las Vegas.

The man behind the Bellagio poker room is Doug Dalton, someone I’ve known for decades and a man I’m proud to call a friend.

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Doug and chat about poker in general, and what’s happening at the Bellagio.

First, it might be helpful to learn a little about Doug’s extensive background. He originally came to Las Vegas from San Diego in 1970 and started out as a player.

"Back then, the biggest games in town were $10 and $20 seven card stud games – you couldn’t find a Texas Hold’em game," Doug said. "But I found I couldn’t make a living at it, so decided to find a job."

Doug had taken a position at the Hacienda in 1974 as a poker shill/dealer, though he found that it was tough making ends meet at about $18 a day.

About that time, he hooked up with Alan Glick, the head of Argent Corporation, through a mutual friend from San Diego.

Well, Doug knew that valets made good money parking cars, so he got a job in charge of the Hacienda’s valet parking, as well as serving as Glick’s personal chauffeur.

"It was great," Doug recalled, "I felt like I was living the life of the movie "Casino."

When not working at the Hacienda, Doug played poker across the street at the Tropicana, where he became friends with Eddie Miller, who ran the poker room.

Miller later went on to run the Sahara poker room, which at the time was considered the best poker room in town with limits that reached $100 and $200 – a lot for the era.

While playing, Doug struck a friendship with Chip Reese, who got a lease on the poker operation at the Dunes.

"Chip made me his assistant at the Dunes, which I ran from 1978 to 1982," Doug said. "But Chip gave up that operation because he wanted to play poker full time."

Doug said that between the Sahara and the Dunes, he got to know all the players who became poker icons – Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Erick Drake, to name a few.

When Reese pulled the plug on the Dunes operation, Baldwin gave Doug a job as shift manager at the Golden Nugget poker room, where he worked until 1988.

That was a year before the Mirage was to open and, because the Golden Nugget was undergoing an expansion, the poker room was closed and all the business was basically transferred to the Mint side of the Horseshoe across the street.

At this point, Doug went back to San Diego to run a poker room, the Oceanside Card Club, for a partnership consisting of Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese and Len Miller, who eventually bought out Doyle and Chip and opened Oceans Eleven.

"I worked in Oceanside for a couple of years and came back to Las Vegas in 1990 to work as training manager at the Mirage," Doug said. "Then, when Treasure Island opened in 1993, I went there to run the poker room, but only for about six months."

In 1994, Doug came back to the Mirage, where he stayed until 1998, when the Bellagio opened.

Doug said that building the Bellagio poker room into the city’s premier card room was the result of decades of managing rooms and interacting with players.

"I’m just a guy doing my job to the best of my abilities for my friends," Doug said. "And the poker players are my friends.

"I don’t see myself as a high-end executive, but just a guy on the other side of the table, trying to keep the business respectable."

Doug is quick to credit others who helped shape his success, men such as Eddie Miller, Erick Drake, Jack Binion, Bobby Baldwin and Lyle Berman.

He’s also quick to add Jack McClelland, the founding father of poker tournament play, who now works with Doug at Bellagio as its tournament director.

"Jack and I began discussing tournament play in 2002; it was basically a philosophical discussion that quickly escalated into a controlling interest in Vegas tournaments," he said. "We first talked about one tournament a month, and now it’s 365 tournaments a year, including four major televised events."

Right now, the Bellagio is in between major tournaments, so Doug has implemented a program in which all his dealers are being re-trained or reintroduced to all the rules and regulations of tournament play.

This follows an endorsement by Doug of an international set of tournament rules, which would unify how tournaments are played worldwide.

"I think if every card room signed on to this set of rules, it would bring the industry to a new level of professionalism," he said.

As far as other innovations in the poker industry, Doug said he is closely watching the PokerTek trial at Excalibur, where automated tables have replaced "live" tables.

"We’re open to anything that’s good for the industry, makes sense and helps advance poker," Doug said, adding that dealer-less tables might have a place as an "addendum" to his poker room, where a new group of players might find a niche.

"Automated tables might be a comfortable transition from playing at home to playing in a poker room," he said. "They might also work as satellite games leading up to a live tournament."

But nothing will replace the excitement of live action, especially for high limit players, one of the special attractions of playing at the Bellagio.

And, I might add, nothing could really replace someone like Doug Dalton, the most respected and capable poker director we have in the industry today.