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Aria’s Adam Altwies and Bellagio’s Craig Lumpp Partner To Offer More In Las Vegas Poker Rooms

From Ohio To Las Vegas, the Two Poker Room Managers Climbed to the Top at MGM

by Diana Cox |  Published: Mar 19, 2014

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There have been many memorable moments in Adam Altwies’ career as he rose through the poker ranks from an on-call dealer at the Bellagio to Director of Poker Operations at Aria over the past decade. But the most memorable will likely be his very first day on the job. It was 2002 and he was 28 years old.

“My first day working at Bellagio I’m on call and I’m last to get in. There is a spot open on Table 1 and the shift manager comes out and tells one of the full time dealers to go to Table 1. And the dealer says ‘man, I don’t know about that. Send this new kid in there.’”

The new kid was Altwies and Table 1 was the Bobby’s Room of the Bellagio before Bobby’s Room existed. The likes of Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese weren’t playing their hands in the glass enclosure that is now the centerpiece of the poker room. They were playing a $4,000-$8,000 mixed game at Table 1.

“I said ‘I’ll go ‘cause I need to make some money.’ I didn’t come out here to sit around at some empty poker table. I came here to deal. I didn’t care. I’ve always just jumped right in.”

And jump in he did. Altwies jumped in to the highest limit table in all of Las Vegas filled with the most legendary names in the game. Something he was wholly unaware of on his first day on the job.

“I get in there and I didn’t know Table 1 was the highest game. So I sit down and I have Doyle Brunson sitting on my left. Phil Ivey, Chip Reese, Jennifer Harman, Minh Ly, Johnny Chan, and whoever else because at the time they were playing that game every day and night.”

Raised in Cuyahoga Falls, a suburb of Akron, Ohio, Altwies attended private school in his youth, graduated college and found a job most would consider solid and promising. But his job in the financial industry had one problem — Altwies hated it.

“I graduated college and started working for a bank and I hated it,” Altwies said. “I hated every second of it. Literally. I was miserable.”

Having had an interest in poker since his teenage years, Altwies began dealing at charity casinos, weekend gigs at VFW Halls, and got to know Steve Natoli, a well-known dealer at the Las Vegas poker tables throughout the 1970s. At the time an unhappy Altwies was picking up weekend dealing jobs around Ohio, his path crossed with Natoli, who had moved and was dealing at the charity casinos as well.

“One day Steve said to me, ‘why don’t you go to Vegas?’ And I said, ‘yeah, how am I going to do that?’” Altwies recalled.

Natoli made a call to some old contacts and, in 2002, Altwies found himself working as one of the Bellagio’s on-call dealers. In 2009 he migrated to the Aria.

“I came out here and started working and I haven’t looked back,” he said.

Now retired, Natoli can be found at casinos around Cleveland, but Altwies said he is the one person who is responsible for about ten people from his home state pursuing rewarding careers with MGM.

Flash forward to 2002 and about to deal his very first hand of poker in a new city, Altwies noticed Table 1 had a feature only one other table in the room shared — an automatic shuffler.

“I didn’t know how to push the button,” he said. “A green light lit up and I said ‘well maybe that’s it.’ Bing. I hit it, the deck pops up. Whooo! Ok, we are good. So now I take this deck out, cut it and put it up in my hand and go to deal and it falls everywhere, all over the table and I go ‘Oh my God.’ My ears are beet red, my face is red because I’m so embarrassed.”

Then Altwies noticed something else unique to the table — a plaque.

“I had no idea about plaques, had no idea what they were or anything and it said deuce-to-seven triple draw.”

New, nervous, and lost, Altwies asked the man on his left what to do.

“I turned to Doyle and I said ‘Doyle sir, I don’t know how to deal this game.’ They were playing mixed games and at that time everyone was just playing limit hold’em and Omaha.”

Unbeknownst to Altwies he did in fact know how to deal the game, however he knew it by the name of Kansas City Lowball, its moniker in his native Ohio.

“Doyle says ‘deal five cards to everybody, then we are going to draw three times.’ I said ‘Oh, it’s Kansas City’ and he said ‘yeah.’ Good. We are good. Bop, bop, bop, I get it out. I deal two hands of that and I think I’m an all-star.”

But Altwies’ problems were not quite over. The cast of top-notch pros informed him he had to move the lammers in his tray in order to keep count of how many hands were being played in each game before they switched. Once all the lammers where moved, Altwies was in for another surprise.

“I turn over the next plaque and it says hi-low regular. I turn to Doyle and I said ‘Doyle sir, I don’t know how to deal this game either. ‘ I’d never even heard of it, unless you were at the Bellagio at that time, no one had. He said ‘deal it out like stud and we’ll take care of everything else. And by the way, don’t touch any of the chips. We’ll take care of it.’”

Amid his embarrassment and nerves Altwies found a small bit of respite in Reese, whose words he still remembers to this day.

“Thank God for Chip Reese,” he said. “He was one of the most kindest gentlemen I’ve ever met in my life. I mean, I’m in a bad way here and he looks at my nametag and says ‘Akron, Ohio. Do you know Don Wonderly?’ I said ‘yeah, I know Don.’ And Chip says, ‘he was a good friend of mine. Don’t worry kid, you’re going to be just fine. Calm down and everything will be ok.’”

Six months would pass before Altwies made any money dealing that particular game, but the lessons he learned have stuck with him as he climbed the ladder at MGM to become the Director of Poker Operations at Aria.

“They just remembered, here’s the kid that dumped the deck and didn’t know what any of the games were. I tell that to my new hires. You are going to be put in situations that are going to be very difficult. All you have to do is just get through it.

A Similar Path at Bellagio

Craig Lumpp, now the Director of Poker Operations at Bellgio, has a strikingly similar story from his background to his first day as a dealer at the Bellagio. A native of Silver Lake, Ohio, a town about three minutes from Cuyahoga Falls, separated by no more than a railroad track, Lumpp is a slightly younger version of Altwies. He also attended private school as a youngster, studied finance in college, and enjoyed poker. And he too was unhappy with what he had planned as his career.

Lumpp had been making a few trips to Las Vegas with his father, who knew Altwies, to play poker for fun when they had free weekends. Still in college, Lumpp was working in finance and coming to the realization his course of career was not what he wanted. A few correspondences with Altwies later, Lumpp was ready to try something new.

“I was on a similar path that Adam was. I was working as a financial analyst in Cleveland, Ohio and really began to realize it was not the path I wanted to go down. I wasn’t looking for that type of lifestyle. Adam said ‘hey, come on out, you’ll do OK out here. I was 23 at the time, I graduated college, I put everything in my car and said let’s give this a try.”

Upon his arrival in Nevada, Lumpp’s story continued to mirror that of Altwies.

“My first experience was actually very similar,” Lumpp said. “Although I didn’t get started directly on Table 1. They waited at least three days before they did that to me.”
Out of the dealer box and now each holding the title of Director of Poker Operations, the two are now pioneering new ideas at MGM’s largest poker rooms in order to bring the best experience to each and every player and each and every employee.

There are many components at work in keeping two of the most popular poker rooms in Las Vegas running smoothly and it is a task neither Lumpp nor Altwies take lightly. Lumpp says the day-to-day operations require a unique choreography between the needs of Bellagio President Randy Morton, working with VP of Casino Marketing Justin Manacher, and the VP of Table Games Gracie Olson that also includes making sure all 243 employees in the poker department are engaged and doing quality work while enjoying their jobs as well.

And then comes the actual poker, where both men must stay in tune with the industry to ensure players are happy and continue to come back.

“That is where we step in and work with experts in our industry about what is going on with players, what is going on with the games, and what we do next. That is the day-to-day operation of everything that goes on inside the walls of the poker room. We are responsible for everything from top to bottom in making sure that goes well,” Lumpp said.
Altwies sums it up in three simple categories.

We have three responsibilities,” he said. “One is to our employer, which involves a lot of policy on gaming and protection. Second is to the customer, and third is to our employees.”

Everything the two do is an offshoot from those three primary responsibilities, but they are now working together from their respective properties to enhance each element.

“In my daily operations I have to surround myself with the smartest people,” Altwies said.

And for him, a few of those people include Poker Host Kathleen Paculan, Training Manager Jim Sherwood, Tournament Director Aaron Wells and Vice President of Table Games Brian Benowitz.

And there is of course, Bobby Baldwin, one the most powerful names in poker. 

“I work for Bobby Baldwin,” Atlwies said.

“When we want to make decisions we all get together and figure out what we are going to do. The thing we do well is that we listen to our customers. They are going to tell us what they want to play and when I say it starts here, literally the games usually start here at Aria or Bellagio,” Altwies said.

Working and Growing Together

While their positions are at separate properties, the two are breaking new ground when it comes to working together to bring new trends to poker rooms among MGM Resorts International’s properties in order to provide the best experience for all customers.

“In the history of our company, poker rooms have not really worked with each other,” Altwies said. “Everyone else has but poker rooms have not, it has kind of stayed on the side lines. So what Craig and I want to do is work together.”

There has been a shift in operations throughout MGM, with properties now working together instead of as separate entities and that shift has created ideas between Lumpp and Altwies.

“Why would I want to compete against him when we can bring our resources together and create something that has never happened before that is just going to be awesome?” Altwies said.

“We talk all the time,” Lumpp said. “We are responsible for our business, but with that being said, we also want to see the industry grow. If the industry is doing well we are all going to be doing well. If the industry can grow, everyone is winning.”

And winning is what it is all about.

“The only thing that will do, the one thing that is going to happen, is that our customers and our employees are going to be a lot happier,” Altwies said. “We have some great ideas, now what we have to do is sit down, write a business plan, and figure out if [our] top-level executives want to go with those ideas.”

With an incredible journey behind them, the two continue to look ahead at endless possibilities.

The situation with the big game will never happen again, according to Atlwies, who is now responsible for filling the dealer boxes with competent and knowledgeable dealers.

“At that time if you got a job here you were supposed to know everything,” he said. “Now you are still supposed to know it but there are certain dealers we hire because of their personalities. They may not know all the games but they are professional and, with a professional dealer, you can tell them how to deal a game one time and they will deal it perfect the rest of their lives. That is a pro and that is what we have at Aria and Bellagio.”

On some level they are looking for themselves. For an applicant that will not give up when faced with an unheard of game and will not shy away from the players at Table 1. They are looking for the future dealer who will step into that box and make the players happy.

“The number one thing we are going to look for is if people have the attitude and the willingness to learn,” Lumpp said. “It’s just something we have an innate nature for finding. That is where our talents come in. To bring in the people who love this and want to do better and deal well. Adam and I can both tell you we have hired people with very little experience but they have the right attitude and that goes miles.”

While neither is ready to give away the family secrets just yet, they are confident the future is bright and the path will continue to stretch out before them.

“There is always a next,” Altwies said. “Always.” ♠