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From New York City to Green Valley Ranch: An Interview with Kathy Raymond

by Rich Korbin |  Published: Nov 07, 2018


Kathy RaymondKathy Raymond has run some of the biggest and most successful poker operations in the United States, one of the many reasons why she was inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame — Class of 2012. She’s managed mega-sized poker rooms at Foxwoods, the Venetian, and now Green Valley Ranch. Throughout her 25-year career, Raymond has been a true pioneer, not only blazing a trail for herself, but giving so many others an equal chance to also enjoy the opportunities she was granted.

Raymond began working in poker in 1992 as a dealer, and then steadily rose up through the ranks on her way to the top. At various times, she was widely regarded as not just one of the most powerful women in the game, but also the most influential executives in the entire poker industry. Raymond is the person who is perhaps most responsible for the creation of “deep stack” tournaments, which have become wildly popular everywhere. She recently sat down with Card Player’s Rich Korbin.

Rich Korbin: Kathy, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. We’ve been friends for such a long time, but this is my first chance to interview you. Tell us about your life before you got into poker.

Kathy Raymond: I was born in Manhattan, in New York. But I mainly grew up north of the city, Dobbs Ferry, NY and later moved to Hartford, Connecticut. I attended a Catholic high school. Then, I went to UConn, where I studied both finance and accounting, earning my degree in business management. That’s when I got married. I had a daughter, then a son, after that. While I was raising a family, I took a job doing the accounting for a large furniture company. I worked my way up the ladder to become the chief financial officer, but still — it wasn’t fulfilling to me. That’s because I always liked learning, and I really loved building things. I probably should have become a mechanical engineer.

Korbin: That’s a highly unusual background for someone who would later get into poker and succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Raymond: That’s true. It was a really tough time, back then. This was true not just in Connecticut, but across the country. The economy was going through major changes. Factories were shutting down all over. It was a major transition especially where I lived, and for people like me. By this time, I had moved on and became a private accountant, CPA. But all around me the economy was changing. I had to tell people who had built businesses and spent their whole lives working that it was probably smart to close their doors. After a while, not only wasn’t that fun anymore, it got depressing. So, sometime during the early ‘90s, I heard about them breaking ground on a giant new place that was soon to be built. That groundbreaking project was named Foxwoods.

Korbin: That’s great. How did you get into Foxwoods?

Raymond: I wasn’t much of a gambler. Sure, I’d been to Atlantic City and was familiar with casinos, but there was something about this that really got me excited. A friend of mine applied for a job and encouraged me to apply also. At the time, there were people with PhDs applying to be dealers. There were no other jobs out there. I didn’t apply because I had no other options, I applied because it seemed like a fun thing to do and was exciting. That’s what really swayed me to get into the business.

Korbin: Why did you choose poker over other casino games?

Raymond: I really didn’t know there was a difference when it came to dealing jobs. Initially, I wanted to be a blackjack dealer. But after they interviewed me, they said, ‘we think you’ll be better in poker.’ So, I said, ‘okay, great, whatever!’ I was open to anything. They had me go to school for eight weeks, five days a week. At the time, I had no idea how this would all play into my ambition, which was building things. But I just knew it would. I knew this was something I needed to do, almost like a sixth sense. It immediately gave me a sense of fulfillment that I didn’t have before. It was a venture into the unknown.

Korbin: What were those early days like at Foxwoods? Was it as wild as people used to claim?

Raymond: My first day, I started work at 2 a.m. I was supposed to get off the next morning at 8 a.m. But that’s not what happened. When Foxwoods opened, there were lines around the building. There were thousands of people. When 10 people came out of the casino, they would let 10 more people in. Foxwoods was that crowded, all day long, and even late at night. So, my shift became 12 to 14 hours, seven days a week.

Korbin: Did you like dealing poker?

Raymond: I was having the time of my life! But there were some scary moments. When I started out, they were so short on dealers that everyone had to work wherever they were needed. I was still new and they tossed me into a $150-$300 seven card stud game. I did everything correct – two cards down and one card up. But then, because I’d been dealing a lot of hold’em, I also put out three flop cards. Everyone froze. They all looked at me like I was crazy. I was afraid they’d get mad, call the floorman over, and might even fire me on the spot. So, I just said, ‘Gentlemen. Can we just play this one out like it is? We’ll do eight cards, and the best five cards wins?’ Everyone said, ‘sure!’ So, we basically invented a new game for one hand only, and it was $150-$300 limit. That’s the kind of place Foxwoods was, back then.

Korbin: It sounds like in that environment there was lots of room for advancement.

Raymond Featured On Cover Of 1999 Poker DigestRaymond: There was. And it happened fast. I went to dual rate within six weeks, then onto the floor full-time. I ran chips. I worked the board. I did everything. All that exposure really gave me a perspective about poker from every vantage point. I also began playing a bit, so I knew what the players wanted.

Korbin: How did you end up being the poker room manager at Foxwoods?

Raymond: After a while, they came to me. They were going to hire a full-time tournament director. They approached me and asked if I was interested. Well, without thinking I blurted out, “oh sure, I can do it!’ But the reality was — I had no clue. I made lots of calls to people, including experienced tournament managers in Las Vegas and they were so helpful with advice. I tried to remember that kindness later on when I became more experienced and could help others, as well. Incredibly, that promotion led to being chosen as the Executive Director of Poker just a short time later. I had started out as a dealer in 1992 when we first opened and there had been 39 tables. Just five years later, by 1997, I was the head of poker operations. Within a few more years, we’d expand to 142 tables and had more than 800 employees.

Korbin: Why do you think Foxwoods poker became the new big thing back during the mid-‘90s and stayed on top for so long?

Raymond: To be perfectly honest about it, we had tremendous advantages at Foxwoods. We had a lock on the entire tri-state area, which was Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. And, of course, we also drew heavily from New York. Even Atlantic City didn’t have the spot we were in with marketing to poker players. So, we had a captive audience because they had nowhere else to go and play. We could have filled three Foxwoods with the crowds we were getting.

We started a tournament series called the World Poker Open, and we even got international players to attend that. It proved so successful that next we launched the New England Poker Classic. This was all before the poker boom that came later. Still, we were packing the room and selling out many of our events. Later on, I walked in and a man named Steve Lipscomb walked up and introduced himself. He said he was starting a television series to be named the World Poker Tour, and he asked if I was interested in hearing more. Within half an hour, we’d signed on to be part of the WPT. In fact, we were the first to sign on.

Korbin: It’s interesting hearing how you were there at one of the formative moments in poker, which was the bridge between the past and the future.

Raymond: What I saw that day was the future. Steve Lipscomb’s presentation, especially the concept of showing hole cards, was the future of poker. It would bring a whole new audience to the game that wasn’t there before. Everyone would be an armchair quarterback, only with playing cards instead of a football. Viewers could imagine what they would do and how they’d play the hand, and that’s how it became like an interactive spectator sport. And, seeing how the hand played out, it could also be a learning experience.

Korbin: Do you consider poker a sport?

Raymond: Yes, I do. When you can do things to make yourself better, and improve your skills, I think that qualifies as a sport. Poker is a skilled event. The most comparable thing I can think of is chess. Poker and chess have a lot in common. Figuring odds, analytical skills, reading people, math knowledge, and endurance — they’re all critical attributes for any successful poker player.

Korbin: Let’s talk about the next major chapter in your poker life — the Venetian. How did that come about?

Raymond: One day in 2006, totally out of the blue, I got a call from the Vice President of Casino Operations at the Venetian. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in moving to Las Vegas and taking over the room there. We’d just had eight inches of snow in Connecticut and all I could think of was jumping in a swimming pool. We’d also done a lot at Foxwoods and I thought it was a time for a change. I wanted to build something new. As soon as we go out here, we found our dream home, moved, and I even got my swimming pool.

Korbin: What was the adjustment like, from Foxwoods to the Venetian?

Raymond: The hardest part was the first few months. We’d been used to having things pretty much to ourselves back east. But in Las Vegas, there were poker rooms across the street and next door, and tournaments everywhere. So, it was a much more competitive atmosphere out here.

Early on, I came to work and there was just one poker table going. I figured that was just a really slow day. But when I came in the next morning, there was still just one table. I thought to myself, ‘uh-oh, we’re in trouble, we need to do something.’ The Venetian had not done any marketing or promotion. They had just expected to open up poker and say, ‘okay, here you go’ and expect the room to fill up. Well, that’s not the way it works in Las Vegas. I even had some doubts myself about it after the numbers didn’t pick up for two more weeks.

I confided in my husband who had always been so supportive to me, and told him that we might have made a mistake. My husband has always been the wind beneath my wings. He said some things that really motivated me and gave me an optimistic attitude. I think everyone needs to have that kick from someone the love and trust on certain occasions, and I’ve been luckier than most to have that in my life.

Korbin: How did you eventually make things so successful?

Raymond: I decided that I had some serious work to do. I went out to every poker room I could find and I observed and talked to people. It was like a “grass roots” mission. I was looking for that one or maybe two things that I could provide, that no one else had. The first thing I think we developed that was superior was customer service. We really worked to build a great staff.

The other thing we added, and this came months later, was totally renovating our tournaments. I realized tournament players were becoming increasingly sophisticated. They were reading books. They were exchanging ideas. They were hiring tutors. But they didn’t really have events that allowed them to utilize their skills. The tournaments were 15-20 minute levels designed to get their money, and get them out. I recognized the opportunity to create a new style of tournament that would allow players to exhibit their skill.

Korbin: I think we’re about to talk about Deep Stacks.

Raymond: Absolutely. I was a bit on my own with the concept. No one had tried it before. We decided to run the first Deep Stacks series at the same time Wynn was running a tournament because we knew lots of players would be in town and we were right next door. Players recognized we were offering something unique. It allowed them to play. It grew and grew. It kept on growing and became a tremendous event that has really changed tournament poker.

Korbin: Did you get pushback from anyone?

Raymond: Lots of pushback from around the Strip. But we had to do something and we also had to run an event where the players are close by. We couldn’t do our launch while the Bellagio was doing an event because that was too close. I also got lots of objection from people in the poker industry, including other tournament directors and poker managers. The tournaments ran longer. The buy-in had to be big enough to cover the costs.

One thing I also thought was critical was — when trying to acquire new players, we had one shot at it, so we had to do things right. From a customer service point of view, and from giving the players value. I think that’s why we proved successful in both acquiring new players and keeping them, as well. The more players you have, the more players you get.

Korbin: How long did you stay with the Venetian?

Raymond: Ten years. I retired in 2015. Or, I thought I was going to retire [laughter].

Korbin: What made you come back? How did poker ‘pull you back in?’

Raymond: I think it really all gets back to what we talked about earlier. I like to build new things.

Korbin: Okay, so on to Green Valley Ranch — a Stations Casino. Tell us that story.

Raymond: When I came on, things were so different here. I was used to a corporate structure that was somewhat cold and even impersonal. We had been left to our own way of doing things. When I came here, it was just totally different. I’m still amazed by all the differences.

Korbin: What’s an example?

Raymond: On my second day, the property General Manager came down along with the Assistant General Manager and entered the poker room. They both said, ‘hello and welcome — is there anything we can do help? Is there anything you need?’ I was just blown away by that. I wasn’t used to it. I had been used to a culture and climate that if you needed to see someone above, then you had to walk upstairs and make an appointment, and whatever. But here, the attitude is much more a team effort from the top down. They come to me, not so much to check on things, but to try and help. That’s so refreshing in this business, especially for someone who works in poker. You see a lot of employees here that have been around for years, because they really like it here. We have one employee who has been with Stations for 30 years. You don’t see that loyalty as much on the Strip.

Korbin: Some poker rooms have shut down in Las Vegas. There’s even some perception that poker isn’t doing as well in this city.

Raymond: Obviously, I don’t buy into that at all, or I would never have come back to work. In fact, I believe poker has a very bright future ahead, not just here in Las Vegas, but in many places. Changes will happen, especially with E-gaming and online poker and expanded legalized sports betting. But those who adapt to change will do just fine. Adapting to change is important, whether you’re running a poker room or devising strategy as a poker player

Korbin: Stations has been very active in promotions, like bad beat jackpots, and things like that. Is that going to be a major focus at Green Valley Ranch?

Raymond: I’m not a huge fan of promotions between properties, such as seeing who can give away the most. My vision for this room is not jackpots and promotions. Of course, we are going to give back what’s taken. But I see building player loyalty based on promotions to be a faulty premise. It’s a fleeting moment. What you need that’s far more important is building a poker room from the ground up — one that’s comfortable, a staff that’s competent and consistent, and a friendly atmosphere, plus a few amenities thrown in for good measure. We feel that by building a better player experience, players who may be chasing big promotions and jackpots will come back here after that promotion is over or the jackpot’s been hit. That’s the player we are after.

Korbin: You have to be very proud of being a mentor to so many of your peers. When I travel around the country and talk to people who are working in poker, your name often comes up. To name a few, Deborah Giardina, Tom Young and Tracy Mendiola are industry standouts all of whom you’ve worked with. You have disciples everywhere.

Raymond: That is so gratifying for me. It means everything. It means just as much to know my staff is with me working towards the same goals. I always looked about the people around me not as working for me, but with me. I think this kind of loyalty even extends to poker players. If you have good people working around you, you’re going to attract more players, too. Everything works together.

Korbin: Do you think this is the last stop for you in your career as a poker executive?

Raymond: There’s no such thing as a last stop. Remember, Rich — I’m into building things. I’m just getting started!

Follow Kathy Raymond on Twitter. Also, be sure to check out the Green Valley Ranch homepage, and learn more about their poker room.