The Trump Taj Mahal Casino ('Taj') poker room drew its biggest crowd in years, for its closing weekend, last month. The nostalgic full house bore respectful witness to the downfall of Atlantic City’s once most iconic card room.
People were there for a host of different reasons during the last step of transition from boom to bust. Poker executives of the Borgata Hotel and Casino were part of the mix.A reciprocal visit by Taj executives to the Borgata poker room soon followed--with variable greetings from players and personnel.
A Curious Cast of Characters
Vincent Alonge, the Director of Poker Operations at the Borgata, and a former Taj Poker Shift Manager, made the trip back to the Taj to wish former colleagues the best and “to say goodbye to the poker room" he had called home for eighteen years.
Mabel Louie, Executive Poker Host at the Borgata since day one, also visited the Taj’s people-packed tables, during the final hurrah. For Louie minding her business—attending to customers—is a never-ending daily priority. On this occasion, however, her focus was mostly on the sadness of so many needed jobs that were about to be lost.
Tab Duchateau, Borgata's Tournament Director moved around the room alongside Alonge; following Alonge's mantra of study, listen, and learn. Duchateau builds tournament fare, attracts competitors from hither and yon, and revs up the tournament engine with a regular and frequent timetable for a buffet of varied events, in contrast to the Taj, which allowed tournaments to deteriorate into an irrelevant side show.
The triumvirate of Alonge, Louie and Duchateau was mindful that the Borgata poker room stands on the shoulders of a Taj poker team that drew full houses for more than a decade of booming times. The trio also stood together, gratefully, for employment at the Borgata, which has adapted to a dramatically changed poker world over the years—one that thirsts and thrives on tournament competition.
Tom Gitto, the Director of Poker, at the Taj, was overseeing the end of an era. But, in this down moment of a pending closure, Charlie Rando, Taj VP of Casino Operations Rando was looking up. Together they were already focusing on a business plan to re-open Taj poker come July 2015, with Gitto at the helm. In the interim, Gitto has returned to his Taj roots on the casino floor, eagerly awaiting the chance to settle the score with his company’s archrival.
Carl Icahn, a corporate takeover specialist was in the wings. Icahn, the owner of the Atlantic City Tropicana Casino and Resort, is poised to take the Taj out of bankruptcy. His reorganization plan calls for cancelation of a Taj employee union contract, which is currently the subject of litigation. The Taj obtained a favorable court ruling last month. However, if the ruling is reversed by a higher court, Icahn has the right to back out.
Except for its final weekend, all but the most stalwart loyalists had long since migrated from the Taj poker room to other card rooms down Miss America's Boardwalk and beyond it. The Borgata, in the more upscale Marina District of Atlantic City, has been the chief beneficiary.
In the wake of the Taj poker room shutdown, Rando and Gitto were left to take stock of the failed poker operation and dream of reprising its glory days.
Taj Bosses Make Surprise Visit to the Borgata
The Rando/Gitto, team hit the ground running, with a ballsy field trip to the Borgata. Their plan was to get an eyeful of the competition that clobbered its business, while giving an earful to Borgata poker patrons and staff. Rando and Gitto made good on their plan.
They pressed the flesh with former Taj customers and reportedly grandstanded their message; plans for a revival that will give the Borgata poker room a run for its money.
Gitto was previously Alonge’s boss at the Taj—for more than 15 years. Rando had worked at the Borgata during its opening days. Neither Rando nor Gitto called Alonge or anyone else on his management team with a "heads up," in advance of their visit.
There is nothing quite like a spontaneous reunion with old friends to present your new agenda!
Rando, Gitto, and Alonge; Intersecting Lives
Rando and Gitto are native sons of Atlantic City. They share family ties dating back to their childhood. Rando and Gitto’s older brother were good friends. Alonge was born and bred in New York. An Atlantic City transplant, in 1985, he found work as a limousine driver; make that Donald Trump’s driver.
Rando was once a cop. His casino industry career, of more than thirty years, has taken him on a hopscotch path to Las Vegas, Louisiana, and Delaware, as well as some half dozen Atlantic City casinos, where he is most at home. “Complicated issues ring his bell,” notes a former colleague.
In 2012, the Taj called and reeled him in. Industry colleagues say Rando is known and liked all around town. He remains well connected with casinos near and far, including the Borgata where he has an extra special connection.
Gitto got his start in the gaming industry at Resorts in 1980. He moved to the Taj for its opening in 1990. He was a member of the Taj poker team from inception in 1993 to the closing of the poker room. February 15, 2015 -- save a few weeks of unemployment in 2012.
Gitto started at the Taj as a table games floor supervisor, then moved to the poker room, and up the ladder, to Vice President of Poker Operations. During a bout of economic jitters, the Taj stripped him of his officer title and drastically reduced his compensation. Gitto soldiered on as the Director/Manager of Poker, keeping the critical elements of the job he loved.
The Company's hard times eventually led to termination of his employment, just before Rando came onboard. Rando promptly brought Gitto back as Poker Director, explaining, “I believed he had the knowledge base and experience needed.”
Rando asserts, “Gitto is the best poker room manager in town.” On the closing of the poker room, Rando stood by Gitto, putting him in a position as assistant shift manager on the casino floor.
Alonge transferred from the driver seat of Trump’s limo, to a poker dealer seat at the Taj, on its opening day in 1993. Alonge became a poker room supervisor a year later, and then a shift manager. He remained at the Taj as a poker room shift manager until the fall of 2011, when he went to the Borgata as an executive poker host —with a future.
Two years after joining the Borgata poker team, he landed his current role as Borgata’s Director of Poker.
In combination, Rando, Gitto, and Alonge count almost a hundred years of experience in the casino industry, and no shortage of shared highs and lows in the business, along the way. Each of them found true love in the workplace. Their wives know more than a thing or two about the casino business.
Rando’s wife is a table games dealer at the Borgata. Gitto’s wife and Alonge’s wife are former poker dealers at the Taj. Alonge’s wife continues to deal poker, in town, but unlike the policy at the Taj, the Borgata's anti-nepotism policy precludes her from working in the same department as her spouse.
The Borgata reunion about to occur would allow for so many topics of conversation!
Borgata Poker Room Show
Rando and Gitto made their way, down the marble floor that leads to the Borgata poker room, taking in warm greetings from onetime colleagues and customers. They carried themselves “as if they had the world on a string, not a poker room that bit the dust,” observed one longtime employee, who recognized the duo as they nonchalantly approached the entryway to the high limit area.
The arrival of the twosome sent poker room personnel scurrying to alert Alonge. He got the message, quickly, but decided to finish his afternoon round of customer visits at the opposite end of the poker room, before moving into position to greet the two men.
In the meantime, Rando and Gitto moved in on their intended targets—the bigger stakes players in the high limit section. Gitto shifted gears; he got into pitching mode; thanking former customers for their prior patronage, and promising a grander-than-ever Taj poker room, within a matter of months, according to one eavesdropper. A player, in a limit hold'em game told this reporter, “The welcome mat offered by fans was broad but subdued." He added, "Naysayers were more noticeable and more vocal."
Several players and staff, queried for this article, called Gitto’s visit inappropriate, given the apparent objective. One player, who watched the unfolding scene, from an Omaha game, quipped, “Those guys sure were priming the pump, shamelessly.” Another longtime Borgata customer called out the Taj executives as “poachers who should be thrown out of the room.” A nearby Omaha player reportedly shook his head and mumbled, “Wrong time and wrong place for this.”
Alonge and Louie Mambo with Rando and Gitto
Dressed in a gray suit, dark grey shirt, and a multi-colored tie, Alonge emerged center stage—with a broad, welcoming smile. Louie, the Queen Bee of the poker room, sashayed into place at Alonge’s side, ready to follow his lead —whatever that might be.
Alonge extended his hand to Rando. He welcomed Gitto as a long lost friend and then stood pat; chatting amiably with the two men, for everyone nearby to see and hear. A proud member of Borgata’s executive team, Alonge never had a better opportunity to show off to his former boss. Invoking the Borgata core principle of excellence in customer service, he offered his special guests a guided tour of the property.
Louie, an Asian-American stunner, smiled as broadly as Alonge, and sent the three Italian surnamed bosses on their way. Turning on her stiletto heels, Louie promptly headed back to the business of taking care of her customers.
A Tour Connects Three Good Men
Alonge, Gitto and Rando strolled around the property. Alonge was more than happy to boast about his employer and the “amazing support he gets from top management. The conversation then turned more personal between Alonge and Gitto. The two former colleagues recalled better times at the Taj; recounting events, tales from the felt and funny player stories. It was a jaunt down memory lane.
Near the end of the visit, his guests made their objective clear; they were aiming to take back their former customer base. Alonge did not miss the opportunity to hit them between the eyes. He stated, pointedly, "The poker department at the Borgata is a fully integrated part of the Company’s business."
Rando and Alonge Sing Gitto’s Praises
Later, Alonge reflected on the get together--especially with Gitto. He recalled sage advice he received from Gitto over the years. Alonge tells this reporter that Gitto coached him only intermittently, but that each counseling experience was full of wisdom that has had a lasting impact on him. He elaborates, eagerly: “Tom helped me to understand the importance of getting to yes with a customer. He explained different ways to find common ground when personal feelings toward the customer might otherwise send you in the direction of saying no.
Alonge is equally quick to defend Gitto against wholesale attacks. Remembering his own experience at the Taj, Alonge says, “During the golden years, it was hard to keep up-with nearly out of control demands." He observes, "In the leaner times, Tom was constrained by budgets and management policies." By all accounts, the Taj has looked upon poker as a stepchild—for years.
Rando, for his part, enthusiastically endorses Gitto as "the man for the job," referring to their current efforts to rejuvenate the Taj poker room. Rando clearly regards Gitto as the person to make it happen. Rando says with certitude, “As long as I am around, Tom Gitto is my choice.” Lest there is any doubt in anyone’s mind, Rando tells this reporter twice, “I think Tom is the best poker room manager in this town. “
Some folks may remember Gitto’s earlier days at the Taj, as a party boy who mixed it up with players and personnel. But colleagues and customers who have watched him mature over the years, claim that Gitto is strongly guided by his religious faith; noting that he takes work issues, assistance to employees, compassion for friends, and the vows of marriage with his second wife, very seriously.
Author Note: Gitto declined to speak substantively for this story, except to make one global statement, "You can say that when I am wrong, I own up to it and apologize." Gitto has previously described himself to this reporter as a person whose life is defined by his deeply religious convictions and God’s grace. He was true to his faith in expressing regret for any conduct in customer relations matters that left an opportunity for improvement.
The Taj Was “The Nuts”
In its heyday, The Taj rocked like no other card room in the country. Under Gitto’s management, the golden years of poker got into full swing. He made the most of Donald Trump’s visits to the poker room, chatting easily with Trump and his entourage—including the latest beauty in his life. And, to the delight of customers, The Donald pranced around the room, engaging players in small talk.
The room was always jumping. Princes, business moguls, and poker pros anted up in games where the turn of a card could produce thousands of dollars on any round. Sightings of the rich and famous were routine. A segment of the Rounders movie filmed there. The Donald’s initiative—the United States Poker Championship, begun in 1996—built big fields of dreams.
Bookies and sports bettors, loan sharks, and desperados were part of the mix, too, as long as they were discrete when shimmying up to players to collect debts or to plead for a buy in. And, railbirds from all walks of life could catch the action, either within a few feet of the tables or from the outside windows that rimmed the poker room.
No matter the glitz, glamor, and grandeur of Trump’s poker parlor, it was at the same time a tribute to the natural beauty of egalitarianism. There were no high limit “platforms,” no private rooms within the poker room, and no velvet ropes to separate the nosebleed games from those that hosted retirees in tennis shoes and other purely recreational players at the 1-5 limit games. In those days, poker players still cared most about how each seat played the chips. In the late 90’s they also cared, increasingly, about fresher air at the tables.
Gitto Brings in Fresh Air!
Gitto’s accomplishments go beyond the stewardship of a mammoth-sized poker room, packed to the gills, with action off the page, for more than a decade. His greatest legacy to the poker world may be his fearless initiative to end smoking in the poker room.
In January 2000, The Taj became the first major poker room in America to put in place a corporate policy that prohibited smoking in the card room. His proven success, in the face of fiery resistance by skeptics, pushed casinos across the country to catch up with the cool new trend.
Gitto was a savior for providing smoke-free air in the poker room!
Gitto’s Achilles Heels
Gitto's efforts to curb abusive conduct were less formidable. From the beginning, Taj poker room management, imported from California, adopted the west coast’s renowned laissez –faire attitude toward player conduct. And under Gitto’s management, there was little visible effort to change that mindset until faced with an incident that produced chaos and a threat to call in authorities.
Gitto stepped up to the plate, plastering metal signs around the room that laid down a new law: a zero-tolerance abuse policy. Civility among players, however, remained mostly optional, unless a formal complaint was made. And poker room personnel rarely seemed eager to apply the ominous warnings of enforcement, except for the benefit of employees.
According to several former players and staff, previously loyal customers fled the Taj in continuing waves, as lean times wore on. Players have cited the provocation as worsening abuse, a growing nucleus of “undesirables” at the tables, too many bedbug incidents in the hotel's bedrooms, and mice openly sharing customer floor space.
Trump Entertainment/Taj Mahal Casino on the Ropes
The jig was up for the Taj poker room, by December 2014. The Taj posted poker revenues of $145,000 compared to $1,412, 000 for Borgata the same month. In announcing the poker room's closure, Trump Entertainment Resorts, CEO, Robert Griffin reported that the Taj poker room had become unprofitable. He offered a ray of hope for a reopening, "hopefully by July 4, 2015. More recently, word on the street indicates a "due date" of July 17, 2015 for rebirth of the Taj Poker Room.
Rando is both an optimist and a realist. He keeps moving forward, steering away from any conversation of failure. At the same time, he acknowledges uncertainty as to the future for the Taj, the poker room, or even his own role. Rando asserts, “We went to the Borgata looking for pointers” on their successful operations. He expresses appreciation for Alonge’s hospitality, saying, “I like him. I think he handles his job very well.” Our conversation ends with a reminder that the heart of the successful Borgata poker room is transplanted players from the Taj--players Rando and Gitto want to bring back to their home.
Icahn Likes Poker
If the Icahn deal goes through, the Taj will have a poker aficionado at the top of the food chain. Icahn has played poker for as long as friends can remember; he supposedly amassed poker winnings that became seed money for his early investments. He has since become a billionaire! In 2003, as the new owner of the Atlantic City Sands Hotel and Casino, Icahn stepped right into the poker room. Taking a page from Trump’s successful U.S. Poker Championship Tournament, he raised the stakes. In the fall, he hosted the Sands' “Million Dollar Challenge: Showdown at the Sands.” It targeted business moguls and top poker pros. He got it televised on Fox Sports.
At the end of the day, the hype was bigger than the tournament or the ratings for the show. But the event was a breakthrough moment for the concept of "high roller" poker tournaments. Only time will tell if he has the appetite to back the plans for a new poker palace at the Taj. Meanwhile at the Borgata, the beat goes on and "the show never ends."