Normandie Casino exec Robert Turner marvels at how a life can hang on the threads connecting it to unexpected moments.
There he was . . .
A young man, not yet out of his teens, working in a men’s store in Huntsville, Ala., when a customer invites him to a poker game, a 50-cent game is what it was. Sounded like fun. Turner showed up and sat through the evening only to later decide he had probably been cheated.
Which got him to thinking. Why not run an honest game, a place where a man would not have to tolerate experiences like he had been through. He started the game in his apartment. Time goes by and things are going well.
Until the night he returns to his apartment. The game had been going on without him on this particular evening because he was on a date.
He’s at his door when it swings open and he is greeted by a man in a ski mask pointing a gun at his head. Whoops! Who was he? Who had sent him? Who had staked him?
Turner swallowed, took a deep breath and saw no reason to be less than truthful. He told the gunman it was his game and his apartment. He was pushed to the floor and tied up when a second gunman comes out of another room wanting to know which one of these guys is Robert Turner?
That would be me, Turner says.
Turned out Turner’s girlfriend was on the phone and the second man wanted to know what to say to keep her from blowing the whistle on a nice little highjacking. Turner says, “Tell her I’ll talk to her later.”
And so he decided to pack up, take his fast-developing poker skills and entrepreneurial instincts to a land where a man could gamble without this kind of trauma. Las Vegas is what came to mind. Turner arrived in the self-proclaimed “entertainment capital of the world” during the mid-1970s when poker players like Bill Boyd, Doyle Brunson, “Sarge” Farris, “Sailor” Roberts, and, well, the list goes on, were enjoying some of their best years.
The Golden Nugget poker room was a center of action under Boyd’s direction. Turner remembers a “nice little no limit game” at the Nugget with an all-star lineup that included regulars like Brunson and Farris.
“Matter of fact, one of my first big wins was the $30,000 I won in a $2-$5 no limit hold’em game at the Nugget with Sailor and Doyle. I’d have to say that game was the best run of cards I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never had one like that since.
Boyd eventually offered Turner his first job in the poker industry, as a prop and a host. It was because of Turner’s friendship with Boyd that Omaha first arrived in Las Vegas at the Golden Nugget. This was 1983. Turner and a friend had been discussing a fourcard version of hold’em they both enjoyed.
“Limit hold’em as it was usually played then could be so boring. I decided I’d take Omaha down to Mr. Boyd and see what he thought of spreading it.”
Boyd calls in state gaming regulators to explain what they had in mind. The state said OK and Boyd gave this four hole card version of hold’em a spot in the corner of his room.
“I wasn’t smart enough back then,” Turner grins, “to realize I should have tried to patent it.”
Turner played professionally for a number of years, traveling to Europe and wherever, looking for the good games wherever they might be.
He decided do settle down in 1986 and accepted an offer to be General Manager with his partner Marsha Waggoner at the Horseshoe Club in Gardena. California had just legalized hold’em, and a new kind of “gold rush” was shaping up as poker pros from just about everywhere headed for the action California seemed to promise.
The way the Horseshoe gig developed, Turner decided to bring a no-limit game into the casino.
“It was so successful the owners asked me if I would like to manage all the poker. I told them yes. Three months later they gave me the whole place to run.”
In 1986, Turner was also the first California casino executive to spread Omaha eight high-low split. As he searched for new ideas suited to the opportunities being created in California, he held the first Omaha world championships at the Horseshoe.
At other California casinos, Turner would be a trend-setter with his artful use of entertainment, boxing, and billiard or pool promotions. George Hardie recruited Turner to take over as executive host at the Bicycle Club in 1991, a couple years later adding the duties of marketing director. He was in charge of the high limit games, hired the props, and reported to Hardie with respect to various promotional ideas.
Turner left the Bike in 1995 and joined the marketing department of MGM, working out of the Beverly Hills office.
He laughs about that now, the way things happened. “When I got the call that MGM wanted to talk to me about working in Beverly Hills, this scene from something like ‘Beverly Hills Hillbillies’ flashed across my mind. I’m thinking, you want me to come to work for you, this kid from Alabama? You sure you’re calling the right guy.”
He was exactly what they wanted. But fresh opportunity kept finding Turner’s phone number and he went to the Crystal Park Casino in Compton as its GM for a couple of years beginning in 1998 until he moved to similar duties at the Hustler in 2000. About two years later he was lured back to the Bike.
Turner says, “No-limit poker was just coming into its own because of television, but there was kind of slow growth for a while.” This was about the time Turner began to unleash his promotional skills with a vengeance as television and the Internet combined to fuel poker’s growth.
He created the Internet show known as “Live at the Bike.”
A bit more than a month ago Turner joined the 70- year-old family-owned Normandie as its Executive Host/Player Development Director where he hit the ground running. He’s scheduled the March 27 through April 1 filming of a billiards tournament that will be aired on ESPN, probably in May. The filming will be open to the public.
Midnight madness events and ladies night tournaments – the latter will be held each Friday – are also being added at the Normandie. Scanning the flow of events that have defined his career he grins, “It’s kind of funny, that first job I had with the Horseshoe – I’m about back now to where I started, just across the street from the Horseshoe.” Turner was inducted into poker’s Senior Hall of Fame in 1999. T. J. Cloutier and the late Kenny Flayton were inducted at the same time. Turner’s made his mark as a player – 30 cashes in the World Series of Poker, including a final table finish in 1994’s main event, but it is his promotional instincts that have provided big boosts to his steady rise through the poker business. In 1992 Robert started the first Poker Roast to honor poker superstars whose consistent contributions made poker what it is today. They’ve roasted Puggy Pierson, Lyle Berman, Doyle Brunson, Mike Caro and others since that time.
About 1993, he was busy laboring over the planning for a big poker event for the Bicycle Club. Turner remembers that now as the first California poker promotion to attract corporate sponsorship.
“I was sitting in my office about five in the evening and the thought occurs to me that it would be nice if we could give away a new Lincoln.”
He thought some more about it and decided to call Ford Motor Company in Detroit. No sense messing around with a California outlet which would probably not offer more than a good discount. Turner goes to information, gets a Detroit phone number for Ford and begins dialing.
“A guy answers the phone in marketing and I go into my spiel, explaining who I was – that I had this poker tournament in California that was going to attract several thousand players – and we wanted to give away two cars.”
Was Ford interested? “He told me it sounded like a good idea and he would have someone get hold of me.”
Turner gave the voice in Detroit his name and phone number before he disconnects, suddenly thinking, “How stupid am I. I didn’t get his name or title. That late in the day it was probably the janitor having some fun with me.”
Maybe a month goes by before Turner’s phone rings and he finds himself talking to the western region marketing director for Ford who says, “I was told to get a hold of you about giving away some Ford products.” Turner’s sits there thinking, wow, I wonder who that guy was.
“To this day I don’t know who it was I was talking to in Detroit.”
But once again, Turner had been in the right place at the right time with a good idea.