From busboy to the Gaming Hall of Fame: A conversation with Mike Rumbolz

September 22, 2022 6:16 PM
Photo: Mike Rumbolz, Everi Holdings
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
September 22, 2022 6:16 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

To say Mike Rumbolz has come a long way in his gaming-industry career defines understatement. In a business brimming with remarkable success stories and meteoric flameouts, in some ways his personal journey ranks among the most improbable.

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He wasn’t the scion of a pioneer green-felt family, but you might easily conclude he was raised in the racket. With that acknowledged, not even many successful gaming executives of the modern era can list teenage experience bussing and waiting tables on their resumé. Rumbolz can do that and a whole lot more.

In the wake of the announcement that his name will join those honored in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame, Rumbolz is invariably reminded of those early days. In many ways, his story exemplifies the tale of the local boy who makes good. He was, after all, just a kid from Valley High School looking for a job — and not imaging where it might take him.

The one he found one in 1968 at the Stardust first involved clearing plates and pouring coffee, then running food orders as a waiter.

“This is a Hunter Thompson moment,” he says, laughing easily at the arc of his career. “What a strange journey. I started working in the gaming industry in ’68, back in the good old days when the casinos were owned by people who weren’t on the license.”

Insert your favorite DeNiro, Pesci, and Scorsese imagery here.

“I worked in the gaming industry the whole time that I was going to school,” Rumbolz says. “It was the largest industry we’d had in Nevada for a century and at the time I started in it, we were the only jurisdiction that had legal casino gaming. We had carpet joints, as opposed to sawdust joints.”

That work history included breaking in after a clumsy dealing audition at Circus Circus for Mike Ensign, dealing blackjack and poker at the Golden Nugget when it was run by a young Steve Wynn, and time at the Hacienda and other casinos.

After undergraduate studies at UNLV and law school at the University of Southern California, a focus on gaming law not only seemed like an ideal fit, but was already a passion. He fell in with sage company when he was mentored by Joe Brown, Herb Jones, and Mike Sloan.

“Gaming law is what I was drawn to,” he says. “It’s where I wanted to be.”

At a time when the legal community was a much smaller place, Rumbolz’s friendship with Brown led to an introduction to Brian McKay, who had just been elected state Attorney General. McKay offered Rumbolz the position of chief deputy AG for gaming, as the casino industry was rapidly evolving and roiled by scandal. With just four years of legal practice, Rumbolz was flattered, but then did something that would define his career. He knew others were more qualified and said so. He implored McKay to look at those already in the office, especially Jack Godfrey.

“It was the right thing to do for the state,” Rumbolz says, laughing at the memory. “[McKay] came back to me about two weeks later and said, ‘Thanks for the suggestion. I talked to Jack. I’m going to hire him.’”

Rumbolz was named chief deputy of the southern Nevada division, which placed him in the middle of the action. Given his passion for gaming law, “For me, it was kind of a natural,” he says. “When Jack quit and Brian came back to me and offered me the job, I said, ‘Absolutely. Now I’m the best choice.’”

Not that it was easy. As scrutiny of the industry increased, so did its regulatory challenges. When there was an opening on the Gaming Control Board, Rumbolz was tapped by Gov. Richard Bryan. Rumbolz rose to the chairmanship and serve a full four-year term.

His temperament and mission focus enabled him to transition easily from a Republican appointment to an offer to serve for a Democrat. He never forgot something that had eluded a few of his predecessors: The job was supposed to be nonpartisan.

“It was a very interesting time to join government and the regulators,” he says. “The industry was becoming corporate. Corporations and public entities had ignored gaming until about then, and they started to turn their eyes toward it. As they did, it was somewhat clear that the regulation hadn’t kept up with the financial interests that were now eyeing gaming as an opportunity. In addition, we still had one holdover that had received their money from a union pension fund, the old Argent Corporation.”

Oh, that holdover.

Here, Rumbolz’s journey takes an ironic twist. The former Stardust busboy took part in the regulatory battle that rooted out the mob’s interest in that company. Rumbolz had been hired by casino executive Herb Tobman years earlier, then played an integral role in crafting the complaint that yanked Tobman and partner Al Sachs from the industry.

“While I’d worked at the Stardust, I was also the chief deputy when we finally removed their license,” he says. “… It was a real Las Vegas moment.”

As Nevada gaming regulation grew and changed, other operators and corporate interests — many unaccustomed to the level of scrutiny state law demanded of its licensees — fell by the wayside or folded under pressure. “Many of them didn’t make it,” he says. “And they were shocked by the fact they didn’t.”

It was also an era when Las Vegas gaming went global, with Ginji Yasuda at the Aladdin and Masao Nangaku moving into ownership at the Dunes.

“We started to do investigations outside the U.S. into foreign nationals,” he says. “It was very new for the agency. We had to adapt our investigative techniques to the way foreign countries did their financial reporting.”

In his time on the board, he saw both the potential of the gaming industry as it grew and the bruising downside, including the bankruptcy of the Riviera that he still calls “shocking.”

“Nobody believed that a casino could go bankrupt — until we went through that,” he says.

Of his state experience, he reflects, “I was very lucky. I served a governor and an attorney general whose only rule was not to be surprised. They didn’t call to make suggestions about who should or shouldn’t receive a license. They didn’t call and start digging into the agenda. … They really were hands-off and both gentlemen about it. The rule about not being surprised was an easy one to follow.”

From the waning era of junket representatives to the rise of the convention industry, the times were changing. And he considers himself fortunate to have experienced it.

But if you ask Rumbolz what really shocks him these days, it’s the unabashed embrace of legalized sports betting by the National Football League. The professional sports league that for so long vilified bookmakers as devils incarnate now has a piece of the action and finds parlays and betting lines just fascinating.

“I really want to grab them and say, ‘I told you so,’” he says, laughing once more.

After six years in state government, he turned toward the private sector, but not with a Nevada licensee, in part due to the state’s then-new cooling-off period for gaming regulators.

After multiple discussions, he settled on someone now known to the world, just not as a casino owner: Donald J. Trump. The future president and chaos-maker wasn’t licensed in Nevada, but craved entry into Las Vegas. Rumbolz was hired to help him find a suitable landing place and secure licensing, but eventually came to understand what others knew. “He didn’t have the wherewithal financially to do anything in Nevada, except put his name on a building at that point.”

After the deaths in a helicopter crash of Trump’s New Jersey management team, Rumbolz went east to New Jersey help open the Trump Taj Mahal. It proved to be another learning experience, which stretched from the Taj to executive vice president of administration at Trump Castle, working alongside gaming-industry veteran Roger Wagner.

“Being with a Nevada operator, someone I trusted, made New Jersey seem a bit more palatable,” he recalls.

Back in Nevada, Rumbolz worked with gaming-industry slot-legend Stan Fulton of Anchor Gaming, then moved to Circus Circus in the final years of Bill Bennett’s long reign and the dynamic presence of Glenn Schaeffer, rising to president and CEO before accepting an executive position with Cash Systems, Inc. Rumbolz later added a consultant’s role with Global Cash Access Holdings to his lengthening list of worthwhile experiences in an industry that continued to evolve at a blinding pace.

After a layoff and energy-charging reset, he joined Everi Holdings, Inc., and remained a top executive with the casino-game designer, manufacturer, and marketer until earlier this year. He continues to serve on multiple corporate boards, including Everi, VICI Properties, and Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment. “Those three have enough going on to keep me busy,” he says.

He managed to learn something new in every stop he made during a 50-plus-year career. As he looks back, he makes it sound as if it was only yesterday that he was bussing tables at a Strip that, really, no longer exists.

“Every day in the industry, there were always new things to learn and experienced people to learn it from,” he says. “Having grown up in Nevada, I’d always had the initial fascination as a kid with the industry. But as an adult, to find out that it’s even more multi-faceted than I had imagined was even greater.”

In that light, the idea of being named to the Hall of Fame seems all the more special.

“When I look at the list of people who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, it’s pretty clear to me that somebody made a mistake this time,” Rumbolz says. “These are people I’ve looked up to my entire life and throughout my career. To be included amongst them is probably the greatest honor that’s been bestowed on me in my entire time in the gaming industry.

“For somebody who grew up in this business, as I did, it truly is a crowning achievement.”