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The Whale Hunter

Steve Cyr entices the biggest gamblers to risk millions at casino games in return for over-the-top freebies and service.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

Steve Cyr has 72 hours in which to make $300,000. If he succeeds, it will require many sessions of high altitude gambling, endless schmoozing, world-class coddling, a bit of lying, a few dozen Super Bowl tickets, and the kind of bad luck that brings even the most resilient high rollers to their knees.

Though Cyr's fortunes hinge on high-stakes action, he himself is not a gambler. Well, not exactly. He is a whale hunter, a sobriquet for a person who wrangles the industry's biggest players and sets them up to risk millions of dollars at games in which the long-term odds are hopelessly tilted against them. For this particular weekend, which coincides with the 2003 Super Bowl, Cyr has flown in 16 big players -- whales in casino parlance -- their 25 guests, and credit lines that total $3 million to the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino, a posh gambling complex that opened near San Diego last December. If they all go through their money (far from an impossibility, but an admitted long shot), Cyr, who consults for eight other casinos in Las Vegas and the Caribbean, will go home with a juicy cut of their losses. "And if they all win," says the strapping and hyperactive 39-year-old Cyr, "then I go home with nothing." The subject of a forthcoming book called Whale Hunt in the Desert by Deke Castleman hesitates for a beat and smirks. "But you know that's not going to happen. It'd be impossible."

You can't throw something like this together overnight. In November, when gamblers were still talking about the World Series, Cyr, who cut his teeth by telemarketing vitamins, was already in sales mode. Working out of his home office in Vegas, he called 60 of his best players. Speaking cockily, he initiated a series of conversations that began something like this: "Hey, buddy. It's Steve Cyr. Listen, you better fucking book your flight to San Diego."

Well acquainted with the Cyr spiel, the whale bites: "Why?"

"I got Super Bowl tickets," Cyr says.

This is nothing special. If you're a big player, every casino in Vegas is begging you to come down for the Super Bowl. The whale tells Cyr as much. "Caesars is gonna take me. I've already talked to them about it."

Undaunted, Cyr turns up the heat. "No, man. This is completely different. We're going to be staying in San Diego, at the Barona. Tell the wife you're taking her somewhere nice for a change. We'll limo to the game instead of flying in, put you up in a beautiful villa, and take you out to play golf with a bunch of NFL stars on the best new course in the state."

Knowing that nobody will seriously commit in November, Cyr lets the idea simmer for a while with his players. Then he tells the Barona that he'll need 35 to 40 tickets. A couple weeks later he calls his people again. Over the next two months, Cyr sweet-talks their wives with promises of lavish spa treatments in San Diego, woos the men with the Barona's deluxe invitations (including balls signed by John Elway and other National Football League greats), and talks up the Barona as if it's Valhalla with blackjack.

By late December he's got his lineup of players, but he knows that New Year's Eve can change everything. "Let's say one of my big guys comes to Las Vegas on New Year's Eve and blows $3 million around town. Now, suddenly, he's snapped," laments Cyr. "He'll want to come to the Super Bowl, but I don't want him here. If he loses here, I'll be last on his list to get my money. Plus, he'll gamble over his head to try to win back the money to pay the other casinos. He's what we call a chaser. I don't want chasers here for the Super Bowl."

So Cyr spends the first week of January reviewing credit information from Central Credit, the Equifax of gaming. He notices that one of his guys went on a bender, doing particular damage to himself at the Venetian's blackjack tables. Cyr needs to distance himself from the guy. He makes a phone call: "Hey, buddy. I hear you really fired it up at the Venetian. Yeah, well, there's a problem with the Super Bowl. They've got this weird law in California: if you owe money to one joint, you can't get credit from any of the places here." Cyr sounds sincerely sorry and suitably somber, but later reveals, "That's complete bullshit. But it works for me."

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