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The Asian Vegas

Macau, once a seedy and corrupt outpost, is blossoming into a gambling mecca
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

The newly opened Wynn Macau is a scaled-down version of Wynn Las Vegas. Macau's casino row may soon rival the Las Vegas Strip.

It is a rainy weekend in Asia. So rainy, in fact, that there is talk of a possible monsoon. But foul weather does nothing to slow the Sunday afternoon flow of traffic to the two-and-a-half-year-old Sands Macau. The glitzed-out casino—situated on its namesake peninsula, between Hong Kong and China—is packed with mainlanders savoring their taste of twenty-first-century action. Arriving by car and bus, dressing up or down, carrying pockets full of cash or working with junket operators who offer credit, they filter in and barely speak as they drop chips upon felt and try their luck.

Owned by Sheldon Adelson and his publicly traded company that is responsible for Vegas's plush Venetian Resort and Casino, the Sands is a gargantuan, shimmering sprawl of chance. Dominated by blackjack and baccarat tables, the casino is dressed up with blatantly high-tech design, soaring vistas and a live band blasting Top-40 covers in English.

An enormous curvilinear high- definition TV flashes casino hype overhead and, just across the ceiling, a 100,000-pound glass-and-light installation (a chandelier of sorts) communicates a sense of over-the-top luxury.

On the gaming floor, the action is hot and heavy. Tense-looking couples bet together at the pai gow tables, grandmothers obsessively punch at Asian-themed slot machines once dismissed as "tigers that eat you and don't even spit out the bones" (they have been successfully reconfigured for the Chinese market with artwork based around jade princesses and white-bearded sages), and the lowest-stakes blackjack tables (about $30 per bet) pack 'em in three deep.

Down in one of the baccarat pits, players with long and pointy fingernails slowly peel up their cards, slam them down and, more often than not, softly curse their luck. Gambling on uniquely Asian games— including a simple, seemingly even-odds dice wager in which you pay the casino a cripplingly steep 5 percent commission on each win—players sip sweet-and-milky tea, pony up more chips and, unwittingly, rank among the global gaming industry's newest cash cows.

But can it last? "I absolutely think that China's growth will last," says Adelson. "We know from Las Vegas that the Chinese love gambling. Why would they stop playing? For the Chinese, gambling is an intense form of entertainment." And they can afford it. "China may not have as many millionaires as the U.S. [right now], but I believe that it will soon have more."

Upstairs in the Paiza Club, a private enclave for high rollers who put $100,000 or more at risk, the vibe is restrained and refined, at least as restrained and refined as you can expect it to be in a macho expanse of wood, marble and leather. Players gamble in spacious private dens, with their doors kept open a crack to allow the entrance of luck, and lodge in 5,000-square-foot suites that measure up to their Vegas counterparts, complete with private saunas and karaoke rooms. High-limit customers generate 30 percent of the casino's handle, and the Sands goes out of its way to keep them happy with butlers, private gourmet dining and bottles of 18-year-old single malt. "This is bigger and better than Vegas," declares the Sands' director of gambling. "We really got it right here."

Inarguably, Macau is booming; it is expected that gambling profits there will soon eclipse those of Las Vegas, aided considerably by the newly opened Wynn Macau and the under-construction MGM Grand Macau. "Ten years from now stories will be written about what is going on here," predicts Steve Wynn, sitting behind a big wooden desk in his downtown Macau headquarters. "This is a fascinating place in the grips of rapid escalation. Changes are happening here with a speed and intensity that is almost mind-boggling."

Joining the Macau casino boom, which, within just a few years, will result in thousands of new hotel rooms, miles of gambling space, many billions of dollars in revenue and an anticipated 5,000 table games, are a handful of other casino entrepreneurs. They include gaming progeny James Packer (son of Aussie tycoon Kerry) and his partner Lawrence Ho (until recently, his father, Stanley, had a monopoly on gambling in Macau), who are collaborating on a $1.5 billion gambler's paradise called City of Dreams. Several new and/or improved outlets will be in the hands of the elder Ho; most notably, his own take on high-end Vegas with the Grand Lisboa. Budgeted at $250 million, the cost of this casino would have once seemed astronomical for Macau; but now, alongside the city's billion-dollar-plus undertakings, it comes off as chintzy. Plus, Wynn plans to open a second casino here (an anticipated partnership with Ferrari, it'll be themed around the classic Italian sports car) and a Macau version of the Venetian is nearing completion, and MGM Mirage recently broke ground.

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