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High Stakes Gambling in Macau

Bettors at Macau's Casinos and Hong Kong's Racetracks Take Their Gambling Really Seriously
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

Jetfoils from Hong Kong depart for the island of Macau every day of the year, every fifteen minutes during the day and frequently throughout the night. The ride across the South China Sea is remarkably smooth and scenic. But the hundreds of passengers who take this train-on-the-water aren't interested in the craggy shoreline or lumbering fishing boats that the jetfoil leaves in its wake. Like children in the backseat of the family station wagon, they just want to get there.

That is because Macau, a Portuguese protectorate that will be handed back to China in 1999, has something you can't find in Hong Kong: casinos.

These are not genteel European parlors or spacious, American-style ballrooms outfitted with plush carpets and ersatz chandeliers. They're gambling factories. A few of the island's eight casinos are the size of a decent Wal-Mart--and most have about as many "shoppers." Even on an otherwise tranquil Sunday afternoon, the casinos of Macau are easily the most crowded gambling joints you've ever seen, with bettors three and four deep at every table, elbowing their countrymen aside to get some money on the sacred green felt. An uninitiated visitor might presume the casinos had some sort of generous promotion in force--blackjack pays 2-1, perhaps--or that they had momentarily lost their finely calibrated sense of larceny and were simply giving away money. But closer inspection reveals that the action at the tables is merely business as usual. The thousands of patrons clamoring to get their bets down just really like to gamble.

That is to say they really like to gamble. The casinos of Macau are easily the most animated wagering palaces you've ever seen. On hands of chemin de fer (known as baccarat along Las Vegas Boulevard), opposing sides shout friendly curses at each other in Cantonese, trying vainly to change the spots on a fateful card. Applause and groaning accompany the outcome of each hand; and it's not polite, routine-par-on-the-PGA-Tour applause or mock, I-didn't-really-need-that-money groaning, either. This is the real stuff. The actors in Macau's quotidian drama emote so convincingly because they really do care profoundly about every hand. Which is understandable, since many bets here seem to represent a sizable portion of the protagonists' life savings.

The minimum wager at most tables is between U.S.$15 and U.S.$25. But almost nobody bets the minimum. Even young men, very young men, in their late teens maybe, who proudly wear "American Original Playboy Spirit" windbreakers and have cultivated something resembling a moustache above their tender lips--even these lads wager sums that would make the typical Vegas high roller feel like a candidate for the all-you-can-eat buffet line. The prevailing thinking among the gamblers here seems to be: "Small is bad, big is good." The nearer your wager to the House maximum (U.S.$100,000 in the VIP rooms), the nearer, it seems, to Nirvana. Even the chips, laminated plastic discs the size of your kitchen sink drain, are big.

This compulsion to plunge it all away on the bounce of a ball or the turn of a domino, according to several residents of Hong Kong, can be explained as an obscure symptom of the city's absurd real estate market. One young professional, a bond trader who pays more than U.S.$100,000 a year in rent for his high-rise apartment, says, "Even if you have a decent job, you can't afford to ever buy a decent apartment. So you gamble. In Hong Kong you have to gamble if you want to keep up."

Then there's the no-nonsense point-of-view. "We Chinese, we just love to gamble," says Tony Liu, vice president of Oriental marketing at the Trump Taj Mahal, in Atlantic City. "Win or lose, we don't care. We just love to play. And as long as we have some money in front of us, we won't stop."

Though most ethnic generalizations are about as trustworthy as your friend's surefire system for beating the house, anyone in the gaming business will tell you there's no more dedicated players than the Chinese. Indeed, many Chinese gamblers will tell you the same thing. "We're born to gamble," says Danny, a dedicated gambler who works in management at a Hong Kong hotel. "Chinese don't fool around. We come to win, to make a big score. It's in our blood."

According to Larry Clark, the executive vice president of casino operations at the Taj Mahal, where the Dragon Room caters to high-rolling Asians, casinos across America would love to capture even a small slice of the Oriental market. Outside of California, where special Asian games sections draw concert-size crowds, the Taj's Dragon Room is among the largest Asian gambling arenas outside of Asia. "I was inspired by the Asian games I had seen in Macau and I wanted to re-create the atmosphere of excitement and mystique," Clark says.

Certain stylistic differences separate typical Occidental and Oriental bettors. Most Western gamblers like the casinos' complimentary booze; Asian gamblers prefer coffee. Most Westerners are mildly health conscious; players in the casinos of Macau smoke like overheated engines. Most Westerners play for three or four hours at a stretch; Hong Kongers in Macau bet for a considerably longer time--or until they've gone bust. Westerners generally like slots and craps and blackjack; the Chinese players love an inscrutable domino game called pai gow. If a Westerner has $20,000 to his name, he might be willing to play with $5,000 of it (and that's if he's a wild man); some Chinese fellows with $20,000 to their name, will bet at least that much, and more if they're got good line of credit.


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