Drive-up to the main valet drop-off in front of the grand, Italian-themed Bellagio, and you invariably see limousines idling and dispatching customers. But, contrary to initial impressions, true high rollers are not emerging from those stretches. The casino’s biggest players are the ones that you don’t see. They go in through a batcave-style entrance that few of us will ever experience.
And that’s only the first misconception of what really goes on at the iconic hotel/casino/resort, as I discovered recently when given a chance to go behind the scenes and gain access to the private salons and inner workings of Bellagio. Originally the offer was to really go behind the scenes—to see the loading docks and the maid service, the meatlockers and butcher tables. I liked the concept but I was more interested in what makes the racier, more touchable side of the Bellagio tick. My request for access was granted.
It takes me into the bunker-like suite of offices where I wait patiently while Justin Manacher, vice president of national marketing, is on the phone. He’s in the middle of negotiations that he hopes will lead to a household-name musical act doing a private show for a coterie of sky-high players. Eventually he hangs up the phone and looks at me. Manacher fully acknowledges that other casinos have nice suites, good gaming felts and similar amenities.
But Bellagio, he says, finds its edge away from the tables, by inviting top customers to golf the elite Shadow Creek with potential clients (“It’s a place where deals get made,” he says), to network alongside folks that they might actually do business with (“The Bellagio provides a playground of opportunities for wealthy people.”), and to do schmoozy things that bear little direct relationship with gambling. “We’ve arranged to have players throw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game or to take a shot at an NBA game,” he says. “And right now we’re working on an artifact from Israel for a player who we think will appreciate it.”
While those things may chum the waters, what really brings in profit-making gamblers are opportunities for said gamblers to make money. Casinos do it by putting on free-roll tournaments, in which you might have 100 big spenders playing in a gratis poker match with a first prize in the six figures. That’s all well and good, and common enough, but Manacher goes a step further.
He makes sure that the highest of his high rollers receive a lacquered box, which allows them to jump to the semifinals and requires them to outplay only 30 people for the first prize (instead of the 100 or so that everyone else has to tangle with). He includes small but pricy gifts inside and cleverly worded come-ons. For an upcoming poker tournament, the lacquered box (which resembles a lap-sized humidor) contains a pair of Gucci sunglasses and an alluring invitation: “See yourself with $500,000.”
As Manacher takes care of the big-picture stuff, a dozen or so floors up, in a 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom suite, a spiky haired protégé by the name of Blake McDonald double-checks that beds are made, that a fruit platter is on order and that the bathroom is stocked with his gambler’s amenities of choice. “If everything is not right,” he says, “I’m the yelling board.”
When he’s not doing what he can to get his players to Vegas, often reaching out to them by text instead of phone (“Not everybody can talk about gambling all the time on the telephone,” he says), McDonald prowls the casino floor, looking for fresh meat.
Earlier in the day he spotted a young gambler from India who, he recognized, was in the midst of his second trip to Vegas over the course of a single month. “He’s gambling high enough to warrant a room and food, and he told me that he’s paying for a room at the Stratosphere; he doesn’t seem to know how things work here,” says McDonald. “I got him into a limo, so that he could ride down to the Stratosphere, get his stuff, check out and come back to stay here for the week.”
McDonald knew that a limo would be at the ready because there are invariably a handful of tuxedo-clad drivers, awaiting the dispatcher’s marching orders in a scruffy lounge outfitted with leatherette furniture, a soda fountain and a TV that might as well be stuck on ESPN.
Drivers sit within view of a fleet of 25 stretched limos (plus a Rolls Royce that rarely sees the light of day). And in case the Indian guy needs to do a quick mend job while riding up from the Stratosphere, chances are that his Bellagio driver will be prepared with sewing kit, bobby pins, Super Glue and tools to repair glasses. “I’ve had guys get off of airplanes with broken eyeglass frames,” says Rick Melchiorre, a 10-year veteran of the Bellagio stretch. “I ask the guest to hand me his glasses, I do a quick repair, and he is blown away.”
Upon arrival, the high rollers are ushered through a private entrance and greeted by their hosts and butlers, welcomed with bows or black-slaps or handshakes or whatever will make the gambler feel comfortable. Avoiding check-in counters altogether, elite players get whisked straight up to one of nine villas, the poshest accommodations at the Bellagio—complete with private pools, en suite hair salons, gyms and saunas—and probably won’t be surprised to find all of their favorite things awaiting them. For a British restaurant impresario, due to arrive today with a celebrity friend in tow, villa butler Nikolaj Velimirovic follows a punch-list and procures goodies from home such as Major Grey’s mango chutney, Cadbury’s hot chocolate and Horlicks malt.
For another gambler, says Velimirovic, “We purchased a 60-inch Apple computer monitor. We keep it here for him and always set it up prior to his arrival. Other people require kosher food or natural food—one customer wants nuts, apricots, unsalted chips and dips filling the coffee table—or Chinese food. Asian guests prefer to eat dinner in the villa, so we bring it up for them from [the Chinese restaurant] Jasmine. Or else his favorite chef comes in and cooks right here, in the kitchen—which is closed off from the guest’s quarters.” Butlers are at the beck and call, 24/7, facilitating everything from the making of BLT sandwiches at 3 a.m. to liquor runs at dawn to, no doubt, all sorts of things that they’d rather not discuss for publication.
Nice as everything sounds for the gambler securely ensconced in a 10,000-square-foot Bellagio villa, he has not received all this care and preparation for nothing. It’s all put forward because he is willing to gamble for ungodly sums at games that are always tilted against him. And, while staying at the Bellagio, the place where he is most likely to do his gambling is in a de facto private gaming lair called the baccarat lounge. Blackjack, craps, roulette and anything else that an uber high-rolling guest might want to play is available, but one gets the feeling that baccarat stands as the primary selling point.
Up front, visible from the main casino, resides a bunch of gaming tables that usually play at $100 minimum and may go to $300 on a busy night. Not bad, but not so different from what you find in the actual casino. Deeper in, and invisible to the general public, things get more private and the preparations become extensive. Rooms and tables are set aside for specific players with lines of credit or cash on deposit of $1 million or more, outfitted with the particular player’s amenities of choice, tables at the ready. The problem, though, is that you never know when the guy who’s nipping at your highest limits will want to come down to gamble. So, the thinking goes, always be prepared.
When word comes from the player’s host that he’s in the hotel and might want to take a shot, everything gets put into place as a provision. In the case of one whale, a man with a proclivity for eating hot dogs, dozens of fresh wieners—boiled, broiled and grilled—are kept out and kept fresh, anticipating his arrival.
The same goes for the dealers, standing at their tables, in pristine rooms, walls decorated with bland but attractive art, looking buttoned down and engaged, even if they are bored as hell.
Sometimes they do absolutely nothing for an entire eight-hour shift, just standing at attention, listening to music on the room’s sound system and waiting for a particular player to come down and bet six figures per hand. “I’m in here, making the time pass by thinking about golf,” says dealer Jerry Colianni, who’s seen players bet as much as $300,000 per hand and has been tipped as much as $150,000 (although he’s also had cards slammed down in front of him and watched people toss chairs when they lose). “There’s one player, before he gets here, we have to line up bottles of wine and bottles of water, in a very specific way, so that everything faces north. Then he arrives and sets down an urn in the center.” Did the ploy, which was obviously designed to bring him luck, have its desired effect? “He was in here twice and he lost both times.”
Other players, of course, dispense with anything so obvious but have their own peculiarities. Colianni recalls a player who’s so in love with action that he bets $300,000 per hand, demands that the games move quickly enough for him to get in six hands per minute, and has blackjack and baccarat tables at the ready so that he can switch from one to the other without wasting a moment. “At the baccarat table, I was dealing, another guy was paying and collecting and a third person calculated the commissions,” remembers Colianni. “He gave us $84 million in action per hour, he played all day, his host was continually at his side and he wound up losing $30 million.”
Rooms in the rear of the high-limit baccarat lounge are designed to convey a sense of discretion. Because the Bellagio does not have a license for private gaming, the doors cannot be closed, but other than that, within the three walls, it does feel reasonably private—if you can forget about the fact that one pit supervisor watches each table with an eagle eye and that when the stakes go up to nosebleed levels, every hand is also being monitored from the surveillance room, high above, via cameras that are strategically planted in the ceiling.
More often than not, they (and just about everyone else in the casino) are being watched by a brassy bottle-blonde named Margaret Brooks, Bellagio’s surveillance director. She oversees a crew of five per shift who joystick their way around the gambling floor.
Bet $500, and somebody will watch what you’re doing until he or she is satisfied that nothing fishy is going on. Bet the kind of money that gets you a seat in a private gaming room, and you’re going to be scrutinized from the moment you sit down until you get up to leave. And if you happen to be playing baccarat, you can be sure that Brooks and her crew will be paying particularly close attention to how you insert the cut card. “The newest thing in the industry is that players run the cut card along the corners of the dealer’s cards, as if they are looking for the perfect spot,” says Brooks, scanning the dozens of monitors that line a wall in the surveillance room. “They say that this is for good luck. But, really, the player is wearing a ring with a camera in it. It’s filming the order of the cards and transmitting it to a computer. Then a second person sits down to play and, through a tiny earpiece, gets given each optimal play to make.”
Baccarat turns into an easy game when you know the cards that are coming next. As pulled off by one particular team, which had been working up and down the Vegas Strip, it also turns gambling into a felonious activity and makes them public enemy number one inside the Bellagio’s surveillance perch.
Amore desirable form of attention comes from the casino’s fine dining and wine departments. The Bellagio’s director of wine Jason Smith maintains 70,000 bottles in a room that looks more like a wine warehouse than a cellar, complete with small trucks, known as pallet movers. They transport pallets stacked with cases of Dom Perignon champagne, Lafite Rothschild, and Harlan Estate cabernets from the wine cellar to restaurants such as Circo (an Italian spin-off of Le Cirque), Prime (Jean Georges Vongerichten’s steak house), and Picasso (helmed by superstar chef Julian Serrano, serving New French cuisine, and decorated with original art by its namesake artist).
Sitting at a table inside Picasso, sommelier Smith explains that high-rolling Chinese gamblers, who have recently begun going wild for pricy Bordeaux first-growth vintages and the like, routinely dent his supply. Sometimes they send him scrambling to other hotels in the MGM International chain, searching for the desired bottles. “There is a gentleman who comes in from the Far East. For him, we have to be stocked with Romanee Conti, which can cost $25,000 per bottle,”says Smith. For another player, we did a 1982 tasting with Château Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Château Margaux, all side by side.” He shrugs, making the point that there are only so many bottles of Lafite to go around. Then he adds, “If we can’t get the exact vintage that a customer wants, we always get something that he’s happy with.”
Like Asia’s most prolific wine lovers, Julian Serrano, who’s as serious a chef as you’re likely to meet, has learned to be flexible in Las Vegas. Bowing to customer requests, he’s made hamburgers (albeit, from ground Kobe beef) for the “children of a royal family” and he’s sent out to-go versions of his seared foie gras for high-stakes players who want to eat without leaving the gaming table—even as Serrano admits that food from Picasso does not exactly travel well. “Sometimes I’ll go to the villas and cook for guests in there,” he says, leaving me thinking that those occasions qualify as taking one for the team. “And when Andy Garcia was here with his family, after shooting Oceans 11, he wanted to go into the kitchen and make paella with me. He wanted to learn how I do it. He actually took notes, and it was a lot of fun.”
However highfalutin Serrano and Vongerichten and the Circo gang might be, none of them are above taking stocks and starters from the main kitchen of the Bellagio—the one that sends out thousands of room service meals per day. It’s why, early one morning, after all the glamour and most of the gamble have been sucked out of Vegas during the previous night, a huge vat of veal stock boils away in an environment that is far more every-man than Picasso or the villas or the high-end gambling dens.
Inside the main kitchen, eggs get made for players with comps and for guests who’ve paid cash via Expedia. In fact, in a hierarchal place where money defines everything, morning breakfast is the great leveler. Most everybody gets the same eggs, usually made by a Mexican line cook named Aaron. On a busy day, he figures that 1,500 egg dishes pass through the Bellagio room service kitchen, where rolling tables with white cloths are backed up into one another, waiting to be filled and wheeled out again. The goal, says executive chef of in-room dining Brad Skougard, is for guests in a rush “to receive breakfast in 8–10 minutes.”
But if omelets are democratic, much else when it comes to food at the Bellagio is not. I, for instance, remember calling down once and requesting a veggie burger (it’s not on the menu) only to be told that, no, they don’t have veggie burgers. Skougard says that it shouldn’t have happened and that somebody should have been able to rustle up the item from another kitchen at the Bellagio. Maybe yes, maybe no. What’s indisputable, though, is that for players who gamble high enough, even the most outlandish request will be honored. In other words, there is no "No" for some people.
As was the case when a Middle Eastern gambler and his guests desired a taste of home. “They wanted a barbecue in the desert with a whole baby lamb and chickens,” recalls Skougard. “I placed calls, made some quick arrangements and got a whole lamb out of our butcher shop. Then we took them to Lake Mead, dug a hole, filled it with 150 pounds of charcoal, and cooked the baby lamb—all with four hours notice. They ate their meal in the desert, played cards and then got driven back to the Bellagio while I stayed behind and cleaned up.”
Maybe, of course, the Middle Easterner had an impending appointment with Jerry Colianni in the high-limit baccarat room, and a yen to gamble so stratospheric that several colossal wagers could cover the price of every lamb in every kitchen in the Bellagio—and the salaries of all the chefs who cook them.
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.