Published September/October 1998Gambling with the Dragon Bettors at Macau's Casinos and Hong Kong's Racetracks Take Their Gambling Really Seriously
By Michael Konik
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.
"There's no bigger gamblers than the Chinese," Clark says. "Any culture with a Judeo-Christian background, gambling has a stigma. With the Chinese it's accepted. It's a way of life."
Nothing illustrates Clark's assertion better than a visit to the Happy Valley Racecourse, which is wedged amongst a field of skyscrapers, in the heart of Hong Kong. A typical Wednesday night of horse racing draws close to 50,000 screaming patrons; weekend programs at the Sha Tin complex, in a nearby town, draw as many as 90,000 spectators. They're not there just to watch the ponies run around in circles. During the 1996-1997 season, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which manages the racetracks, handled HK$92.35 billion in wagers.
That's nearly US$12 billion.
According to Henry S. K. Chan, the Jockey Club's director of betting, "Horse racing is a way of life for us. It's entertainment and it's sport. But even more it's like an art. Chinese people love to study the forms, to handicap the races. It's really our national sport."
As the only legalized form of gambling in Hong Kong other than a national lottery, the racetracks are highly regulated--and, of course, highly profitable. (Hong Kong's one-day betting record is US$326,810,000.) Each year the Jockey Club donates more than HK$1 billion to charitable organizations and community projects, making it one of the top philanthropic foundations in the world. Proceeds from horse racing helped build the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Castle Peak Hospital and the Hong Kong Park.
Projects of this magnitude
become possible when, in a country with a population of 6.5 million, 686,000 people have telephone betting accounts and one million people bet each race day at one of 125 off-course outlets. Given this nationwide equine fervor, casino gambling is hardly necessary, according to Chan. "The government doesn't want to encourage additional gambling in Hong Kong. We wish Macau was even farther away," he says, laughing.
(Not that visitors to Macau can't enjoy horse racing as well as casino gambling. There is a Jockey Club there as well as a greyhound racing facility, lyrically dubbed the Canidrome. The latter broadcasts races over television and radio.)
The Chinese cultural stereotype--highly superstitious, fascinated by the concept of luck--may have some truth to it, Chan concedes. "But horses are a game of skill. And besides," Chan adds, "Chinese don't see betting on horses as 'gambling.' It's playing. We work hard and we play hard. Here in Hong Kong we have small homes and little leisure time. A day at the races is a most civilized relief from our hectic life."
Many other residents of this bustling, frenetic city find their escape across the water, far from the exactas and quinellas of Happy Valley. They go to Macau, where a burgeoning fortune is only a turn of a card away.
Many of the games in the casinos here are difficult for Western eyes to decipher. Some, like pai gow, are played with dominoes, which the locals slap, fondle and, when they really need a winner, caress like small birds, reading the dots with their fingers instead of their eyes. Others, like dai-siu, employ dice, and players bet if the total of three dice will be "big" or "small." The odds, you can be sure, are skewed worse than the proposition bets on a crap table, not that anyone in Macau seems to mind terribly.
The most peculiar of these casino games is called fan tan, an ancient Chinese diversion made modern by the presence of croupiers and pit bosses. The dealer covers a random number of pieces from a large heap of porcelain buttons with a silver cup, pushes the shrouded pile toward the center of the table and removes the cover like a waiter in a French restaurant revealing the pièce de résistance. He then counts off the buttons in groups of four. Players place bets on whether the last division will contain one, two, three or four remaining buttons. Studious types keep dense, detailed charts of the results, which, they suppose, help divine a pattern in the sublime randomness of the button pile.
Whereas most casinos in America are wall-to-wall with slot machines, Macau has few of what the Chinese call "hungry tigers" lining the walls, like so many forlorn afterthoughts. The handful of video poker machines are even lonelier, and for good reason.
Most gamblers here have no concept of "basic strategy," and even if they did it would do them no good. The pay tables are laughable--six coins for a full house, five for a flush--and most machines have a "war" feature that encourages players to double their winnings by challenging the machine to a game of "high card wins." This being Macau, most players gladly do battle until they blithely convert their winnings into nothing.
Blackjack games are also rare. At the Casino Jai Alai, a warehouse-size emporium near the ferry terminal, only one blackjack table was spotted. The Mandarin Oriental had two.
The rules are surprisingly good--dealer stands on soft-17;
surrender available against a dealer 10--but card counting is ineffective, since the dealer burns a card on every hand, and three of the eight decks in play get "cut off," drastically reducing penetration. Not that professional card counters would want to ply their trade here, anyway. The casinos of Macau, operated under a government franchise by the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, are controlled by a man named Stanley Ho, who, it is widely rumored in Hong Kong and the States, has intimate relationships with some unsavory characters. "The last place you would want to try anything clever is Macau," one professional blackjack player, based in Nevada, says. "Ho is richer than God and almost as powerful."
White-skinned gamblers stand out from the crowd, if only because of sheer novelty. But most of the Chinese gamblers are too busy tempting fate (and bad odds) to pay attention to a stray "ghost." At Casino Lisboa, a four-story gambling emporium whose limits are higher the farther up the escalator you ride, the only denizens of the place who seem interested in Western visitors are dozens of hookers, who have mastered the rudiments of roulette as well as the English phrases "happy time" and "go to my room."
The pungently charged atmosphere in Macau is redolent of the old Vegas: fast money, fast women, reality blurred by the intoxicating clatter of chips and dice and dominoes. But lest a daydreaming visitor imagine he's been magically transported to Nevada in a time when gangsters called the shots and casinos exuded a certain aura of swankiness, a sign that is posted on the walls of most Macau establishments will bring him right back to the reality of this wild, gambling-drunk island off the coast of China. In three languages the sign says: PLEASE DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR.
Contributing Editor Michael Konik, Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist, recently competed in the $10,000 World Championship event at the World Series of Poker.