BEIJING -- Gambling executives say China's big-time gamblers could
become the fastest-growing market among high-stakes
Asian players, outstripping those from Hong Kong, Taiwan
and Japan. While the number of Japanese tourists visiting
Las Vegas is still 10 times that of Chinese, the increase
in high rollers from China and the amount they are willing
to gamble have captured the imaginations of Vegas's
Starting several years ago, the MGM Grand, Harrah's,
the Venetian, Caesars Palace and the Stratosphere, among
others, opened offices in China or began dispatching
representatives to China to organize groups of high-stakes
gamblers. Casinos from South Korea, the Philippines,
Australia and North Korea have followed suit.
"Asians are the only growing segment of the casino
market," said Bill Chu, Asia regional marketing director
for Harrah's Las Vegas. "And the Chinese are the only
people in Asia with cash. Hong Kong is dried up. Taiwan
is dried up. Forget Japan. Thailand is history."
American companies also vied for a chance to open casinos
in Macao this year. But many Chinese "whales," as they
are called in the industry, do not like the sleazy former
Portuguese territory that returned to Chinese control
in 1999. One reason is that state security agents roam
the gaming halls videotaping fat cats. One of them,
Ma Xiangdong, executive deputy mayor of the northeastern
city of Shenyang, was executed late last year after
he appeared on a tape. Ma had lost $4 million in public
funds on 17 trips to Macao.
In Las Vegas, losses by Chinese have been extraordinary,
rivaling losses by Hong Kong and Taiwanese players during
the mid-1970s. Some Chinese gamblers have dropped $10
million and cannot go home for fear of having to explain
where the money came from, industry sources said. One
Chinese businesswoman, known as the queen of scrap metal
from the northeastern city of Dalian, lost $20 million
last year in 10 months, gambling executives said. She
cannot return to the United States because of her debts.
Over the Chinese New Year, several Chinese gamblers
blew $20 million in one night at the baccarat tables
at one of MGM's properties, a gambling source said.
A spokesman for the MGM Grand, Alan Feldman, declined
to comment on MGM's China business.
But Chu said Harrah's has agents in five Chinese cities
and will open an office in Beijing on April 1 to provide
support for its guests' visa applications. MGM has two
representative offices in China and part-time assistants
digging up high rollers. Chu estimated that with luck
he could bring in 100 to 500 Chinese players a month
gambling in the $30,000 to $100,000 category.
"You put them all together, that's a lot of money,"
One problem holding up the boom is the tough visa policies
of U.S. consulates in China. Chu said that only 20 percent
of Harrah's prospective guests get U.S. visas. MGM does
better, at around 50 percent, industry executives said.
The consulates demand documentary proof of a guest's
financial resources and want to know where the money
Chinese gamblers were estimated to have lost $259 million
last year in Macao, according to a report done for an
American casino interested in doing business there.
Earlier this year, two of the most prominent gambling
names in the United States were awarded licenses to
operate there. The licenses, granted to Sheldon Adelson
and Steve Wynn, ended the monopoly of billionaire Stanley
Chinese have been gambling for centuries. China's Taoist
philosopher Lao Tzu was credited with inventing one
gambling game, and Chinese records about betting on
dice and Chinese chess matches date back to the Warring
States period around 300 B.C.
Shanghai in the 1930s was the site of the biggest gambling
dens in the world. China's Communists banned gambling
along with prostitution after their revolution in 1949.
Both have returned with abandon since the late 1980s.
But these days, China's high rollers prefer baccarat,
a French game in which the winner's cards add up closest
to nine. In Chinese the game is baijiale, or hundred
Chinese began flocking to Las Vegas in the 1980s on
government-organized "research" teams. By the mid-1990s,
almost every group of Chinese officials heading to the
United States wanted Las Vegas on the itinerary. The
justification bordered on the fantastic. One Communist
Party document said studying in Las Vegas was good for
Communist cadres because they could learn how a poor
area in the desert became rich.
Gambling industry sources said Chinese players exhibit
some unusual characteristics. One is the size of their
bets. Another is the ability to play without sleep.
"It is really amazing," said Robert Goodman, who runs
a firm called Great Harvest, which specializes in helping
Chinese gamblers get U.S. visas. "The gamblers will
stay inside for three days and three nights, never go
outside. They don't know what time it is, what day it
is. They sit there eating instant noodles, going from
baccarat table to table, gambling everything."