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Robert Goodman----Understanding Nevada's Casino Industry and the Impact of Asian Gamblers

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 gambling industry.

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," he said.

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 comes from.

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 Ho.

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 home happy.

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."