GAMBLING IN MACAU AND VEGAS: SAME GAME, DIFFERENT RULES

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Vegas and Macau – the two capitals of gambling. In both, the thrill of winning big lures millions to the casinos each year. In both, most leave away with their pockets a lot lighter. And yet, for all their apparent resemblance, the two cities are remarkably different.

Gambling in Macau
Image: Tom Lasseter

Before we “roll the dice,” so to speak, let’s get one fact out of the way first: Macao now takes more money (four times as much) than Las Vegas – overtaking the Las Vegas Strip in gaming revenues in 2007. Interestingly, Singapore is on track to overtake Vegas as the second largest gaming hub. Now, on to the meat of the matter.

Chinese, Americans, and the love for gambling

Since gambling was outlawed in China in 1949, the only place to legally gamble in China is Macau. One Daily Mail article illustrates the fervent Chinese desire to gamble using straightforward numbers. Las Vegas has over a whopping 700 casinos, whereas Macau has a meagre 31.

The Chinese love to bet and for that reason will find anything to bet on. My Chinese girlfriend has told stories of her friends (usually male) betting on which droplet of water would fall first from the classroom windowsill. Many Chinese are fascinated by chance and the abstract qualities of luck and fate that are associated with it. The number eight, for example, is considered extremely lucky, while four, when spoken in Mandarin or Cantonese, sounds like the word for death and is avoided.

Studies have demonstrated that gamblers actually believe themselves to be in control of what is essentially a random outcome. In a country like China, riddled with superstition, there isn’t going to be a shortage of people that believe luck, destiny and chance have more say in their lives than they do themselves.

Those who do gamble big in Vegas probably do so because they have an inner compulsion driving them. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, whose decisions may be supported by an earlier I Ching toss, I doubt many Western players truly consider themselves lucky or that having their chosen roulette number “come in” was their destiny. 

Alan, a high roller followed around in Louis Theroux’s Gambling in Las Vegas documentary, explains: “It’s the win, the thrill…You’re just hoping that you’re the one, to come to Vegas and have the opportunity of winning.” The compulsion, aside from those heavily addicted gamblers, is the idea/joy of winning (big or not) in Las Vegas, that’s all.

Las Vegas – a city of many excesses

Sin city, or the “city of second chances,” isn’t a place where the devil resides, but where he goes for vacation; a place where excess reigns king and slowing down is considered foul play. That axiom applies to everything, not just when holding two pairs or on “a heater” (a winning streak), but when drinking, dancing, dining or drag racing through the sand dunes.

Fewer high rollers (or “whales” as they are known over there) head to Vegas each year. Those that do bet “large” and are lucky enough to win, are now keeping their money this time round and not pushing their luck further. This recent slump in casino “earnings” is due in part to the economic recession but also because Vegas now plays regular host to some of the best performers, athletes, chefs, designers and artists in the world. Of course many Americans still do make their annual blow-out pilgrimage, and the big spenders that I’ve seen play (I was vouched into the high rollers section to WATCH several “big” games) look like they are having fun.

The point is that Vegas itself is so gaudy, so excessive, so grand and yet so helplessly tacky that you can’t help but marvel at just how impressive it is. Gambling is an activity that could be comfortably shoved to eighth or even twentieth on your list of “things to do in Vegas”.

Macau – silence of the embezzlers

In Vegas, the casino air is punctuated by the whoops and screams of over-enthusiastic Americans, winning or losing. In Macau, the “floors” are oddly quiet, the tables occupied by stern-faced and intimidating characters. The gambling in Macau can generally be divided into three divisions: casino games, horse racing and greyhound racing. The casinos, however, are mainly confined to two areas – 23 casinos are located on the Macau Peninsula and 10 casinos on Taipa Island.

Other than casinos, there’s betting at the Macau Jockey Club and greyhound racing at Canidrome on Avenida General Castelo Branco. Many of those sat at the tables, mostly Chinese and Middle Eastern men, rarely have an alcoholic beverage on the go but a hot cup of “comped” green tea (and a cigarette).When you’re quietly gambling away large sums of money whilst drinking a herb infused drink, you’re not in the casino for a good time – here, gambling is serious business.

And it is even more serious business when the money that you’re using to gamble with isn’t even yours. Government officials have been caught heading to Macau to gamble with misappropriated public funds. Asia Times Online reported that in January 2009, anti-corruption agents revealed that 53 officials from Guangdong province embezzled 22 million (US$3.2 million) in public money to gamble in Macau.

Of the Chinese high-stakes gamblers betting big in Macau, a 2009 study revealed that 57% of them were officials in government or high ranking managers working for government-run companies. The study also shows that almost all of the money “misplaced” into the Drop Boxes of Macau’s casinos by these officials and managers, on average $3.3 million a piece, was public money.

Ladies of the night

Finally, it has to be brought up. Call them what you will, hookers, prostitutes, ladies of the night, there is an obvious presence of them in Macau – they are quite literally on the streets of Venice. It would be remiss of me to say Vegas doesn’t have them, of course it does, but from my experiences of being propositioned, “they” were comically subtle and quickly bounced by security if found out. In contrast, the management at the Lisbosa Hotel in Macau actively encourages working girls to parade around their foyer. Indeed, walking around some hotels, there appeared to be more workers than actual guests staying there.

Last thoughts

So what’s going on here? Why the marked difference between two cities who share a common theme?

Perhaps this short story of tire trader Yuan Shihao can present some insight. Instead of boarding a train back home to Hunan province, Yuan took a bus to Macau where he decided to test his luck. After suffering a horrific 18-hour losing streak at the Golden Dragon Casino, he decided to take a breather, not before hocking his mobile phone and watch, where he continued to lose his money – almost $15,000 by the time he’d call it quits.

The 30-year old businessman offered this explanation for parting with his cash (and personal goods): “I wanted to invest my earnings,” Yuan explained. Only “fools,” he said, “put money in Chinese banks, which offer less interest than the rate of inflation.”

Vegas and Macau are playing the same game, but when the rules are different, it’s only in name.