How Macau Became the World's Hottest Gambling Destination

Next up for China's Sin City? A $3.2 billion casino promoted by Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.
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Next up for China's Sin City? A $3.2 billion casino promoted by Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.
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Twenty years ago, Macau was the kind of gambling town where you’d end the night with your clothes reeking of cigarettes and knock-off perfume, your pockets empty, and a buffet of illicit possibilities laid out in front of you.

It was also a seedy den of vice where horses at the local track routinely got drugged, jockeys were beaten for winning when they shouldn’t have, and triad gangs settled disputes with gunfire in the streets. Gambling in the Chinese city was run by a Montgomery Burns-style billionaire casino mogul named Stanley Ho, who held Macau’s sole gaming license and was dubbed "The King of Macau". Poker great Johnny Chan memorably described the old Macau as having “the dirtiest toilets in the world.”

According to Tom Hall, a relative of Ho’s, “Macau went mad in the early ‘90s. People got kidnapped and shot. But The Lisboa [Ho's casino] stood on the most valuable piece of real estate in the world. It was the only place to gamble in Macau and was more valuable than the New York Stock Exchange.” Macau was so removed from Western sensibilities that a blond haired casino boss from Las Vegas remembers visiting there and having strangers coming up to him and rubbing his head. “I asked what that was about,” he remembers. “Somebody told me, ‘Golden hair. Good luck.’”

All of that changed in 2002, when Ho lost his stranglehold on Macau's gambling industry and Western entities were granted licenses to open there. First up, in 2004, was the Sands Macau, which recouped its $256 million construction costs in nine months. Chinese gamblers couldn’t get enough of the casino's Vegas-style action. Today, there are 36 bustling casinos in Macau, which, in 2006, overtook Las Vegas as the highest-grossing gambling city in the world — and that didn’t even account for the massive sums skimmed by corrupt junket operators.

The latest player in Macau's gambling boom is this month’s opening of Studio City, a $3.2-billion theme park of a casino, which was heralded with a $70-million, 15-minute infomercial directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. It’s called The Audition and has been blocked from viewing in the United States.

Aiming to cater to families as well as Macau’s notoriously degenerate “VIP gamblers” — whose average loss per trip used to be $5 to $10-million and now stands at $1 to $5 million — Studio City has a Hollywood movie theme, and features G-rated attractions decidedly at odds with the old Macau: giant party-rooms for kids in the Warner Bros. Fun Zone, a Batman 4-D flight ride, a lazy river near the pool, and a 427-foot-tall Ferris wheel called the Golden Reel.

“It’s in the shape of an eight, which is a lucky number in China” says Gary Goddard, the wheel’s ingenious designer, who first made a name for himself by rewriting the Tarzan, The Ape Man movie script for John and Bo Derek. “Hopefully people will ride it with the intention of having good fortune before going to gamble.” That said, he adds, “The Chinese government has made it very clear that they want the casinos to widen their base and appeal to families.” But diehard gamblers needn't worry: By early next year, Studio City will have 250 gaming tables up and running.

A partnership between Melco Crown Entertainment (owned by James Packer, son of the late casino whale Kerry Packer) and Lawrence Ho (Stanley Ho’s offspring are all over Macau properties, as they provide a seemingly bottomless well of gaming licenses), Studio City opens in the midst of a 17-month-long lull in casino openings in Macau.

That reportedly did not account for the delay in Vegas magnate Steve Wynn’s new $4.1-billion gambling den there. The Wynn Macau had been scheduled to debut in March of 2016 and is now bumped up to June. While he and the other casino operators have made fortunes on the island, Wynn described the launching of a new casino there as “almost a mystical process.”

While Wynn likes to bellyache about the Chinese government capping the number of tables permitted in each casino, poker star Chan doesn’t see the limits cramping the style of Macau's high-rollers.

“Macau is almost like Vegas – except the gamblers play much higher,” he says. “The weirdest thing you ever saw is guys here getting millions of dollars to gamble with and not even needing to sign a piece of paper. And they don’t quit until they lose it all. Guys come to Macau for 72 hours and spend 60 hours gambling. That’s what makes Macau the gambling capital of the world.”

Photos by Getty