Winners & Losers: Bet on Macau!

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Winners & Losers - Macau
Image: Tristan Schmurr/Flickr

During the dark days of Covid, every casino in the world took a hit. But none were walloped harder than those in Macau, the Portuguese colony that was handed over to China in 1999. It’s a 65-kilometer hydrofoil ride away from Hong Kong and an Asian gambling mecca.

So, I felt good to read this week that, although slow to catch up to the best online casinos, revenues in Macau have returned to pre-pandemic levels. The story was tied to financial news, making the point that it’s a good time to buy gambling stock in Macau.

I’ve never invested in Macau financially (likely, a lost opportunity) but I do have an emotional investment. The place holds a soft spot in my heart.

The first time I went there was in the early 2000s, while reporting a story on members of Western computer teams who were crushing Hong Kong horse racing. An advantage of its parimutuel betting system is that big winners are not banned or excluded from betting.

One of the computer-assisted advantage players did so well out there he owned a thoroughbred that would be running in Macau. Of course, I tagged along with him and his crew. My guy wore a velvet sport jacket for the occasion.

Macau was a notoriously corrupt gambling town at the time. A man by the name of Stanley Ho, known as the King and Godfather of Gambling, owned the single casino license. Triads ruled the streets, horses were routinely drugged and jockeys were supposedly beaten if they didn’t lose races they were told to blow. 

I stayed at the worst Mandarin Oriental hotel imaginable and got to hang out at Ho’s Grand Lisboa. It was a seedy, tatty place where cigarette smoke and cheap perfume comingled in the air.

Baccarat - Macau
Image: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

I’m sure I lost a few dollars at baccarat (the game of choice in Macau) but I got to enjoy great Macanese food (yay, minchi) and heard a first-person story about a gambler smuggling cash by taping it under his genitals.

By my next time in town, multiple casino licenses had been issued; the gold-fronted Sands Macau casino was up and running. I think I was there for opening night.

I do remember overhearing security guys freaking out about Tommy Highland’s team ravaging the tables (Highland is one of the most feared advantage players in the game). I did not see Highland himself but the flurry of activity and walkie talky chatter was a thrill.

The guy showing me around the Sands was a blond-haired American and an old hand in Macau. He told me about arriving there at a time when Westerners were such a novelty that local gamblers automatically stroked his golden locks for good luck.

On my third visit, I was there to interview Steve Wynn, who’s now looking to open another new casino in my own backyard, New York. Back in Macau, though, he was freshly licensed and preparing to open his eponymous joint.

The plan was for me to meet him in his office. I went to the address and entered a shabby dump of a building. There was no AC. The jam-packed elevator reeked of sweat as it creaked up to the given floor.

I remember thinking that it was a tough time for Wynn who was accustomed to only the best. Then I entered his suite of offices, which matched the company’s work digs in Vegas and a blasting AC made the Asian headquarters frigid.

I got to watch Wynn titter with delight when news of his Vegas casino’s take for the previous night rolled in over the phone. He vowed that Macau would be every bit as splashy as Las Vegas.

As usual Wynn knew what he was talking about. On my last visit to Macau, the place was like a mirror image of Las Vegas, complete with all the casino brands we know so well.

Macau - Grand Lisboa
Image: Reinhard Kroisenbrunner/Wikimedia Commons

After hanging around to watch things go down at what had to be the highest stakes poker game on Earth that night, I could not help but hit the Grand Lisboa for old time’s sake.

While the city around it had changed and the casino may have enjoyed an upgrade, the gamy smell lingered. I liked that, ordered a glass of milky tea and resigned myself to losing a few bucks at baccarat.

Michael Kaplan
Gambling Author and Journalist
Michael Kaplan
Gambling Author and Journalist

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City joined Techopedia in November 2023. He is the author of five books ("The Advantage Players" comes out in 2024) and has worked for publications that include Wired, GQ and the New York Post. He has written extensively on technology, gambling and business — with a particular interest in spots where all three intersect. His article on Kelly "Baccarat Machine" Sun and Phil Ivey is in development as a feature film.