Asia's whales take a battering
They are known in the gaming industry as 'whales'. And those from Asia enjoyed a reputation for being the fattest and most inveterate of all. Wealthy hard-core gamblers, their custom is so highly valued that no expense is spared by leading casinos to woo them. Private jets, opulent suites, exotic entertainment, and exquisite food and wines are routinely laid on to snare this rare breed of high rollers.
The Asian whale, who favoured baccarat in a private gaming room and enjoyed minimum credit of US$1 million (HK$7.74 million), could afford to be fickle about where in the world he laid his gleaming betting chips.
'It's unbelievable - sometimes even I'm shocked by how much money these people gamble,' says Jackie Yee, a Chinese-American veteran of casino management from Atlantic City in New Jersey to Sun City in South Africa.
One of the world's biggest whales remains Australian billionaire Kerry Packer, renowned for massive winning bets - which have ruined profits for large casinos - and for tipping croupiers US$100,000 when he is on a roll. (Mr Packer is known as a 'jumbo whale', big enough to drop more than US$10 million in a session without batting an eyelid.) Now in business for himself as a junket operator, Mr Yee networks at a rarefied level, identifying, schmoozing and inviting select Asian whales (and jumbos) to play in casinos around the world. One reason he set up his Castaway Group office in Hong Kong was because of the abundance of big-money local players. 'There are more than 50 regular whales in Hong Kong alone,' he says. 'It's our job to find them. We know who most of them are.' With bundles of cash and time at their disposal, Hong Kong tycoons win - and lose - countless fortunes on the green baize from Monte Carlo to Melbourne to Las Vegas. By taking them there, Mr Yee creams off a tidy slice for himself.
But now, the tide is turning against many of Asia's whales, who have been wounded - some mortally - in the region's economic crisis. In the past 12 months they have been going under at an alarming rate, resulting in sizeable turnover slumps for casinos throughout the world.
Some casino operators, who have long been comfortable allowing top high rollers to bet big on credit, are losing tens of millions of dollars, even when they win. Bad cheques or flat refusals by down-and-out Asian gamblers to settle their accounts are the talk of the industry. Casino revenues throughout the world have dropped - in some places by 60 per cent, say insiders.
'Everybody has been hit. Those who say they haven't are either lying or dreaming,' says Stephen Karoul, former president of Istanbul's Ciragan Palace Hotel casino. He cites Las Vegas, Macau and Australia as the worst-affected.
'A lot of people think that every casino is a cash cow and a sure winner. It's a misconception. Because of the downturn, operators have to learn to be more creative and aggressive. The smartest will survive.' During Asia's turmoil, failing businesses, collapsed stock and property markets, and decimated currencies have exacted a costly toll. Asia's whales, once the biggest in a small pond, are becoming an endangered species.
'Some of these guys have gone bust in this downturn, some have simply disappeared and some have tightened their belts,' Mr Yee agrees. 'During the good times, whether you're a whale or just a good patron, credit was always established and given by casinos based on an individual's ability to pay. Now, with the Asian crisis, most casinos want to see cash or the matching of funds - you put up a million dollars front-money, before getting a million in credit.' Shortly before Lunar New Year, a leading American casino began making routine arrangements for the arrival of a party of 28 high rollers from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, China and Indonesia.
Prudently, the casino's credit controllers decided Asia's economic woes justified some discreet checking of the finances of the 28 players who were soon to arrive. Could they pay their bills if the dice or the roulette wheel or the cards favoured the house? William O'Reilly, an FBI veteran whose curriculum vitae says he has 'the dubious distinction of having personally served then President Richard M. Nixon with a search warrant of the White House offices', was contracted to make the appropriate inquiries. As chairman of private corporate investigative firm OVG, which provides gaming support services and tracks assets and debts through Asia, Mr O'Reilly's people knew where to look.
Their findings came as a surprise.
'Of the 28, two were current fugitives from justice - one for murder for killing his business partner, the other for embezzlement,' Mr O'Reilly told a meeting of casino industry figures in Hong Kong this week.
'Altogether, 20 no longer had the means to pay if they lost. I found it amazing that only eight people out of the original 28 could pass our financial test, which was not very difficult - we did not set the standards too high.' Bad debts racked up by Asian high rollers are mounting and many are refusing to cough up, Mr O'Reilly adds.
'This is the crux of the problem,' he says. 'Increasingly, they're saying 'well, we don't have to pay that back - it's the casino's tough luck for giving us so much in the first place'.' It does not take too many US$1 million bad debts to severely harm even a casino's financial bottom line. His advice to operators? 'Don't sit with your head in the sand and think it will all be better when you wake up tomorrow.' It is a far cry from 1996 when Mr Karoul chartered a 747 from Singapore, took it to Hong Kong and filled it with high rollers for a lavish junket tour to the Sun City casino in South Africa, which he then managed. 'We made a lot of money, but our costs on a per capita basis were probably the highest in the world,' he said.
Just a year ago, Asian gamblers were the premium players. 'At Caesar's, they split the world into four regions - Far East, Middle East, Latin America and Europe - and without question, the Far East came first every year,' says Mr Karoul. Now some one-time Asian high rollers have been using credit in forlorn bids to win back their riches.
'You do get desperate whales who have fallen on hard times and are trying to gamble their way back to prosperity,' Mr Yee says.
'The true gambler is a risk-taker in whatever he does,' Mr Karoul adds. 'His lifestyle is one big risk. They will take that one last shot, which is why, in the casino business, we say it is always the last cheque which is the problem cheque.' Official figures on casino turnover are as rare as jackpots. Operators play their cards close to their chest, rarely disclosing how successfully or poorly their houses are faring. But a tightly knit network of industry contacts claims an accurate knowledge. Mr Karoul, now a Philippines-based casino consultant and associate editor of Casino World magazine, estimates Macau's casinos are down by as much as 50 per cent (due as much to the enclave's crime wave as regional economic woes).
Melbourne's lavish new Crown Casino - soon to be headed by Hong Kong-based Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group chief Robert Riley - is also taking a hammering. Touted at its opening in 1997 as a magnet for Asia's high rollers, who would be whisked Down Under on corporate jets and enjoy a private golf course developed for their exclusive patronage, Crown has haemorrhaged cash. For whales, read minnows.
After flying first-class from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Mr Yee's high rollers are, typically, escorted on to a casino-registered jet, deposited at a Vegas casino and given the keys to a 15,000-square-foot penthouse fit for an emperor. If, however, they lose and refuse to pay, Mr Yee and other junket operators sometimes have to trump up the cash.
But even in Nevada's gambling mecca, home to the largest and most dynamic casino industry in the world with more than 30 million visitors last year, operators are nervous about the drop-off in Asian business and rise in debts.
'The top end of the market has become very soft, very quickly,' Professor William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, told the Post.
'This is not just a recession - it's a pretty severe downturn for a lot of Asian countries and their nouveau riche.
'In the last three months we've seen figures showing that baccarat play [in Las Vegas alone] will halve from US$600 million a year ago. We are looking at a US$300 million fall-off, year on year, and much of this can be attributed to the Asian high rollers. The sense I have is that casinos in the US and around the world are now very worried about extending credit.
'The market is slowing down everywhere because many Asian players are cash-strapped. We're talking about wealthy people, but their engines for income generation have slowed considerably.' Indeed, the topics for discussion at the annual Asia Pacific Casino Gaming Convention in Hong Kong this week ranged from the gloomy to the merely hopeful: How can casinos reposition, survive and prosper during difficult economic circumstances?; Restructuring and reviewing your credit collection with high rollers; Is the attractive junket business coming to an end?; Back to basics; Do troubled times really translate to worsening business? Not every Asian high roller is feeling the pinch, however, and it is misleading to portray an entire industry in crisis. Mr Yee and Mr Karoul point to the thriving Subic Bay casino, in the Philippines, which is receiving between 75 and 90 chartered junket flights a week. Although few whales are among the clientele, the patronage is diversifying and growing.
Ironically, the Hong Kong-based cruise ships which nightly ferry passengers into international waters to get around the SAR's bans are also enjoying a boon, largely because of Macau's law and order problems.
And even the embattled Crown casino has enjoyed a recent stroke of luck: an industry source says a prominent Hong Kong Chinese gambler lost HK$90 million there this week before trying his luck with a HK$23 million initial deposit at Jupiter's Casino on Australia's Gold Coast.
Liquid whales such as this one are so keenly sought they receive rebates of as much as 1.5 per cent on their turnover from some casino operators. In effect, casinos are paying the big-money players if they win, lose or draw under the so-called 'roll-back policy'.
Lawrence Fung Kam-fai, executive director of Asia's newest gaming playground on an island off Saipan in Micronesia, is banking on mainland Chinese millionaires and their passion for gambling.
'We're aiming to draw very big gamblers, mostly Chinese,' Mr Fung said in an interview from the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino, which had a soft opening two months ago. 'We plan to tap into the mainland market. It's the biggest - bigger even than Hong Kong. You cannot imagine how huge it is.' The resort's owner, a publicity-shy mainland businessman, has so far spent more than US$140 million and plans to outlay US$60 million more. With Japanese tourism to Guam and Saipan slumping along with Asian economies, the Hong Kong Entertainment (Overseas) Investment Company Ltd could be forgiven for lamenting the timing of the expensive venture. But Mr Fung remains bullish.
'We're quite confident because we do have a lot of big punters already who have said they want to come,' he said. 'The Asian downturn has had a bad impact on some businesses. But when these gamblers want to play, they play.' Some industry watchers tip that legal casinos will open in Japan (Okinawa is considered the best bet). Professor Eadington says 'there has been interest expressed in varying degrees by China, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia and India in recent years', but Asia's economic problems throw up new concerns.
Casino cruise ships operating out of Singapore still enjoy a regular clientele. The casinos in Vietnam and South Korea are said to be suffering, but Malaysia is holding its own. During a visit to Hong Kong this week, the secretary-general of Cambodia's Investment Board, Sok Chenda, said the country was keen to capture the gaming revenue and tourism spin-offs from Asians (who he described as 'inveterate gamblers').
Many operators believe the brightest rays of hope for the industry are new millionaires emerging from China to try their luck. 'They are good gamblers, they're not too demanding and they do not look for an 'edge' over the casinos,' smiles Mr Yee, who regularly charters an Airbus jet from Hong Kong to take mainland tourists and punters to Subic Bay.
'Taiwan produces more high rollers than Hong Kong, but China is catching up very fast,' said Kelvin Tan, vice-president of Legend International Resorts which runs the Philippines venture. Mr Yee agrees: 'We do not even know yet who all the whales are in China. It's a very large pool.'