Endangered Species: Las Vegas Struggles to Save the High-Rolling Whales

Las Vegas loves its losers -- especially well-heeled losers. In fact, Vegas so adores those high-flying gamblers with the means and the bad luck to blow staggering sums at the tables that the casinos have a nickname for them: "whales."And the whales are prized commodities in Vegas. Casinos fly them in on private jets, put them up in mindblowing villas and provide them with personal chefs and doting butlers -- just so long as these deep-pocketed players are willing to put six figures at risk each time they visit.

Just a few years ago, Vegas was crowded with these massive free-spending players. But in the current economic climate, the highest rollers represent a thinned-out species. Even those whales still willing to risk princely sums are tighter with their chips than they used to be -- and they're getting selective about choosing a casino to go swimming in.

When Whales Attack

"When times were good, a gambler would come in for a weekend, win 50 grand on Friday night, and promptly piss it away. By the time he was ready to leave on Sunday, he owed us money," says Steve Cyr, senior director of player development at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and subject of Deke Castleman's Whale Hunt in the Desert, a Vegas confidential. "Now when some of the hundred-thousand-dollar players get a couple of scores, they stop playing and keep the money."

The endangered whales reflect the fortunes of Las Vegas as a whole. "There's fewer of everything in Vegas," says Anthony Curtis, publisher of gamblers' newsletter Las Vegas Advisor. "With the worldwide proliferation of big casinos -- in Macau and now Singapore, for example -- fewer of them have to travel to Las Vegas to gamble." Those who do come, Curtis says, "are more skittish than they used to be. A guy who once bet all day and tolerated losing 20 units, at $20,000 per unit, may be less inclined to do that right now."

Even worse, a harpooned whale now might blame the casino for his decimated bank account. Terrance Wattanabe dropped $127 million at the Rio and Caesar's Palace, outposts of Harrah's Entertainment -- losses amounting to 5.6% of Harrah's Las Vegas gambling revenue in 2007, according to The Wall Street Journal. Now Wattananbe is suing Harrah's, claiming the casino kept him in action by supplying alcohol and painkillers.

Six Figures, Just for Showing Up

Cyr says he uses his own methods for guiding whales into his casino, and then blowing six figures there, even during the dog days of a recession. Sometimes he provides an arriving whale with a stack of chips -- on the house. In the old days, Cyr says, he'd invite one well-known adult-entertainment publisher who's been known to risk large sums at blackjack, "and ask him to come by the casino for dinner. Now he says he doesn't want to eat. He wants to know how much we'll give him to walk through the door."

Whales, in short, are now shopping their action as Nevada's gambling revenue has been down for 23 of the last 24 months. (Las Vegas has seen increases for the last two months.) "These whales have become like movie stars," Cyr says. "They want appearance fees! Guys say, 'Give me $100,000, and I'll come check out your casino.'"

Playing hosts against one another in high-stakes games of Can You Top This, the whales check on which casino will provide the most lavish accommodations, and which offer the biggest rebates on losses. (That's right: The biggest players get money back when they lose -- and, of course, keep everything they win.) Whales even get referral fees: Cyr offers incentives to established players who turn him on to good customers.

Then Cyr dispatches staffers to wine and dine the potential cash-spewers. "My guys did a little trip to Dallas, and they brought in 200 grand of fresh business for New Year's Eve," he says -- acknowledging that such out-of-town schmoozefests are a new wrinkle of the whale hunt. "That was worth it."

The Tide Turns in Vegas

Cyr is a super-host. He never says die, and he benefits from working at a casino notorious for cool parties and concerts, drawing more than its share of attractive young women. But even he acknowledges that the tide has turned -- at least for now. A whale, Cyr says, had once been a million-dollar player. These days, somebody who's willing to lose $250,000 gets the title -- and milks it for all it's worth.

"Vegas used to be a place where there was a lot to go around," he says. "Now it's no longer the casino's market. For the first time in a long time, the player has the upper hand."

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