April 2013: Down in Macau

In Blackjack, it’s easy to lose money fast when the minimum bet is around $50 per hand. The MINIMUM. So it went for me in Macau, the world’s gambling capital, which sees such high demand from Chinese customers that it can raise its minimum table bets by 8-10 times what is charged in Las Vegas or Atlantic City (where table minimums are $5 – $10).

There are only two ways into Macau: by train or by boat, which gives the Chinese government strong control over who and what goes in or out of the special autonomous region. In effect: A lot of money goes in. Most doesn’t come out. In the former Portuguese colony off China’s southeast coast near the former British colony Hong Kong, congested roads lead from two ports to 33 casinos owned by the nation’s sole six licensed gaming operators — two Chinese, one Australian, and three American (Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts, and Wynn Resorts) — giving them a monopoly on the pockets of the world’s most populous nation.

The payoff has been huge. Macau pulled in $38 billion in gaming revenue last year, more than six times the amount of runner-up Las Vegas, turning the Chinese city into one of the top 5 richest regions of the world, just ahead of Singapore and only behind the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

Here’s a photo from the ferry terminal, looking at Sands’ original $240 million casino that opened in 2004 and famously paid itself off within a year. In the background you can see the towers of MGM and Wynn.

And here’s a photo of the high-speed ferry that runs the one-hour trip back and forth to Hong Kong. In the background is one of two bridges connecting Macau to the island of Cotai (a combination of the names “Coloane” and “Taipa,” two islands connected as part of efforts to expand the amount of land available for more casinos). Sands recently built Asia’s largest casino-resort on Cotai, and Wynn and MGM are now building out additional lavish resort-casino facilities in Cotai, too.

But Macau is an odd place. The big game in town is baccarat. More than 90% of all revenue comes from this stupidly simple table game, which is basically like playing WAR. At the table, each player is dealt two cards, and whoever is closer to 9 wins. All facecards and 10s are considered 0, while anything over 9 drops the left digit. So, a 3-4 combo would be considered 7, while a Queen-7 combo would add up to 17 and thus also be considered 7. If neither player hits 8 or 9 in the first two cards, then each player is dealt one additional card. That’s it. There’s no decision-making, no ability to hit or stay, double down or split.

It’s not about having fun, apparently. Chinese don’t come to Macau to play, I was repeatedly told. They come to work. In AC or Vegas, a gambler is plied with free drinks and excellent service, as the dealer will coddle you and act as if she wants you to win (which means you gamble more, and also that she stands to get a better tip). Meanwhile in Macau, alcohol isn’t offered for free (expect at Wynn’s sole casino) and I had to beg for a measly cup of lukewarm tea at Sands’ Venetian casino. And the Macau dealers are also unprofessional (miscounting hands and talking to one another during gameplay) and even antagonistic. When I lost, my dealer laughed. How belittling!

I found a few blackjack tables inside the Venetian and quickly discovered some peculiar rules advantageous to the house. In the US, the dealer accepts two cards, one face up and one face down, but in Macau the dealer only accepts one card face up — the dealer’s second card only gets dealt after all other players have taken a hit or chosen to stay. This is a disadvantageous for the players, because it means there is one less card in the deck that could potentially be a face card.

I quickly lost HKD 1000 (about USD 130), then another HKD 1000, and then my last HKD 1000 — that was supposed to be my ferry money home.

Down nearly $400 and my wallet empty, I went to the ATM.

But the ATM rejected my card, saying I’d already overdrawn the total amount allotted in Macau (the government restricts capital inflows to supposedly prevent Chinese from gambling away their lifesavings, though there are many ways around this, from carrying in bags of cash to selling personal items at the pawn shops located inside the casinos to putting your bets on credit with so-called junket operators).

I tried another ATM; again rejected.

I was stranded in Macau.

After trying a dozen ATMs for the next few hours, finally an HSBC machine honored my card.

I wasn’t done with Macau yet. Determined to cut my losses (a dangerous attitude at a casino, admittedly), I returned to the table with 10 poker chips each worth HKD 100. The odds had to turn in my favor, I figured. I lost a hand. I lost another. With only HKD 400 left, I put it all in, figuring my losing streak had to flip.

Five wins later, I walked away from the table after more than doubling my stash to HKD 2100. I was still down about $250, but it at least felt a lot better than losing $400. I walked out of the Venetian into the overcast gloom that constantly hangs over Macau in the Spring.

Here I am in outside the Venetian in Cotai, with the City of Dreams casino and its Hard Rock Hotel in the background, and my wallet a bit slimmer than when I first arrived.

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