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Courting The Heavy Hitters

Las Vegas, Family-Fun Mecca? Sure, but the High Rollers Still Rule the Town--Guys who drop $10 million and Don't Blink. The Competition for their Business Is Fierce Because, in the End, the House Always Wins.

February 18, 1996|MICHAEL J. GOODMAN and Michael J. Goodman's last article for the magazine was on animal smuggling. He is co-author of "Your Best Bet"(Ballantine), a guide to international gambling.

Michael T. Stirling cradles the phone between shoulder and ear. Two calls blink on hold. His eyes flick wearily to the clock dial embedded in a 2.2-pound ingot of .999%-pure gold--a gift from a Hong Kong baccarat player.

Stirling's voice turns icy: "Whadda ya mean he wants our plane? He's got one of his own. Yeah, and make sure he doesn't charge us for gas. Yeah, I don't like the looks of it. Owes us $400,000 Australian--that's 280 American, nine months, now. He's here and he hasn't paid. I'll confront him tonight. Once I get the money out of this kid, we're gonna have to reevaluate him."

Stirling, 54, the Las Vegas Hilton's senior vice president for international marketing, is responsible for both enticing high rollers to gamble at the Hilton and for collecting markers when they lose. It is New Year's weekend, the biggest high-roller gathering of the year, or "their annual trek to mecca," as the casino bosses put it.

We're in Stirling's office, a stone's throw from the Hilton's just-completed $12-million baccarat room, built expressly to lure high rollers.

His next call comes from inside a Hilton stretch limousine: "You're gonna swing by the MGM, bring him here with a friend. They're gonna play after dinner?"

Without pause, Stirling drawls: "I'm gonna set him up for a million. It'll be at the [casino cashier's] cage."

He puts the next call on the speaker. The voice sounds uneasy: "Mister Stirling, the guest is unhappy with her suite, 2853. Says it's, ummm, too dark?"

Stirling's reply is matter of fact: "Yeah, she's Chinese. Dark means bad luck." He studies a room chart. "Put 'em in 2878. Brighter. Luckier."

He is beeped by another Hilton limousine. His eyebrows quiver. "The whole bunch is coming? I should be so lucky. They'll want to play alone. We'll put 'em on Table 4. I'll greet 'em myself." He stands. A smile twitches. "That's what we call in our business a 'marketing success.' I've been trying to get them"--11 Pacific Rim baccarat players--"to switch hotels for a year now. Their credit's good for $10 million."

Stirling is tall and graying with an expressive boyish face crinkling around the mouth and eyes. An ex-Marine, he strides smartly across the casino, shoulders back, ramrod straight. Stirling grew up in Las Vegas. His father was a casino boss. "After the Marines, I worked as a dealer to put myself through college to be a teacher," Stirling laughs. "I couldn't afford to quit dealing."

As we enter the baccarat room, Stirling searches the faces of the players. "I'm guessing there's 40 to 50 of the world's biggest players in town," he snaps, "capable of $175 million to $200 million in action. My job is to make damn sure we get our share."

Stirling's mission is year-round. The New Year's crowd of big bettors is part of a global pool of very high rollers identified by the Hilton and other casinos as having the potential for $1 billion annually in casino play. Taken together, their number couldn't fill a jumbo jet. One on one, fading their action requires more than a stiff upper lip.

A single bet at baccarat, their game of choice, may top $100,000 against a mere 1% edge for the house. A single player may win or lose $10 million on a weekend. Winners are paid in cash. Losers typically sign "trust me" IOUs. Repayment, traditionally, is on the catch-me, check's-in-the-mail plan and discounted up to 15%.

"That's where the stomach for this comes in," Stirling says. "You've got to be able to give credit instantly under conditions no bank would follow: no collateral, based largely upon reputation. If a customer wins $6 million, he leaves with the cash. If he comes back and loses $6 million, it's credit. You'll be happy--glad--to call it even if you get $5 million back over the next year or so."

Only the casinos of Las Vegas--just a handful at that--have shown the bankroll and the ballast needed to take on world-class gamblers. Pitted against Stirling and the Hilton are the Mirage, Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, and, of late, the smaller, older Desert Inn, considered a cutthroat spoiler by the others.

"It's a gas war," says Ray Demman, a Hilton baccarat pit boss for 15 years.

To date, the four major casinos have spent about $200 million just for luxury accommodations to lure big players from each other. So lavish, so opulent are these villas, suites and penthouses, the word obscene tickles the pallet. Inside, amid the eye-watering dazzle of marble, crystal and gold leaf, one finds toiletries by Tiffany or Chanel, cigars from Havana, favorite flowers--freshly cut--and newspapers--freshly ironed--by a personal butler with white gloves who bows like a windup toy.

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