The Highest Rollers on the Strip
The Good: A richly reported look at the casino industry and its colorful moguls.
The Bad: The book struggles to reach any broader conclusion about its subjects.
The Bottom Line: An anecdote-rich and entertaining view of Vegas today.
Winner Takes All:Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian,Gary Loveman, and the Raceto Own Las VegasBy Christina BinkleyHyperion; 304pp; $25.95
After swimming with dolphins during a trip to Hawaii, Steve Wynn made up his mind to have a dolphin pool at the Mirage, a resort he was building in Las Vegas in the late 1980s. Protests by animal-rights activists stretched the time it took to get licensed by federal wildlife authorities to three years. The dolphins had to be flown in on specially outfitted chartered jets. Costs quadrupled over initial estimates, to $14 million. But in the end, the casino mogul got his way.
He equipped the pool with a private area where he and his guests donned wet suits to romp with the animals. Wynn liked to speak baby talk to the dolphins and, when a young one died, he buried it near the 17th hole of Shadow Creek, his private golf course. "I'm just this side of PETA," he said, referring to animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
This is classic Steve Wynn: persistent and visionary, a savvy showman with a strong sense of entitlement who reshaped Las Vegas in his own image. And there are many such tales in Wall Street Journal columnist Christina Binkley's richly reported look at the casino industry, Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas. The book struggles to reach any broader conclusion about its subjects. Still, there are lessons to be gleaned for risk-takers in every industry.
Las Vegas, as Wynn freely admits, ought to look tired, like other pioneering gambling destinations such as Atlantic City and Reno, Nev. The rise of casinos on Indian reservations, riverboats, and racetracks has put slot machines within easy reach of most of the country's population. Yet Vegas still glitters: It attracted a record 39 million visitors in 2007, more than twice as many as in 1987.
How does Sin City do it? By constantly reinventing itself. Recently the casinos have courted the world's top chefs, sommeliers, and luxury retailers, boosting the money that visitors spend on non-gambling activities to more than half of their total outlay. "People will dig an orchestra and a glass of wine," Wynn observed in 1998, anticipating things to come.
As Binkley's character sketches show, there are many ways to get to the top. Kerkorian, an eighth-grade dropout, isn't as much a builder as an investor with a vision as big as the Nevada sky. He first arrived in Las Vegas in 1945 as a charter plane pilot; six decades later he is still placing bets, anteing up $6 billion to buy Wynn's Mirage Resorts (MGM) and $8 billion more for Mandalay Bay, another large operator.
Gary Loveman, chairman of Harrah's Entertainment (HET), is a former Harvard Business School marketing professor whose sophisticated tracking techniques help him coax extra dollars from low-rollers' wallets. How efficient is Harrah's? Its computers analyze previous guests' profiles to know when they're "past due" for a visit and which promotions they'll respond to. Real-time monitoring of betting on the floor allows employees to stop by a slot machine and offer morale-boosting perks such as a $5 cash voucher.
Take note, ye risk-averse: Everybody has setbacks. Loveman's crafty calculus couldn't stop a plunge in profits after Harrah's acquired the Rio hotel in 1998. Kerkorian's cheaply built MGM hotel (now called Bally's) was the site of a notorious and deadly fire in 1980. Even Wynn lost control of his Mirage Resorts empire. He became a billionaire, though, on his next venture, Wynn Resorts (WYNN).
Binkley strangely dismisses another mogul, Sheldon Adelson. When the Las Vegas Sands (LVS) CEO is mentioned at all, he's "diabetic and disabled," a Wynn copycat who bungled the launch of his Venetian hotel in Vegas. But Adelson set the pace of the gambling giants this decade. His huge development in Macau made him the richest man in the business, with a $16 billion-plus fortune—larger than those of Kerkorian, Wynn, and Loveman combined.
The ego and pettiness that Binkley describes are dazzling. For example, when Kerkorian won control of Mirage Resorts in 2000, Wynn got his former company also to buy his golf-course home and every item in it at cost. After squabbling with Mirage over the value of such things as a plasma TV, he agreed to accept $17.3 million. Just another jackpot for the king of Las Vegas.