Monday, April 22, 2002 | 10:05 a.m.
It's just before midnight, and Steve Cyr sits sipping $125 shots of King Louis XIII cognac with a man who just lost $4,000 at Binion's Horseshoe Club casino in downtown Las Vegas.
But the gambler doesn't seem upset. In fact, he's buying the drinks.
It's been an expensive night, but the key is whether he had fun. He did thanks to Cyr.
The 38-year-old Cyr is a host -- an independent contractor whose job is to bring the big gamblers into one of the casinos that's hired him.
More than that, he's a high-roller hunter, always looking for "whales," casino lingo for the biggest gamblers, those willing to risk thousands, even millions, of dollars. The high-rollers drive casino profits, and they can assure a big payday for Cyr, too.
He earns a six-figure income each year through a salary from the casinos and commissions based on how much gamblers bet and how long they play.
Hosts like Cyr (pronounced "seer") offer gamblers private jets, Super Bowl tickets, lavish suites and lots of booze -- all so the high-rollers bet big money. If the gamblers play big, the casino pays the perks.
Cyr boasts of his connections around the country, with ticket brokers, for example. "You can call me Super Bowl Sunday and sit on the 50-yard line," he says.
He hosts about 300 gamblers from all over the country -- California, Texas, New Jersey. Seventy of them are high-rollers who risk at least $50,000 a trip; 14 are whales willing to bet half a million dollars.
The rest are small-time players who are good networkers for Cyr. They own restaurants, bars, fishing lure companies or hold product patents.
John Aspinwall waits in his suite at the Hard Rock hotel-casino for Cyr to arrive. He and his friends feast on shrimp with their cocktails and beer, courtesy of the casino.
Owner of a chain of car washes, Aspinwall is one of Cyr's most loyal players. They've known each other for years, and Aspinwall will go to any casino Cyr takes him.
"He takes care of people," says Aspinwall, who lives in Madison, Wis. "It's fun when you can just place a call and he just takes care of it."
Clean-cut and sharply dressed, Cyr arrives with his girlfriend, Tanya Chiodini, and a few more gamblers. He summons two limousines and the group is off to a steak dinner hosted by Binion's Horseshoe Club downtown.
Casino owner Becky Behnen stops by to greet Cyr and his guests. Cyr entertains with a few silly card tricks, and the group toasts to a good night. Cyr listens for buzz words in the conversation like "private jet" or "marker," clues that tell him someone is a big player he should get to know.
Aspinwall, 45, isn't a whale but does play thousands of dollars each visit.
He visits so often and has such great connections to other players that it's worth it to Cyr to spend time with him. Plus, Cyr likes him and they have a good time together.
Cyr gets Aspinwall and his other players concert tickets, shopping sprees, leather jackets. Once he gave an $85,000 Dodge Viper to a player who lost millions of dollars and he took another group to Greece in a private plane -- all paid for by the casino.
In exchange, the gamblers have to play a certain amount. How much they bet determines how they'll be treated.
"I don't look at it as whether I win or lose," Aspinwall says. "I look at whether I had fun. If I lose $10,000, I lose $10,000," he says.
The dinner tab is $869 for the group of 13. Aspinwall and his friends leave a $340 tip before heading to the casino.
While Aspinwall hits the blackjack table, Cyr eyes the gamblers. Binion's is a crowded, smoky joint that doesn't look like a high-roller's haven, but they can be anywhere.
How a big gambler does at the tables can determine whether a casino wins or loses that day.
"(High-rollers) drive business. They drive revenues. They drive profits," says Jason Ader, gambling analyst with Bear Stearns.
And that means they get the outrageous rewards.
"It's just obscene," says Anthony Curtis, a casino expert and publisher of Las Vegas-based Huntington Press. "It's just a whole other world that most people can't conceive of. It's crazy what the casino has gotten itself into."
But, Curtis says, it's a necessity. "Hosts are responsible for bringing in the money that the house needs to survive."
Casinos are always upping the ante, looking for ways to court the best players. State gambling regulators recently approved new rules allowing casinos to create private gambling salons for big bettors.
Cyr spends hours on the phone luring gamblers and arranging their trips. His cell phone rings 40 to 50 times a day. It's all about networking -- finding out who's in town, who's coming and how much they're willing to bet.
He broke into the business by going to the airport and looking for limousine drivers holding up arrival signs for hotel guests. Then he'd call the hotels and ask for the guests.
He befriended golf course workers and asked who was betting on the course. That could be a sign they'd bet in the casinos, too.
What Cyr doesn't want is winners. He wants losers -- the kind who will bet a lot and keep betting, even when they're down.
"People think my high-rollers are doctors and lawyers. Those guys are stiffs. I'd rather have the construction worker that'll give me a shot at $50,000. I want risk-takers," he says.
Gamblers who make bad decisions and play when they're down get most of his attention, and they're usually the ones who get the suites.
"A lot of rich people are so dumb, I don't know how they made their money," he says.
To gain credit at a casino, players must reveal their birth date and Social Security number. That's all Cyr needs to check a player's financial history and find out if there's money to cover any losses.
He knows the gamblers' bank account balances, how much they play, their strategy, how much they owe the casino and, more importantly, how much they're willing to risk.
Even as he's the charming buddy at the tables, Cyr will easily "zap" the bank account of someone who hasn't settled up with the casino.
A player who borrows from the casino signs a marker agreeing to repay the money. It's essentially a check to the casino, and if the gambler doesn't pay, Cyr sends the check to the bank.
"I'm more important to a lot of wealthy people than their banker," says Cyr, who is featured in a book on high-rollers due out this summer.
He's been fired seven times, mostly, he says, because he can't keep his mouth shut. But he always lands another job as host -- sometimes from the same casinos that fired him. When Cyr and other hosts leave a casino, they usually take more than their pink slips.
"If you don't hire me, I'm going to steal all your customers," he says.
Back at Binion's Horseshoe, Cyr spies a guy in a red shirt playing craps. The casino pit boss tells him the man already has lost $400,000.
Cyr passes the gambler by because he's supposed to be teaching this casino's marketing staff how to land high-rollers, not trying to steal them.
Still, it bugs him. "I'm wishing," he says.
Later, in the faint light of a basement bar, the host thinks about dinner at the steakhouse and assesses the newcomers at the table. He remembers who sat where and who said what.
"The best potential is the guy in the black shirt on the end," Cyr decides. "I need to get to know him more. He's a $100,000 player."
Two days later, Cyr meets Aspinwall again. He has invited 23 players to watch the Super Bowl at a private party at Ellis Island, a tiny casino behind the Strip most tourists don't know exists.
Most of Cyr's players have never been here either, but they show up because Cyr is here. They have a free meal and some drinks, then know it's time to gamble.
"Look how loyal they are to me. We're in the middle of nowhere," Cyr boasts, calling them all "degenerates." The players don't seem to mind.
"He's the best in Vegas," says Michael Angelo, a gambler from Springfield, N.J. "He knows how to treat a guy like nobody else. Liquor keeps me happy. It's all good."
Angelo, who owns a marketing firm, says he once lost $700,000 in four days; but he's won a lot, too, he says.
Win or lose, for gamblers like Angelo, it's all about the host.
"It's everything to a gambler," he says, playing a hand of blackjack. "You want to go where somebody knows your name. Everybody likes something for nothing, even though you got to lose a lot to get it."