Wednesday, April 15, 2015 | 2 a.m.
For decades, high-stakes gaming was the backbone of the Las Vegas casino industry. Competition among the resorts was furious as marketing VPs and super-hosts hunted down the world’s wealthiest players known as “whales.” Bagging the biggest gamblers was an art form unto itself, and poaching them by tricking rival casinos was supposedly forbidden.
It was the job of the casino marketing “harpooner” to part the serious gamblers from their fortunes by any means necessary. Private jets, penthouses, personal chefs, loss rebates, jewelry, precious watches and of course the most beautiful women on Earth were all in the arsenal of the casino host to hook the whales. Players were even enticed with money just to show up at certain casinos.
Las Vegas resident Steve Cyr became the master of the game and wrote a book to examine the lifestyles and motivations of this rarest of breeds. “Whale Hunt in the Desert” has now gone into its third edition, and it’s an eye-opener on every page. He spills the secrets, payouts and big-time wins and losses.
Gaming has changed over the years. Las Vegas has changed with the influx of star-chef restaurants and star-name DJs populating an explosion of dayclubs and nightclubs.
Steve, who has appeared on 20 TV shows with his “casino diaries” and interviews with Montel Williams and Piers Morgan, is ready for primetime with his own reality-TV series. I talked with him for an advance look at the excitement and disbelief that it will create.
Years and years ago, gaming was 100 percent of the industry’s bottom line, but now today it is down to 40 percent. Why is that, what happened, and how do you deal with the business in what seems to be a shrinking market?
In some forms, you’re totally right. Twenty to 25 years ago, when I was at the Hilton or Caesars, my department, casino marketing, was at least 85 percent of the bottom line, and I had all the power in what I did. Now it’s one-third gaming, maybe, it’s 33 percent hotel and conventions and 33 percent nightlife and entertainment.
To simplify it, my parents would come see me 20 years ago. As soon as they got off the plane, they would be playing slots in McCarran Airport waiting for their bags. Now they don’t do it. Why? Because my mom and dad play slots in Wichita, Kansas. I remember my mom 25 years ago when I told her I was staying here in Las Vegas, she was like, “I hope you like Nevada. The only other place you can get a job is New Jersey.”
I reminded her of that the other day because now the only place I can’t work is Utah and Hawaii, 48 of our 50 states; it’s exploded. Now I work in California, I work for casinos in Florida and Kansas and Kentucky. Gaming is more accepted in our culture. It’s not a big deal anymore. Now when my parents get off the plane, they want to go see Celine Dion, they want to go to some of the great restaurants. The market has shrunk, but gaming is much more accepted now, and it’s just a cool thing.
As far as whales go in value, my job, even in the bad years, hasn’t really slowed down because I don’t have to persuade people to gamble anymore. Just like for the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight coming up, they know that they’ve got to fire it up in order to get the perks. It’s the cost of entertainment.
You’ve interviewed rich people. Some people want to spend 10 or 20 grand to go to Hawaii or on a big cruise. A lot of people would rather risk 10 or 20 grand and get the perks. I don’t take care of stars; I take care of the gamblers. I’d rather have the construction worker with five grand because if he stays with me down at the Golden Nugget, a limo picks him up, the wife can go get a massage.
Stars, for what I do, can be kind of a pain, to be honest. As gaming has increased, Las Vegas has evolved, and that’s why we imploded the Stardust and the Dunes and the Landmark. That’s why Atlantic City has died. They didn’t reinvent the wheel. Old buildings in Chicago or New York would be really cache. Here, they’re passe. The Riviera is coming down for conventions because conventions now are a big part of what we do.
We’re more of a destination now. When I first started, you would have thought nightlife was a passing fad. We only had two clubs in town, and then they put a nightclub in a casino. Marquee last year at the Cosmopolitan made $73 million. But the Cosmo gaming only made $70 million. What does that tell you?
Are there still whales as big today as they were in the time when you wrote this book the first go round?
Back then a whale was like Australian billionaire Kerry Packer. I was at the Hilton, he would come bet $100 to 150K a hand. Now it’s a little different where I have whales that will lose a million dollars, but not in the same trip. They’re from California, and they’ll bring 100 to 200K once a month. So it’s kind of different as opposed to that customer who would only come once or twice a year. Now my whales are more like $250,000, and they come from New York or Beverly Hills and come every couple of months.
So the money is the same, but it’s spread over a little longer time?
Correct. When I first started, Atlantic City was just opening. We really had no competition. Now I’ve got guys who take half a million to Barona or Morongo in California and go golfing, as well. It’s weird. I try to be one-stop shopping for the high roller. It used to be the good old guy who wanted to come here with his girlfriend. Now he goes to the Barona in San Diego, takes the wife and kids to SeaWorld, but he still gambles.
Or they go down to the Atlantis in the Bahamas because they’re freezing in New York. So Las Vegas has become very event-driven. Whether it be March Madness, and thankfully other states don’t have sports betting. That’s why all my California people come here because they can’t go to a California casino and bet in a sports book.
So when you say event-driven, you must be salivating at the “fishing” that you will do over the upcoming Pacquiao vs. Mayweather weekend?
It’s the biggest event of my 28-year career, and I was around for “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns. I was a host at Caesars then. I have $100,000 players who hate me who are calling me. Guys who said I’m never coming back because they either got sick of gambling or sick of me. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens, and they’re calling me now. They’re not really sports fans. They just want to be at the event.
It’s all about being in the center of the action?
Yeah, just to be there. It’s really crazy. The cheapest seat that they say, they haven’t printed the tickets yet, is $1,000. That means the last row at MGM is 1,000 bucks. My broker called me the other day and said he would give me $4,000, and that’s to be in the nosebleeds.
The other cool thing is now MGM is smart. They’re opening up the nightclubs. So I’ve got guys saying, “Look, I don’t want to fight the crowds there, but I’ll spend $10,000. Get me a booth so I can watch it in the nightclub.” Then after the fights, they’ll kick everybody out at 11 p.m. and reopen the club. How crazy is that?
Even at the Hard Rock back in the day, people were like, “Peter Morton, I can’t believe you put a center bar in the middle of the casino.” Peter really changed things, and I can’t believe that they have loud music playing. The dynamics of gaming have changed so much, but Las Vegas has done a great job to adapt to that change.
Talk to me about the “casino diaries” reality-TV show idea.
I’ve been fortunate and done a bunch of shows, and I’ve gone on a lot of pitches. I’ve probably shot about 20 segments where they followed me around and the limo picks the customer up and we go up to the Sky Villa, all that Don Johnson stuff. The one idea that I have run by a few TV people and they really liked was almost like half “American Idol” where it would be a contest, but the winner would be “who’s the next whale hunter.”
The Hard Rock agreed that the winner would get a one-year, $150,000 job to be their casino host. We would put them on scavenger hunts and we would have 10 guys and 10 girls, and you’ve got the couple coming out and they’re engaged but then they have to stay out with me until 4 in the morning and we end up at a strip club because you know I’m not a librarian and that’s where my customers let go.
And then you’ve got the girl who can’t tell the guy who just lost 20 grand that he’s got to pay her. We’re dumping the markers. There’s a bad side to my business, too, so we’ve played with that and now we’ve got to get in front of the right decision-makers.
Is whale hunting as exciting today? Is the challenge as gripping today as it was back then?
For me, it’s more challenging because there’s so much competition. For me, it’s more corporate, not as old school. I’ve been fired nine times for a reason. I don’t thrive in the corporate atmosphere. I really thrive when I can report to Peter Morton or report to Binion’s at the Horse Shoe.
When Tim (Poster) and Tom (Breitling) owned the Golden Nugget, that was a blast. Man, they really did well. So the corporate structure has really tightened it up, but there might be an event like the Super Bowl, or an event could be a guy wants to play a round of golf at Augusta National, and so we’ve got to pull it off. I love all those kind of challenges.
So there are plenty of whales out there — they’re just spending it differently?
Yup. There are plenty of whales, and what’s interesting is it’s so accepted now, and there might be a whale who wants to spend a lot of money in the nightclub, but people still love that rush of winning. A guy will win 1 every 4 or 5 trips and talk about it for the rest of his life. It’s like I’m a terrible golfer, but if I birdie 18, I’m talking about it all day. It’s in people’s blood.
And of course online poker is becoming more accepted. I think we’ll have online gaming now more in our lifetime and more states. I mean look at everybody who’s copied Las Vegas. First it was in two states. now everybody is trying to be like Las Vegas.
In a sense, though, all those other states are training grounds, aren’t they? There is only one ultimate mecca called Las Vegas?
Nobody gets that because a lot of people say, “Don’t the Indian reservations hurt what you do”? The answer is no. Mom and Dad try it there and then instead of going to Hawaii, they want to go to Las Vegas.
I saw a stat the other day, something like 52 percent of adults ages 21 to 56 have still never been to Las Vegas. I couldn’t believe that, but if that’s true, then they’re trying it in Colorado or someplace. You’re right. You call it a training ground. I call it education. They go to their casino in Wichita, Kansas, and then say, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”
Is the role of a whale hunter still relevant today?
Actually more relevant because the Internet and gamblers are so much more educated, which is a positive and a negative. The negative is that the guy loses $100,000, he knows about his airfare, he knows he should get a discount if he pays quick, and he knows about all the comps. Back in the day, a guy lost 15 grand, you comped his dinner and he was shaking your hand.
It’s like you wouldn’t go to divorce court unless you had a great lawyer. If you’re a whale, you need a guy like me, an independent. Like Larry Flynt, I was with him last weekend at the Venetian. He won $800,000. It’s not a secret; he doesn't care if you print that. I’m trying to cut a deal with him right now at the Cosmo. Larry wants to make sure he can split aces four times. He can double down after a split. If he loses a million dollars and pays in 30 days, he gets a 12 to 15 percent discount. He gets $15,000 in airfare up front. For every 4 hours of play, he gets another $50,000 in promotional chips.
So he doesn’t care about the suites, he doesn’t care about what it looks like, he cares about the deal. He’d play in Kansas if I can get him the right deal, so I’m his agent. So for whales because they’re educated, it makes a guy like me more valuable. I’m not in the entertainment business; I’m in the gambling business.
The book, Steve, makes it very clear, though, that in the end, everybody gives their winnings back to Las Vegas.
That’s correct. We didn’t build it because of everybody winning. I can count on one hand in my career the guys who really got out a big winner. Larry won 17 trips in a row, but three years later, we were up about $7 million on it.
So give me the high and the low. What’s the highest amount of money you’ve seen walk out of Las Vegas, and what’s the biggest amount of money that somebody has lost?
The most I’ve ever beat one player out of in a trip, was about six days, was $7 million. The most anyone ever beat me out of when I was hosting was $4.3 million, and that was on a dice game and we gave him the table. We sent the table to Montana. I actually rented a U-Haul and drove it out there to the player.
I was intrigued in the book over the fact — and I didn’t realize it — there’s a top on how much you can gamble in this city.
Well, yeah, because we wouldn't want to expose ourselves to a complete loss. Let’s say you and I go out with $500, and all of a sudden we start winning and winning and then just like in the movies, we say we want to play $1million on one hand. The casino wants the opportunity to try to win. It would be mathematically wrong for it to just let you bet one time one big bet, so we vary the spread. With a six bet shoe, we’ll go higher limits than a single-bet game.
A lot of times, do you notice how the minimums are higher? A single-bet game is easier to watch, so you’re not going to see any $5 or $25 single- or double-deck games. They’re going to be $100 and $500 game minimums, and we control that spread. We don’t want a guy to go from $5 to $50,000 because the only time he has that 50K is when he has our money and kicking our ass. The highest limit is based on your exposure. You and I, if we walked into the Cosmo right now, the most we could bet a hand is probably five grand. Larry Flynt is 25 grand because he picks up a million dollars.
We know what we can win, and that’s why comps are based on time. I don’t care if you win or lose, but I need three to four hours of play a day. You come in and kick my ass in one hour, great, but you’re paying for your food and room. Now if you play four hours a day at whatever the average bet we determine, then, “Hey, I’m going to comp you. God bless you won.” You don’t have to lose to get comped, but you have to give me a shot at your money.
Do gamblers know that?
They know that and most, 9 out of 10, play on credit and then they have 36 or 90 days to pay and, if not, it’s a felony. We will pick you up. California doesn’t recognize it as a felony. Gamblers are very educated. You’d be surprised. Every now and then you’ll get a newbie, a rookie who comes out who just got his trust fund or he wants to take a shot and live the life, but they usually get kicked pretty quick, and then you ride the wave with them.
A third of my customers are so rich like Larry, it doesn’t matter. The other third are young and as their gaming age and success increases … like my biggest player now who brings $5 million, 25 years ago he’d bring $25,000. Today, that’s his first bet. As his age and wealth increased, he increased.
The other third are the most fun, but they shouldn’t be here. They’re gambling above their means, like most of America living above their means, and they’ll burn out, and in a couple of years, we won’t be seeing them.
Do you miss them? Some of them? How do you not let yourself get sad if they don’t win?
Oh, yeah. In my younger days, I would burn players out a little bit. I’ve grown up a lot, so I’ve learned how to hold back. They’ve become my friends. I take trips with them; I party with them. I guess mentally they’re going to gamble anyway; it might as well be with Steve Cyr.
I had a guy a couple of weeks ago, he’s a nice $10,000 player, he had a great run on the craps table and was up like $64K. I suspended his credit, got him a check for $50K, I gave him the other $14,000 and said go shopping and have fun, and I’m FedEx-ing this to you. By Saturday night, he pissed away the 14 and then Monday he called at home and said, “Thanks. I got the check for my 50.”
I said, “Dude, that’s a score, take that home!” Most people need to break even, and then an hour or two before the limo is taking them back to the airport on Sunday, they need to win. If they win Friday night, they just can’t help themselves, and they piss it away. So now I look at the long haul. You don’t want to burn a guy out because it happens a lot.
Where’s the best place for you to go fishing these days? Silicon Valley?
Yeah. All of a sudden, dot-comers are really starting to gamble. Before I thought they were too smart, but now they love the lifestyle. Obviously, California is No. 1. Nevada has so many local great gamblers, you’d be surprised, and then Texas. Then Florida and New York, but, man, Texas! I don’t know if it’s just in their blood, but Texas has a lot of gamblers.
I think people have stereotypes that a lot of my players are doctors and lawyers. No, those people are stiffs. They’re married to their job. The other stereotype is I get druggies. I can count 28 years in one hand guys who really want to come and do coke and ecstasy. That guy doesn’t have time to gamble. He’s at the nightclubs. My guys want to go to the tables and they want to fire it up and they want that thrill of winning.
Do the hotels here in Las Vegas still give the goodies away like they did in your book?
Yeah, absolutely, and more creative depending on the person’s likes. All the perks are still there. Now they might be a little more scrutinized because the accountants have taken over a little bit. We get more creative on trips.
We had a guy who every other month as long as he’d risk a million, I took him to Greece on a yacht, then he wanted to go whitewater rafting in Costa Rica, then he wanted to go to Jamaica. That’s the cool part of the job. We get to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous through the casino.
But in the end, it’s all on the gambler.
It’s all dependent on the gambling. That’s the risk.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I always wanted to be a car salesman. I know that sounds funny. Right when I was 22, they placed me at Caesars Palace. I was a slot host. I’m 51 now, and I’ve never not been in the casino business, so I don’t know. I like teaching casino hosts. At this point, I wouldn't mind going back and teaching at UNLV. I love when the NYU kids come out and my books are required reading at Cornell. I like teaching, but I was definitely hooked on casinos from Day 1.
Steve Cyr’s 336-page book “Whale Hunt in the Desert” with author Deke Castleman is published by Huntington Press, 3665 Procyon St., Las Vegas, and is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.