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COURTING THE HEAVY HITTERS

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Standard trappings include hot tubs worthy of a lifeguard inside his-and-hers bathrooms worthy of a compass. Recorded music is complemented by grand pianos, stairways by elevators. Munchies, prepared in your private kitchen by your personal chef, include caviar by the ice cream scoop, braised shark fin a la “Jaws,” and $3,000 tureens of bird’s nest soup made from straw nests once home to a cliff swallow in southeast Asia.

From pickup to drop-off, often by casino jet, everything is free--comped--including shopping detours to Los Angeles or San Francisco. High rollers and their entourages are whisked about in darkened limousines, through hidden doors, up private elevators, like secret government witnesses.

“Casinos protect their high rollers like the valuable commodity they are,” says Steve DuCharme of the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Forget the purported “family image” now promoted by Las Vegas publicists. Serious gamblers paid for the 77 (and counting) hotels here and their 74,113 rooms. “Ya gotta hustle a lot of merry-go-round rides to bankroll a $100,000 bet,” is the quip heard in the clubs and joints.

*

By 10 p.m., four days before New Year’s Eve, 73 waxed and gleaming limousines are stacked outside the ground-level exit at McCarran International Airport. Red Cadillacs from the Hilton, taupe Lincoln Continentals from the Mirage and dark-green Chryslers from the MGM stand out among silver, black and two-tone limos from other casinos. No ordinary limousines, these. Many have been cut in half and stretched five to nine feet by convict labor in a state prison 29 miles from the Las Vegas strip. In all, some 350 limousines have been pressed into service for the New Year’s crush.

“There’s no end to it,” Ronald Brandt, an airport traffic safety worker, yells over the din. “The stretch limos just keep on a-comin’ like the ocean--a continuous wave.”

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Up one level at baggage claim, 35 flights unload. Drivers in tuxedos, monogrammed suits and chauffeur caps heft luggage and flap cardboard signs scrawled with guests’ names. Caesars Palace driver James (Big Jim) Platt surveys the commotion swirling around his 6-foot, 8-inch bulk. “When I started driving at the Sahara in 1977, I think we had the only two limos on the strip. [This weekend,] Caesars alone is running 25 around the clock. Probably the Hilton and MGM, too. No casino wants their Invited Guests hailing cabs and seeing our Invited Guests in a limo.”

Invited Guests are the players who, each casino concludes, deserve a free RF&B; (room, food and beverage) New Year’s holiday, based on an analysis of their betting history. Caesars Palace, the Mirage and the Las Vegas Hilton together will comp about 7,000 Invited Guests this weekend. Getting comped is the allure that a gambler’s ego finds irresistible.

“The perks, and being able to say, ‘I was comped in Vegas,’ goes way beyond dollar-and-cents value,” explains Dr. Richard J. Rosenthal, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who specializes in treating compulsive gamblers. “There is something about the psychology of being comped that erases low self-esteem, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. Here are millionaires boasting they got a free room or are Invited Guests.”

Some guests understandably are more “invited” than others. The bigger your average bet, the nicer the room, the softer the towels, the more sunken the tub. But don’t expect your room service or telephone charges to be comped unless you’re a very big player, or you have extraordinary clout. (Las Vegans still wonder why nobody challenged claims last year by Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams that his comped lodging, phone calls and room service at Caesars Palace--approved personally by the hotel’s chief executive--realistically resulted from his wife’s modest slot play).

Casinos constantly, nervously, juggle the comp pecking order.

“It’s serious business,” says Bonnie Browand, manager of the 52 luxury penthouses reserved exclusively for big players at the MGM Grand. “High rollers can get very jealous of what others get. You know, ‘How come I didn’t have that in my room?’ We have a committee that meets regularly to decide which high rollers get which suites, or extras like comped telephone charges [for special events]."(For bookkeeping purposes, hotels place the nightly rental value of their high-roller rooms anywhere from $500 TO $5000, but rarely, if ever, are they actually rented).

Basking atop this gambler’s food chain are the “whales,” nicknamed for their $100,000-plus bets and $1 million-plus credit lines. They number perhaps 200 worldwide. Most are men over 40. Asians in general. Chinese in particular.

“Forget the rest of the world. It’s the ethnic Chinese that count,” says Stirling. “That’s who the biggest players are.”

Risk-taking is a way of life for these bettors. “They’ll gamble in everything they do, every single day,” says Terrence Lanni, chairman of MGM Grand Inc. . “They’ll risk everything in every transaction.”

Their wealth is staggering--created or enhanced by the decade-long boom in their Pacific Rim homelands.

“A net worth of $100 million is now $200 million,” Lanni says. “Asian players who once had $2 million credit with one casino, now have $5 million credit with three or more.”

They favor Las Vegas over casinos in closer Macao and Australia more from necessity than choice.

“Nobody in the world cam match Las Vegas for large bets and lines of credit,” says Larry Woolf, a casino consultant and former top executive with MGM and Caesars. “There’s an Asian family in town right now stuck for $12 million [in credit] betting $100,000 or more a hand at baccarat. No foreign casino would do that.”

High rollers prefer baccarat because of both its breakneck action--40 to 60 hands an hour--and meager edge for the house--between 1% and 1.25%. Ten high rollers on a “sizzle,” betting $100,000 a hand each, could break a casino with a $60 million bankroll during a long lunch. In a high-stakes baccarat game, the house becomes just another gambler. Under the table, everybody’s crossing their fingers.

“One or two players can ruin your whole quarter, alter your entire finances for a day, a week, forever,” says Vincent H. Eade, director of the International Gaming Institute of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “If you want the high-end business, you’ve got to be willing to live with huge short-term losses and trust that the house edge will come through over the long run. It’s not for everybody.”

Casinos need a steady flow of million-dollar bettors to grind out their 1%. Flip a half dollar 100 times against a 1% edge and the difference is $49.50 to $50.50.

“Five customers beat us for $20 million one weekend,” says W. Dan Reichartz, president of Caesars Palace. “To get it back, you have to have a huge pool of customers willing to play $150,000 a hand. There’s an old adage: ‘The house wins over the lifetime of the game.’ But within that lifetime is somebody else’s lifetime--mine, Caesars.”

Reichartz talks of when Caesars dominated the high-roller market for two decades after opening in 1966. “We wrote the book on how to cater to a very demanding customer. Entertainment. Dining. Luxury suites. We were the first to break $50,000 [betting limit] and offered the highest limit--$150,000--until two years ago. Now, other clubs have upped the ante, trying to buy the business. I just wish for every customer they steal, they’d find a new one.”

Stealing and re-stealing each other’s whales is a 24-hour mission at the Mirage, MGM, Hilton and Caesars. Their strategy: Outdo the Joneses, or at least keep up. That gets expensive. Caesars set the standard in the late 1980s with 10 two-story “fantasy suites” with Jacuzzis. Then in 1989, the Mirage opened with six luxury bungalows, ranging from 2,200 to 3,500 square feet and complete with their own pools.

“Caesars changed the playing field, and we took it to a new level,” says Alan Feldman, a Mirage vice president. He concedes, though, that the bungalows flopped with the Asian crowd.

“To me, they were gorgeous, with sunken living rooms and vaulted ceilings set in a tropical theme, complete with rattan furniture,” Feldman recalls. “But our million-dollar Asians called them ‘cute.’ Rattan they have plenty of at home.”

The Mirage quickly added eight European-style villas with bedrooms. Caesars rallied with a $12 million remodeling of their fantasy suites. Then, from down the Strip, the MGM Grand announced plans to open three penthouse suites with 6,060 square feet each. Caesars parried MGM’s challenge with two 9,500-square-foot penthouses connected to a 3,000-square-foot “Grand Master Suite.” Collectively, they cost $13 million and equal the space of a 50-room hotel. Caesars claims that the penthouses paid for themselves in 30 days.

Surely, how could--why would--anybody top that? How big a room does a high roller need?

This is Vegas, remember.

In February 1995, the Hilton completed its $40 million Sky Villas: Three penthouses ranging from 12,600 to 15,400 square feet and amortized, Hilton says, in six months.

An array of storybook accommodations for high rollers now dots the Strip. But who has the best room service?

*

As the private elevator door opens, a tall, handsome man in bow tie and white gloves bows smartly. He has broad shoulders, a freshly scrubbed pink face and steady, sincere hazel eyes.

“Good afternoon, sir, and welcome to the MGM,” he says with the hint of an upstate New York twang.

“I’m the butler.”

Actually, John Button is one of 16 butlers serving MGM high rollers. A former sheet-metal worker, Button, 38, came to Las Vegas 17 years ago, worked 13 years as a Caesars Palace waiter and joined the MGM when it opened.

“I’m at the zenith of my career,” Button says proudly.

MGM butlers, along with those at the Hilton and Caesars, can make $50,000 to $75,000 a year, depending on tips. Button says some hotels allow butlers to “go for themselves for tips, but that can lead to hustling. Here, we cut it up.”

On a typical day, Button’s job might range from fixing the television, running to the store for an imported cigarette holder or pouring a $2,800 bottle of 1961 Romanee-CantI Burgundy . “We never say no to the customer. We are their personal servants. If the request is unreasonable, we offer a contingency plan or option.”

Above all is the awareness that these particular guests possess the zigzag psyche and superstitious quirks of gamblers who win or lose millions at a sitting. White sheets, four-poster beds, certain scented flowers, dripping faucets, a leaf on a tangerine stem, a bed facing an open door and the number 4 are considered bad luck by Asian high rollers.

“We had to remove all the 4s from the doors and renumber the rooms,” Button says.

Adds Browand, Button’s boss: “Our staff never sympathizes with the house. If the customer wins, we say, ‘Good! What a great day!’ If they lose, ‘Oh, don’t worry. You’ll get it back tonight.’ We want them to always feel that their luck will change if they stay.”

Says Button: “You can tell the minute they walk off the elevator if they got killed. Speak when spoken to is safest. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ But if a guest insists that we call them by their first name, we will.”

Bill DiBenedetto grimaces and rolls his eyes when I mention the first-name-basis policy for MGM butlers. DiBenedetto oversees the staff of 30 butlers, waiters, maids and maintenance crews that attend the high rollers in the Hilton’s penthouse villas.

“My people never use first names. If the guest insists, they’ll use sir, or madam. Friendly but not familiar. Less said the better.”

DiBenedetto, 31, is short and wiry with intense dark brown eyes and short matching hair swept forward to a point. He speaks in pithy clipped bursts. Ten years ago he was a Hilton busboy working his way through college.

“I have six butlers [called villa hosts] trained by Ivor Spencer, who trained the butlers for the royal family in England. When guests first arrive, they are greeted with a deep waist bow. The rest of the time, a neck bow, then another deep waist bow at departure. If a guest asks a question, the villa host responds an octave lower and a tone quieter. He is their servant. He is there to make the magic happen.”

The day uniform is a morning suit and striped trousers; at night, white tie and tails. And always, white gloves. Before each 12-hour shift, butlers stand inspection. “I check their nails, hair, and smell their breath,” DiBenedetto says. “They are encouraged to shower two or three times a day and discouraged from eating garlic, curry and onions.”

Each butler keeps a “pantry book” to record a high roller’s likes and dislikes. Daily routine includes ironing the morning newspaper. “Creases are untidy,” DiBenedetto sniffs.

Bathroom toiletries in the Hilton villas are made by Tiffany (Caesars favors Chanel) and cost $1,500 per villa to replace when guests leave. “They pick it clean sometimes every day and damn near always when they check out,” grumbles a Hilton source. Each Hilton villa has a Jacuzzi, his-and-hers bathrooms, a remote-controlled fireplace, and towel warmers with three settings. Each shower has four shower heads and eight levers to adjust temperature and water pressure.

“The showers are a challenge,” DiBenedetto allows.

At night, when maids turn down the beds, instead of a chocolate on the pillow. villa guests find on their night stand a silver tray on which sits a 12-inch swan, fish, vase or other creation sculptured in chocolate and caramelized sugar. The villas share a media room that contains a library of 10,000 movies, compact discs and video games.

This New Year’s holiday, the three villas are occupied by an Asian family of about 30, including seven children under 16. Tonight, singer Barbara Blair and a five-piece band will perform. Blair calls herself “the diva of the villas” because of her frequent appearances. Blair wows the Asian high rollers because she can sing in Chinese, although she concedes that she has no idea what the words mean.

“When they hear a blue-eyed blond singing Chinese with a Caucasian band playing Chinese music, it really gets ‘em, makes them feel special,” Blair says. “The hotel really wants to make these guests happy.”

Last night, DiBenedetto organized a villa Christmas party for the Asian family, with presents and a rented Santa. The day before, he packed them off to the Grand Canyon via chartered bus and plane. In short, every moment that this family of whales is not gambling in the Hilton, they will be given no opportunity or excuse to play elsewhere. No greater sin exists in gaming than letting your high rollers lose their money across the street.

“If a big player goes out to buy a pack of gum,” Stirling wisecracks, “a casino host tags along to make sure he comes straight back.”

High rollers rarely appear on the hotel register; they’re carried on the books as “unregistered guests.” They are escorted about the hotel through unmarked doors, hidden hallways and back stairs. Even when high rollers surface to play baccarat, they are ringed by velvet ropes, gleaming waxed marble and uniformed palookas. So intimidating are the high-roller sections, regular customers step around the marble entries and gawk from afar, pointing and whispering. Those who do venture inside uninvited are unceremoniously given the bum’s rush.

*

Noisily riffling $1 slot tokens, I dart past the guard at the entrance to the $500-minimum-bet, high-roller section at the MGM Grand casino. He gives chase.

By state decree, all casino players--high rollers or commoners--have every right to enter. “While we will allow casinos to have high-roller rooms that are somewhat secluded,” allows DuCharme of the state gaming board, “they’ve got to be in public areas. The public cannot be excluded. Certain casinos do train their security to dissuade people, but it’s got to be done in a suitable manner.”

I flit from table to table peering at the bettors thumbing their stacks of $500 and $1,000 chips. The guard, Robert Seideman, closes. He is short, blunt and fiftyish with a blue hotel-issue sport coat draped over a thick belt bulging with handcuffs. A wire trails over his collar to a large button plugged in his ear.

“Sir, are you a player?” he rasps.

“Could be,” I respond, clanking my dollar tokens.

His eyes narrow. His voice is edgy. “Sir, are you aware the bets here are $500 minimum each?”

I point to a door behind the baccarat tables. “What’s in there?”

He winces. “Sir, those are private rooms for private games for private groups with minimum bets of $10,000.”

“Geez. I’d like to see that. Think I’ll wander back there.”

His voice is grim. “Sir, we ask nonplayers to leave if they wander back there.”

Enough. I end the charade with an apology.

“Hey,” the guard says, “our job is to try and keep the looky-loos out.”

At the Mirage, the not-supposed-to-be-private high-roller room is a craps table length from the obviously public baccarat room. It was originally patterned after a library, but the design was changed immediately, because books have a bad-luck connotation for some Asian gamblers.

“Our job is to discourage people in a polite way from coming in,” says a barrel-chested, balding guard blocking the doorway. He pauses, apparently listening to the button in his ear. “We don’t want anybody pestering the high rollers. I’ve seen ‘em bet $10,000 to $250,000 a hand.”

The guard confides that he usually scares off ordinary people by asking: “Sir, Ma’am, do you have a casino host?” he grins. “That usually works. It was a lot worse when we only had portholes. Everybody wanted to peek in. Now, with glass doors, there’s less curiosity.”

More secret is the second-floor high-roller room at the Desert Inn. “See those wooden doors that look like a broom closet?” volunteers a pit boss in the ground-level baccarat room. “Behind them is an elevator.”

Concedes DuCharme: “Yeah, the Desert Inn is pushing it, but at least we got them to put public rest rooms up there.”

*

Hidden from public view on a second-floor landing just off the Hilton’s main casino is a small, elegant gaming room. Inside, two baccarat crews fight the drowsiness that hours of staring into space brings on. The cocktail waitress has succumbed. She dozes peacefully on a stool. The tables are reserved for two big players who gamble alone and in private. Both are hotel guests in luxury suites that reflect the millions they bet. As a courtesy, the tables in this room are kept open exclusively for these bettors during their stay.

The waitress awakes. The next shift has arrived. The 24-hour vigil continues. The two players never come.

So, where are they?

“They’re playing at the DI [Desert Inn] ‘cause Stirling probably didn’t give ‘em more cuff [credit],” a baccarat supervisor whispers. “The DI is stealing players from all the big clubs.” He snickers. “Ya gotta love it. All these Taj Mahals with mink-lined potties, and the little joint gets the play.”

Built in 1950, the Desert Inn has a mere 720 rooms compared to the MGM Grand’s 5,005 or the Hilton’s 3,174. And the DI doesn’t have luxury suites like those found at Caesars or the Hilton. Still, Stirling concedes, “The DI has suddenly become a major player in the high-end business by offering easy credit and higher limits instead of luxury villas. I cut a guy off yesterday, and he ran right to the DI and got credit.” Stirling smiles. “He sleeps here and gambles there.” He pauses and adds dryly: “Hope he wins ‘cause he owes me $6 million.”

Nevada casinos extended $4.8 billion in markers in 1991 with a 99.2% recovery, compared to $6.7 billion in 1994 with a 96% collection rate, according to gaming board statistics. Unofficially, casinos share credit information and cooperate in refusing players who won’t pay their markers elsewhere. Most players pay because they want to come back.

“Everybody has a contact in each casino,” says Woolf, the former MGM executive. “In the past, it was the one area you tried to be 90% straight with each other.”

That was pre-Desert Inn.

In a standing practice, casinos allow high rollers to negotiate a discount on large losses after they lose. But the Desert Inn guarantees a discount on their losses in advance. “With their aggressive efforts,” says DuCharme, “the DI came from the back of the pack to being one of the front runners. We’re watching to make sure they’re not too far out of line from the rest.”

Nevada taxes major casinos 6 1/4% of gross revenues, including markers, but only what’s actually collected, according to Greg Gale, chief of the gaming board audit division. “What we’re seeing now are discount wars. It’s a matter of concern, because it could lead to a loss in gaming revenues.” He says the Desert Inn can, accordingly to regulations, only offer marker discounts that are “reasonable” according to “the prevailing practice in the industry [5% to 15%].”

Grumbles the Mirage’s Feldman: “Yeah, OK, the DI is stealing business from us, but it’s very, very small, despite what you hear. We’re all concerned they’re gonna burn out the players they do steal. We hear they’re already running 60% bad credit.” Feldman quotes another gambling adage: “Don’t bury the player.”

“What pisses off the other clubs is we didn’t spend $700 million in property improvements,” says a Desert Inn executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re just offering high rollers what others don’t have the stomach to offer. They’ve grown fat and lazy. We’re lean and mean and use guerrilla tactics. But if we’re so reckless, why are they trying to steal our marketing people?”

Now, a sixth casino--Binion’s Horseshoe Casion--is joining the fray, according to Eric P. Endy, president of Paul-Son gaming Corp., a major manufacturer of casino supplies. “You know which hotels are taking on the million-dollar bettors when they start ordering $100,000 chips,” Endy says. “Each hotel ordered at least 1,000 of the hundred thou chips, plus 5,000 or so 25-grand chips.” He smiles. “We sell ‘em for about a dollar each, and they’re worth $200 million in the casino.” He twirls a $100,000 chip in production for Binion’s, the legendary high-stakes downtown casino. “Now the Horseshoe’s gonna go up against the big boys on the strip.” (The Horseshoe management declined to comment). Endy shrugs. “The field’s getting a bit crowded.”

*

At the stroke of midnight, the packed Hilton casino reverberates with the clamor of greeting 1996--hugs, kisses, hoots and handshakes all around.

But inside the adjoining baccarat room, I think I hear a pin drop. No, too loud. It’s a cracked crab claw sliding down a mound of melting ice. Three waiters, each with a silver tray of eight glasses of champagne pass among the 20 or so players. They leave with 20 glasses of the 24 glasses untouched.

Finally, I hear a whispered New Year’s greeting between a cocktail waitress and croupier brushing hands.

Stirling marches in. He glances at the $500 and $1,000 chips in play. “Not enough here to buy lunch,” he mutters. “Still early.” His beeper sounds. He grabs a house phone.

“What’s his name? Yeah, I know him. Answers to nobody. I think we’ll pass.” The table action improves--$5,000 and $25,000 chips appear.

Stirling has worked with foreign gamblers since 1981. I ask what he considers the biggest blunder one can commit in dealing with Asian high rollers. He pauses. “To think you think like the Chinese, or to say no to them publicly, in front of family or friends--like turn down a request for credit. With the Chinese, if they’re embarrassed publicly, they feel that they literally lose their face.’ The secret is to save their face.”

Stirling shrugs. “Sometimes I try to turn it on them--like when I’m asking for money. Like, ‘Make me look good--save my face--in front of my boss.’ ” He grins. “They’re probably pulling the same thing on me.”

An Asian in his late 30s, wearing a red turtle neck and diamond encrusted watch, greets Stirling warmly. He is an Invited Guest from Malaysia. We talk about my story.

He steps back. He looks amused. “Is my picture gonna show up in the Singapore Sun that I’m a big Vegas high roller?”

“Aren’t you?”

He laughs. “Just write I bet $5 chips.”

“But these are $500 minimum tables?”

“I got lost.”

Stirling is back on the phone. “A player stuck for about $4 million claims there’s a ghost in his room stealing his luck. I had to move him to another room and put a ghost watcher in his room.”

Stirling’s beeper sounds again. “Does this guy understand that his masseuse is his responsibility? Oh, only $200? OK, get him one. Huh? Beats me. Try the yellow pages.”

Massaging the bridge of his nose, he answers the next call.


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